Lana Barhum is a legal assistant, patient advocate, freelance writer, blogger, and single parent. She has lived with rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia since 2008 and uses her experiences to share expert advice on living successfully with chronic illness.
Chronic illness imposes considerable burden on the young working-age population. In 2012, there were 117 million Americans with one or more chronic illness according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with 72 million of these working age.
In 2012, the United States Census Bureau reported that one in five in the United States has a disability. Moreover, younger working-age people are experiencing substantial increases in disability, due to higher incidences of chronic illness amongst this population.
While the search for employment and workplace support can seem uncertain and daunting, there are ways in which you can have a fulfilling professional life where your conditions are understood and accommodated.
Finding fulfilling employment
1. Career planning with chronic illness
As you plan a career with chronic illness, it is important to be realistic about your goals and expectations as to not set yourself up for failure. Consider what you want for yourself (and loved ones, if applicable) and fully account for your interests, abilities, beliefs, and health in the process. And remember, there are no guarantees with chronic illness or with your career.
Learn to manage obstacles as they arise and utilize the lessons along the way to move toward success. Career Coach Rosalind Joffe offers a 3-step career planning process that can help you plan a career with chronic illness and change plans, when and if necessary. She tells us to design our visions for our careers, prepare for them with what we know now, and work on specific tasks as a way to get to our end goal of ultimate success.
Remember to be resourceful and flexible in order to stay realistic and focused on your goals. Career planning is only the first step; you will need to be ready to adjust and adapt to health challenges that may require you to change careers or plans.
2. Disclosure in seeking employment
Because of the generality that all young adults are healthy, deciding to disclose a chronic illness can be a tricky situation for the younger population. While federal disability laws protect job hunters from being asked questions about their health, there is always the fear that potential employers will find other reasons (or use them as excuses) not to hire you if you disclose your illness, regardless of whether you are qualified or capable.
While the answer to disclosure isn’t an easy one, Jason Reid, head of Sick with Success, an organization committed to helping people with chronic illness, shares this piece of advice: “While chronic illness is inherently unpredictable, we can usually take a good guess about how we will feel in the next six months to a year.” He recommends we say in an interview, if asked about our health, “Of course, no one can guarantee what their health will be like in the future, and I am no different. However, I understand your expectations and am confident I can do the job.”
3. Finding the right job
Finding the right job for you requires being aware of your abilities. If you know your illness will impact your job performance down the road in significant ways, then that job may not be the right fit for you. Unlike other employees your age, you most likely have to work harder because you need to make a living more and you need health insurance more than others. Moreover, you may be working a job or a career that you might not have sought after if not for being sick. But you can still participate in a profession that fits your skills and fulfills you.
Remember, you have talents, abilities, and passions that even chronic illness can’t take from you. If you don’t know where to start in finding the right job or career, take a look at The National Career Development Association. This organization offers a wide range of information about career planning and how to achieve professional and life goals, even with chronic illness.
4. Learn to accommodate yourself on the job
You may not be able to predict or control your symptoms, but you can accommodate yourself on the job. And while the law requires your employer to accommodate your illness, you also have control of making yourself comfortable every day. You probably get to control how long you sit or stand or how often you take breaks to move your joints or go to the bathroom.
If your job is stricter about movement, then you are allowed to request an exception, as the law protects you when you ask for things that make your job easier. You can talk to your boss about frequent breaks, sitting down instead of standing for long periods, a modified work schedule, working from home a few times a week, and equipment to minimize your symptoms, such as an ergonomic workstation.
Choose a job that you are qualified for, are good at, and work hard at every day. When you get this job, asking for accommodations is permitted. Your company wants to keep good employees, and good employees are often found working for companies that willingly provide a comfortable workplace. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission offers some detail about accommodations for employees who have episodic illnesses such as diabetes, epilepsy, arthritis, and fibromyalgia.
5. Prepare to disclose
Don’t assume that just because you have been feeling well for a long period or in remission that your symptoms won’t return. As soon as you know there is a potential for illness symptoms to return and affect your job performance significantly, it is the time for the disclosure. Dr. Gary McClain gives great suggestions on how to discuss your chronic illness with your employer.
All situations are unique
If you haven’t already, get a good understanding of your illness, the impact it will have on your work performance, and what workplace adjustments are necessary to do your job well. Remember there are no right or wrong career paths for people with chronic illness, and this group already works in a variety of professions: teachers, secretaries, chefs, welders, machinists, nurses, lawyers, doctors, and so much more.
If you are a working-age person with chronic illness and you can’t work, that is okay. A person’s worth is not determined by his or her career or ability to work. But if you can work and want to work, seek out the guidance and options to make it happen.