Can I still hold down a profession with a Chronic Illness?

Ok so when I started out my career, I didn’t know I’d got a chronic illness and have worked my way up the ladder and hold a position of a senior manager with over 100 staff.

Being faced with a diagnosis of Crohn’s I’m not proud to say that it’s taken more than 12 months after diagnosis to be open with my fellow colleagues, although my boss and closest friends have known from the beginning. I actually told colleagues via a poem I wrote as part of Crohn’s and Colitis Awareness Week – this is part of my acceptance of my condition (more on this another day).

So, what 5 top tips would I say to either someone with a chronic illness and starting out their career or someone who has just found out a life changing diagnosis.

  1. Honesty is the best policy

First and foremost, if with no one else be upfront with your boss. I was lucky, my boss, an ex-nurse by background understood my conditions and could empathise. I did still share information from Crohn’s and Colitis UK website for employers on Crohn’s but would share similar research on other conditions with my boss again.

2. You have rights…

OK so that this is not something that should be used as a threat! I would hope that your boss has been around long enough, or had enough training or at worst case, a good HR team, to try to support you in a proactive way. I’ve been lucky to have worked in the public sector most of my life, but just hearing some of my hubby’s private sector experience, I appreciate my “fluffy view” of the world doesn’t happen everywhere.

Well in the UK at least, there is the Equality Act. If you have a chronic illness, then you have rights, and as an employer, responsibilities. Reasonable adjustments, or consideration of them, should be something that forms part of your open dialogue with your boss. If you have worked for a large organisation, then you could be referred to Occupational Health (OH) for a view on what reasonable adjustments may apply. In my view, OH should not be feared, but I can understand why people may seem them this way (more on that another day).

Another option in the UK is through Access to Work, who will come and assess you (like OH) and send a report to your employer. A note of caution, at this stage – reasonable adjustments are what they say here, “reasonable!”. It does not mean your employer has to accept everyone one of them. I am no lawyer, but there have been occasions as a manger when I haven’t accepted all the recommendations – usually down to cost, impracticality, or impact on the wider team.

Reasonable adjustments can be anything from flexible working pattern, software on a computer to enable speech recognition to a range of other actions.

3. Work Life Balance

Now, I know I’m saying this from a place where I’m lucky to be in a stable a job as anyone can be, and yes, it is public sector, but it doesn’t meant work isn’t challenging. If the last 6 months have taught me anything, is life is short and not to be taken for granted.

It doesn’t mean take your foot off the accelerator and keep pursuing your career, or passion. What it does mean is you need to make sure you have balance in life, otherwise, especially when you have a chronic illness it will come back to bite you. If you really are not sure if you have balance or not, a good way to test this out is using a pie chart – using a visual tool like this to see your life can be a bit of an eye opener.

4. Don’t sweat the small stuff

Work along with other factors can send you into a flare through stress. When like me, work has truly taken your heart and soul, it is really hard not to take things personally, even if it has no direct impact on what you do. You can get so bogged down by the minutia that you no longer see the bigger picture, or worse, they both stress you out through cumulative effect. A friend recently said to me to try and enjoy the journey of work, otherwise it is like prison.

I’m consciously trying to keep perspective in my working life…Can I control it? Can do something about it? If not, accept it as an uncontrollable element of my working life. This all sounds wonderful in theory, but my boss always puts things into perspective from her former nursing days, “Has anyone died?”, “No?”, then we are ok. 

5.Don’t give up!

Yes, you have an illness, you can accept it, you can own it, but it doesn’t have to define who you are. I was amazed recently when I saw a post on FB on the huge variety of professions and careers that people have with IBD. No one is saying you have to have a job for life anymore, you can have 2 or 3 careers in a lifetime. What you do need is determination. You don’t need to see it as one big goal, but instead set yourself smaller steps. You may be forced to change your path in life due to ill health – I personally believe things happen for a reason. It doesn’t matter whether you are self-employed, full time or part time. The key is not to give up on your dreams and take the opportunities that come your way at home and at work. There is no right or wrong career, you make your own path in life. Don’t forget a little self-promotion won’t go a miss.

Don’t Give Up!

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