Sick On-the-Job: 3 Steps to Illness-Proof your Career

Sick On-the-Job: 3 Steps to Illness-Proof your Career
By Rosalind Joffe We’re taught to “buck up” and not pay “too much” attention when you’re facing illness. And in my experience, most people with a chronic illness, particularly in the early stages of disease, do just that. They ignore pain and fatigue for as long as possible. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Denial can be very useful. Especially, when it helps you to ignore disease that you can’t do anything about. But it can also be harmful. Particularly, when you should be making critical plans for your long-term career health. Because if the time comes that debilitating symptoms prevent you from doing your job, you’ll most likely find yourself wondering: “What can I do now?” Unfortunately, too often, you’ve waited just long enough to have worked yourself into a hole that’s quite difficult to climb out of. The truth is that living with chronic illness makes life even more unpredictable than it already is. Which can mean that thinking about the future is downright frightening. It’s easy to see why a person would choose not to think about this. I know because that’s the mistake I made. When I was 43, after living with several autoimmune diseases (multiple sclerosis and ulcerative colitis) for many years, I became too sick to do my job well. I’d tried different roles in my career but I was in a field that didn’t offer the options I needed. The career that I thought would be a better fit, giving me the flexibility and satisfaction I sought, required several years of graduate education. Unfortunately, the timing was all wrong. I was in the mist of raising young children. And I had become too sick to commit to a degree program that I wasn’t sure I could even complete. Starting in a new field at the bottom rung with unpredictable health at age 50 didn’t sound like a smart move. But I’m relatively “lucky”. My health is better today than in the past 30 years thanks to new drug therapy and surgery. And although it took me ten years, I was able to reinvent my career at minimal financial and physical cost. But it took a long time to earn the kind of money I’d been making before leaving the workforce. With the right planning, this could have been different. I’ve seen from my own experience and that of my clients how important it is to plan your career thoughtfully keeping the unpredictable nature of chronic illness in mind. It’s actually not as daunting as it might seem. In fact, it helps to approach it like you would any work related challenge. So consider these steps: 1. Take a good, hard look at your current career path. Ask yourself:

a. Given what I know about this disease, what tasks or roles am I doing or might be expected to do on this career “ladder” that worsening disease symptoms might make difficult? b. How could this affect my career success? Do I need to adjust my expectations or adjust my career choice? 2. Develop the strategies that will take health into consideration and allow you to achieve your career goals. Ask yourself:

a. Can accommodations be made to allow me to do these tasks/roles? b. What would that require from me and/or the organization in which I’m working? 3. Consider alternative career plans. Ask yourself:

a. Is there a different career path that I might pursue, building on what I’ve done so far, that would give me more options? b. What skills or training would I need to make this happen? c. Is there a career that is completely different from what I’ve done that would give me more options and more satisfaction? d. What skills or training would I need to make this happen? Anyone, healthy or not, should ask these kinds of questions. The smartest career move you can make is to choose an arena to play in that gives you multiple options and the flexibility you might need with unpredictable health.

Rosalind Joffe, the chronic illness career coach, is the author of Women, Work and Autoimmune Disease: Keep Working, Girlfriend. She can be found at her website:, her blog: and on Twitter: @WorkWithIllnesss.