How to Manage Chronic Illness in the Workplace

Communication with your boss and coworkers is vital

How to Manage Chronic Illness in the Workplace

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that there are more than 133 million Americans living with at least one chronic illness. The U.S. National Library of Medicine defines a chronic illness is a condition that is long term, limits your activity and may require ongoing care. At least 80 percent of the workforce lives with chronic illness, according to the 2009 Almanac of Chronic Disease. Medical advances have allowed individuals with chronic diseases to enjoy productive lives and stay employed longer, possibly into retirement age.

Chronic Illnesses Pose Challenges In the Workplace

As chronically ill individuals continue to work, they will face more challenges than their healthier counterparts. People living with a chronic illness offer a unique problem for employers. This is because chronically ill employees generally have conditions that are unpredictable and, unlike a virus or injury, a chronic disease can be frequent and have invisible symptoms.

When employees disclose to their employers that they have a chronic illness — such as rheumatoid arthritis — questions can arise to whether they can continue to be productive employees. This is because the employee can awake to extreme fatigue, brain fog and pain in several joints. The challenges that this employee and his employer face include the employee feeling poorly, not getting work done or not being able to show up to work altogether. Further, the employee can find himself having to explain why he is feeling lousy, why he was not able to show up or arrive on time. For the employee, having these types of conversations with supervisors and coworkers can be difficult, as is explaining how a specific chronic illness affects a person. The employee does not want to feel unproductive or to be viewed as unable to perform the functions of the job.

Protecting Your Job When You Have a Chronic Illness

While employees cannot predict or control periods of disease activity, there is plenty they can do to protect their jobs. When it comes to disclosure of a chronic illness, it is necessary to look at whether a condition requires specific accommodations. This can include details such a frequent breaks, a modified work schedule for appointments, the need to come in later or even to take time off to manage and recover during periods of high disease activity. If an employee finds that accommodations are necessary, then he should talk to human resources about the options that are available to staying on the job and continuing to be a valuable employee. It is important to note that information shared with the employer about a worker’s health condition is strictly confidential.

Support from colleagues is vital for chronically ill employees to cope and to meet the requirements of their jobs. It is also helpful to educate supervisors and colleagues on how they can respond if an emergency arises, such as a possible seizure in an individual with epilepsy. People with chronic conditions should be aware that not everyone in their workplace is open to understanding their obstacles. Therefore, only share this information with coworkers you can depend on.

Becoming the Norm?

Chronic illnesses have become the norm in the today’s ever-changing workforce due to increased awareness that people with chronic diseases can be just as productive as their healthy colleagues. Moreover, work environments are more supportive and flexible than they have been in past to people living with chronic diseases. This favorable atmosphere has allowed chronically ill employees to feel appreciated and confident as they continue to work and look forward to future success.

Originally posted at Arthritis Connect.

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