When you live with chronic illness, your life can shift in large and small ways, both personally and professionally. Chronic illness can make working difficult, but it isn’t impossible — especially if you consider your needs ahead of time.
Sometimes you may need to ask your boss for accommodations to continue in your current position or your symptoms may mean you need to leave your job completely. It can be frustrating to change your career because of your chronic illness. And if you’re ready to find a new way to bring work — and let’s face it, some level of financial stability — back into your world, you’ll need a good roadmap for how to navigate the hiring process with a chronic condition.
To provide you with some support for searching and applying for jobs when you need to take your chronic illness into consideration, we spoke with chronic illness career coach Rosalind Joffe, who also lives with a chronic illness. Joffe offered up nine considerations to think through when you’re ready to get back to work, from what kind of job might be a good fit to asking for what you need and when.
Here’s what she told The Mighty:
1. What Kind of Work Can I Do?
When you’re ready to check out your work options, Joffe said you need to first take stock of where you’re at with your health and abilities. This is especially true if you were working but chronic illness symptoms interrupted your job. Can you do the same job if it requires long hours sitting or standing? Is a high-pressure job or one that requires lots of phone calls too exhausting?
“Let’s say a person has been employed and had to leave, they can’t do that job any longer,” Joffe said. “Now, the question is, can I continue to do the kind of work I’ve been doing? … And that’s the first thing a person would naturally ask themselves.”
2. What Kind of Work Do You Want to Do?
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After taking stock of what feels doable for you with work, it’s important to consider what you might actually enjoy, including what field or career might interest you. Do you want to work in health or the media? Maybe law or teaching? Then take it a step further. Is the rigor of being a lawyer or a public relations person possible? If not, how can you still take part in a career that’s meaningful but also accommodates your health needs?
While it’s not fair you may need to compromise because of chronic illness, sometimes there’s still a way to get where you want to go. It just may look different. Joffe said she encourages people to be creative when they’re dreaming about what they want to do. In one example, Joffe shared she had a client who always wanted to be a doctor, but didn’t have the energy needed. Instead, the client found another job in the medical field that didn’t require going to medical school and fit their needs better.
3. Figure Out What You Need in a Job
The next item to consider is what you will need from a job to be successful. You’ve tackled the big picture items, now get more detailed. What kind of accommodations or work setting will help you reach your goals? Is it working from home or perhaps a flexible schedule that allows you to attend necessary doctor appointments? Is paid leave time a non-negotiable benefit for you?
“Figure out what you can do right now and what you need to get it done to do that work,” Joffe advised. “We developed a must-needs and must-haves list — these are things that I absolutely have to have for me to be able to work.”
4. Take a Look at Your Resume
When you live with a chronic condition, it’s not uncommon to have gaps in your work history, which can be difficult to explain on a resume. How to navigate gaps in employment history is a question Joffe said comes up a lot. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for everyone, so thinking through the questions you might be asked by a recruiter will help you be prepared to explain gaps in your work history.
“What I would suggest is really think about it,” Joffe said. “How are you going to look to a prospective employer? What are they going to wonder about if there are gaps? What might they question about you? And how can you be best prepared for that?”
5. Get Ready to Research Jobs
Once you’ve done all the legwork of considering what you’re able to do right now, what you want to do and what you’ll need to work effectively, it’s time to put it all together and start the job hunt.
“It’s basically brainstorming what is possible, what you like doing, what are your gifts and your talents, and then doing the research to find out what those jobs actually look like out there,” Joffe said. “Then you start trying to find jobs that fit this profile you’ve created. And that’s a lot of work. But there is no shortcut that I have found.”
To start your job search, you can visit The Mighty’s #NowHiring page to see all of our past lists of work-from-home jobs. Don’t discount a thorough Google search and use websites like Glassdoor to get some insight into what it’s like working at companies you’re interested in.
6. Decide If You Should Disclose Your Chronic Illness
Once you’ve landed a conversation with a recruiter or even an interview, you may be wondering whether or not to disclose your chronic illness, and if so, when. Decisions about disclosure are both personal and tricky, and may depend on what accommodations you need at work. Joffe said she recommends clients think through why they might disclose their condition to a potential employer and go from there.
“If you can do the job is currently described, how is it in your best interest to disclose?” Joffe said. “Now, the next piece is if you can’t do the job as it’s currently described but you could with some work-around you believe that employer offers, at what point do you ask about that?”
7. Plan How to Disclose Your Illness (If at All)
If you do decide to disclose your chronic condition during the application, interview or hiring process, prepare what you will say and when. This includes whether or not you name your illness or just mention specific symptoms. Joffe said she often encourages people to wait until they’ve been offered the job before disclosing their illness or asking for accommodations.
“You’re in a better position,” Joffe said of waiting to disclose. “They have already seen your skills and they like who you are … and there are ways you can say it so they see your disclosure as you’re on the same team and you want to do the best you can.”
Mighty contributor Jennifer Ishbel Bell added a few other suggestions in their article, “8 Tips for Disclosing Your Illness to Your Boss and Colleagues,” including have a contingency plan, be clear on your value and “draw them a map”:
Take responsibility for your part in this; they don’t know you or your illness and they don’t know what’s best for you, but you do. Have your own strategies and ideas ready that you know will work or might help. They are counting on you to help them get to a place of understanding.
8. Ask for What You Need
Similar to disclosing your chronic illness (if you choose), get ready to ask for what you need at work, whether it is flexible scheduling, a desk near the bathroom or the option to work at home on a flare day. Joffe said to stay professional keep emotions out of the conversation. Make it clear accommodations will maximize your performance for the benefit of the company.
“You want to start with, ‘I’m telling you this because I know I can be a high performer. But I need these things to make sure that I can do my absolute best,'” Joffe said. “Most importantly, you want to make it clear that you’re in charge, this is not going to be a burden on your manager or on the company.”
9. Remember You Have a Lot to Offer
Given the grief, frustration or anger you may face when chronic illness impacts your ability to work, and even the bias you may encounter during the hiring process, it can be difficult to remember that you have a lot to offer prospective employers. But you do.
“You have something to offer, a skill set, a personality, whatever it is,” Joffe said, adding:
That’s the real deep work that I do with people. What it comes down to is the individual recognizing that they live with illness, but they are not their illness, which is that common phrase out there and in the chronic illness world. And that’s really important. … You are still the same person you were before you developed disabling symptoms, debilitating symptoms. You’re still that person. You bring that to the party.
Want to work from home? Check out these companies that hire remote workers: