What no one tells you about chronic illness and career issues

Chronic illness can be so diverse, capricious and hard to place. Although their employability might suffer significantly, there are no blanket solutions for spoonies at the workplace. That’s why work issues are really tricky for both sides: the employer as well as the employee.

There are two other situations at the workplace as far as disease is concerned and both are easier to deal with:

One of them is the standard virus infection or injury of an employee. It is more or less clear when the employee is going to come back to work and the legal framework is normally unambiguous there.

The other one is a serious and acute disease like a heart attack, stroke or a cancer that requires chemotherapy. In this case, it is not clear when the employee will come back to work. Neither is it known when nor in which state the employee will be able to return. He might not be fulfill the duties he used to due to his disease for an extended period of time – or forever.

Chronic disease is completely different.

Some spoonies might need days, weeks or months off due to their poor health situation and/or flare-ups of their illness. But just like everybody else, they do not enjoy the luxury to stop working and most of all stop being paid. As chronic illnesses manifest themselves in so many ways, a person suffering from back pain could find relief when granted an upgraded desk chair. Someone with a lower energy level would be extremely grateful and not even less productive if he or she was allowed to work more from home or if the company offers a flexible working arrangements. This should help employees who need to attend a lot of medical appointments as well.

A lot depends upon the company culture – and, of course, upon honesty. A person suffering from a chronic disease is not obliged to mention this fact during the recruitment process. Most spoonies keep their suffering secret at work as long as they can, sacrificing their health issues. Sooner or later it might be inevitable to talk about it. It is recommended to discuss the detailed job profile with HR representatives or the boss in those “coming out” situations. If the legal framework is murky (as it normally is for chronic illness patients) and the company has not established rules for similar cases yet, several options will have to be analyzed. These options include:

  • If the disease is considered a disability, the employer is required to make necessary and reasonable adaptations for the sake of the employee’s health.
  • As already mentioned, accommodation can be very practical like buying a new chair or a new lamp, offering a different parking lot or transportation.
  • Other adaptations interfere with the workload: short breaks got be granted, flexible working hours, more work from home or a new job profile could be developed with the HR department if the employee is not able to fulfill all the obligations of his or her current one.
  • There might be talks about leave. Will it be paid or unpaid? How is the company dealing with graduated returns to the workplace and/or redeployment?
  • Unfortunately, in some companies and/or countries dismissing the spoonie employee as a consequence of frequent absenteeism will be the rule rather than the exception.

Before talking to HR or your boss about your health needs, you should gather as much information as possible by contacting trade unions, labor law specialists and patient support groups who know how other people with your particular illness are managing their careers. Check insurance benefits if your leave is unpaid.

Remember that each case has to be analyzed individually – health conditions, laws and policies as well as jobs and workplaces can be so different. And be aware that your symptoms might worsen. Chronic illness doesn’t happen once – it is there all the time and will flare up again. You have to be realistic about it and understand that facing chronic uncertainty at your workplace is neither beneficial for your health nor for your peace of mind.

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