Being Ill at Work: 5 coping strategies

Tina Salter

In 2005, I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease and was so poorly, I couldn’t imagine myself being well enough to ever work again. When you go through a significant period of illness, receive a diagnosis and then discover you will need to find ways to manage the condition for the rest of your life, that’s a lot to take in and process. Some years later, having managed to work full-time despite a few admissions to hospital and periods of sickness, I have learned a lot about myself and have found some strategies to cope in order to remain as well as my body allows me, including giving some attention to my career and professional development. The driver for me is not to be defined by my illness and in order to achieve this I have sought to do the following:

  1. Be open and honest with yourself and others

When your condition is at its worst it can be hard to admit to yourself, let alone others, that you are not able to do some of the things you once did pre-diagnosis or at times when you are in remission. When I have felt my illness and symptoms start on the downward spiral, I have not wanted to admit the changes in my body and have sought to push through and prove that I can carry on as normal. I have not always been honest with my consultant because I couldn’t bear the thought of facing an ‘unwell’ patch. At work, I have tried my hardest to pretend that I’m ‘firing on all cylinders’ and can cope with anything that is thrown at me. This has never served me well in the long run and I have learned to be much more honest with myself, my family, my healthcare professionals and my employer, so that the appropriate adjustments can be made in order for me to concentrate firstly on getting well.

  1. Ask for flexibility and help from your employer

All the research tells us that flexibility at work is one important way that employees can increase their wellbeing (Jones-Berry, 2011). In return, they are more committed and loyal to their organisation (MacLeod & Clarke, 2014). Therefore, it is in your employer’s interest to offer you flexibility and support. Some employers are more flexible than others and it can depend on the nature of the business which may present certain constraints. However, there should always be some room for negotiation! It is important that you talk openly with your employer and seek ways in which some flexibility and support can be offered in order to help you perform your best at work whilst managing your condition. For me, a long commute into work can be extremely tiring as I suffer with fatigue. Fatigue is experienced when, despite sleeping more than 8 hours during the night, you still wake up tired and zapped of any energy. Working from home one or two days a week can help me manage my energy levels better.

  1. Take back control by being your own expert

In order to feel more in control of your health, it is important that you become your own medical expert, armed with accurate and research-based information which informs you about your condition and the various treatment plans available to you. Most employers will have no knowledge of your condition and even if there are others in your organisation who have the same condition, often no two people will experience the same illness in the same way. Therefore you need to be able to tell your employer about your condition with confidence so that they can fully understand your situation. Be careful though, the internet is full of dodgy information! Ask medical professionals to recommend to you helpful research-based journals, articles or web pages so that you can learn about your illness based on accurate and up-to-date information.

  1. Develop psychological resilience

The biggest challenge when faced with a diagnosis or managing day-to-day symptoms is having the mental wherewithal to cope. Physical illnesses can often lead to psychological problems such as stress and anxiety (Whitley, 2013). Psychological resilience comes from acceptance of your condition and any physical limitations in order to maintain a healthy perspective and outlook, even when having to cope with symptoms. Increased emotional intelligence and being able to off-load are two key ways that psychological resilience can be optimised.

  1. Create a support network (medical and non-medical)

Making yourself available to the help and support of others is vital for maintaining a positive outlook so that you can give your best to your job. Finding at least one person in your organisation who you can talk to if you are feeling unwell or finding it difficult to manage your workload and symptoms is vital. It is amazing how a listening ear can give you that extra strength and motivation. Outside of work there will be plenty of opportunities to find a community of people who know what it is like first-hand to struggle with the condition that you have. I have chosen to become an active member of Crohn’s and Colitis UK as this not only gives me access to others who have Crohn’s Disease or Ulcerative Colitis, but also helping and supporting others gives me a positive frame of reference. I’m part of a local group that organises events which brings members together and it has been invaluable to me to get to know others who understand my condition.

MTGT regularly runs courses which help leaders find strategies and tools which help increase resilience at work – this may be something that is relevant to you. There is life and the potential to contribute to the working world after the diagnosis of a long-term medical condition. Feel the pain and find creative ways to do it, anyway!