Chronic Illness in the Workplace

Someone sent me a great article from More magazine titled "Ill in a Day's Work", about the difficulty a chronic illness can present in the workplace. Author of the article, Donna Jackson Nakazawa, begins by saying:

When a woman is diagnosed with a chronic disease like cancer, M.S. or lupus, she is often at the peak of her earning power and productivity. How do you choose between your livelihood and your life?

The article goes on to give several first-hand accounts of women struggling to balance a career with the limitations of their chronic illnesses, including the author's own story. Here are a few snippets from the article:

When [Faith Hackett, M.D.] first fell ill, she tried to continue her day-to-day work life as if nothing had changed. But as her condition worsened, "the way I looked sometimes worried people," she says. "If I was having a painful spasm, I had to hold on to the examining table. I realized that they needed me to talk about it, to explain why I was acting the way I did." Ironically, even as Hackett's condition worsened, coworkers still had trouble registering how sick she truly was. "People don't pick up that you're in excruciating pain unless you tell them directly," she says. "They may not understand that the reason you're behaving differently is because you are in agony." Often, the illnesses women face are largely invisible to casual observers, even those who know them fairly well. In fact, 96 percent of people who suffer from a chronic health problem live with an illness that has no surface manifestation -- they don't use a cane, wear a cast or appear disfigured. They seem healthy enough and, as a result, others often expect more from them than is physically possible.

[Claire] Ganz's strategy has been to have a script that she follows when someone inquires; it helps her to feel she is in control of what people know. "If people ask, I simply tell them, 'I fell ill with an autoimmune disorder and I'm getting better,' " she says. "What I mean by that is: Even though I may not be getting better physically, I'm getting better at living with what I have."

Ganz also uses creative strategies to compensate for the effect she fears her crutches may have on clients. "I make sure that I have beautiful over-the-shoulder accessories -- purse, laptop case -- so that I don't have to struggle to carry anything when I enter a client's office," she says. And she's much more careful about which clients she accepts. Ganz says she has had to "let go of the pleaser aspect of who I am. I don't say yes to anything I don't really want to do. It's a hidden blessing to learn to let that go."

[Michelle] Nofer is speaking openly about her illness now -- partly as a result of being interviewed several times for this article. "I really heard my own story for the first time," she says. "It rang out loud and clear how crazy it was to be working around the clock while pretending I wasn't ill -- then secretly recuperating at home, tapping away on my BlackBerry. The more I talked about how I try to cope, the more I realized I'm not coping." As she started to see the bigger picture, the pattern of her life emerged. "It suddenly seemed absurd that I have never really tried to halfway take care of myself," she says. "I realized that if I want to stay alive for my two sons, I had to break the pattern." Indeed, she sees her recent decisions -- first to come clean with colleagues, then to take a leave of absence, and finally, just this fall, to step down altogether -- "as long overdue first steps to taking care of me."

Check out the rest of the article here.


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