Achieving the success you desire when you live with a debilitating chronic health condition can require change in the most unexpected places. In my experience, those of us who can meet the challenges are more likely to thrive, not just survive.

One key element for thriving with illness is the ability to communicate effectively. This is particularly important because most symptoms from illness are invisible. This means that other people have no idea what you are experiencing, unless you tell them. And even when some symptoms are visible, others cannot understand how this impacts you, unless you tell them.

That means that the burden is squarely on you to describe your experience of debilitating symptoms as they impact your life.

Jim lives with Crohn’s disease (names and details have been changed to protect client privacy.)  The disease has been getting progressively worse over the past ten years and he is working at an increasingly uneven pace. Although he has always done well at his job (as a senior accountant in a Big 10 Firm), his colleagues and his supervisor frequently express frustration about what is not getting done or getting done late.

Jim has not told anyone at work that he lives with a disease. He doesn’t see why he should have to tell, since it’s nobody’s business. But he has become increasingly angry with his colleagues. They often seem annoyed by his absences, or missed deadlines, as he’s struggling to manage difficult and painful symptoms. He has thought about leaving his job and taking advantage of the company’s private disability policy. But it won’t be enough for his family to live on and he worries that he would be bored if he doesn’t work.

Jim realizes that he is stuck, and needs to do something to pull himself out of this place. He describes himself as a private person who does not talk easily about his feelings or his needs. “I’ve always been a man of few words and it’s never been a problem before,” he told me. This style is not working for him now, but he does not see what he might do differently.

Chronic illness is creating problems that require Jim to stretch his comfort zone and develop new skills. When he was able to explore his situation, he discovered he had options. Once he recognized what kinds of changes and accommodations he needed at work, Jim could see the opportunities rather than just focusing on the obstacles. He was struck by how much he relied on his colleagues and they relied on him. This motivated him to develop his capacity to discuss his situation sufficiently with others, so he would be able to manage work more successfully. But Jim still felt completely unsure about what and how much to say.

To learn more about the 3 Guidelines that Jim and I came up with to help him approach this strategically,  read Chapter 1  in my Booklet, Are You Talking, part of the Career Thrive Series.




4 Responses to “Are You Talking About Illness at Work?”  

  1. 1 Linda

    Telling colleagues/admin about your chronic conditions (specifically if you have a few) is walking a fine line. On one side, it is to your advantage/for your safety to tell…on the the other side it can easily be used against you. Yes, by law they can’t do that….but if they want you out, they will find a way.

  2. 2 Rosalind

    I couldn’t agree more- it is a balancing act, isn’t it? That’s why we each need a strategy because simple ‘to do’ list won’t suffice — there are too many variables. A strategy gives you a lens through which you can create the tactics that you think work best for you in this situation. Thanks for your input, Linda.

  3. 3 Melissa Marsh

    Being open about my chronic illness with my employer led them to let me work from home one day a week. It’s been very nice. I think it’s important to be open and honest with your employer about your illness. I’ve been very blessed that I have a very understanding boss.

  4. 4 Rosalind

    You are very fortunate, Melissa. It’s not something that one can predict but it is something you can try to cultivate.

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