Forget about the “Easy” button… I want a “Pause” button.
If I could just stop everything from moving forward so that I could figure things out, that would be great!
That Pause button would have been incredibly handy shortly after I graduated college.
Fortunately, during my college years, I was able to put my life “on hold” to deal with my recent diagnosis of Hashimoto’s Disease. I took a semester off from school to sleep. Seriously. I’m sure that wasn’t my intention at the time, but it’s all I did.
But once I graduated and had $60,000 of student loan debt looming over my head, I didn’t have the option to take a break… I HAD to work. No Pause button option. My life felt like it was in fast forward, and I was being dragged along behind it.
Truly, by the grace of God, I landed a job in an industry that I had zero experience with, and a degree that had nothing to do with it.
My first real job was actually a temporary contract job, with the prospect (but no guarantee) of being hired on as a full-time employee at the end of the summer.
I really had to prove myself, and only had 3 short months to do it. (As a zombie… with brain fog and chronic fatigue so severe that I could barely walk straight.)
And somehow, again, by the grace of God, I did it. Not only did I get hired on full-time, but I was then hired on directly to the company I was being contracted too, and beat out 5 men (both young and old) who were MUCH more qualified for the job than I was.
From there, I continued to receive raises, and held 3 other positions throughout the company until I retired to be a stay-at-home mom.
I’m not saying this to brag. I’m saying it to show you that I was in pure survival mode for those 5 years, and discovered plenty of work-arounds and tips to help me be a functional, dependable, and thriving employee. All those things are what I’m going to share with you in this blog post.
By the way, I am NOT an expert here. So please don’t take this as career advice. Every single situation is unique. Any strategy for working while managing a chronic illness should be well-thought-out, and strategically executed, especially when it comes to career and financial securities.
But first, let’s talk about the # 1 goal behind all of these tips:
Meaning you get your work done and it’s done on time. That’s what employers want: hard-working employees they can hand responsibilities. If you can be dependable, then you’re in good shape.
Unfortunately, dependability is also SO hard to pull off when you’re chronically ill. Each day is like playing a slot machine – you don’t know which symptoms you’re going to get.
So, here’s how I stayed dependable, while also riding the rollercoaster that is: Autoimmune Disease.
10 tips for Working with Chronic Illness, Autoimmune Disease, Chronic Fatigue, Brain Fog… and everything else that comes with it:
Without a doubt, communication is the #1 reason I succeeded. This skill is so vital in a world full of people that are stuck behind a screen all day. When you start communicating with the part of your face that makes sound, and not your keyboard… crazy things happen, like real, healthy co-working relationships.
Those healthy relationships unlock the door to openness. And openness leads to understanding and the building of community and support.
The day I revealed to my boss that I was struggling with health issues was a glorious day.
You know why?
Because it showed that hidden in the shadows of professionalism in the work place (where it seems nothing but work can be discussed)… we are all still human.
Once you have a boss, or a group of co-workers that recognize you aren’t a robot with no feelings or hardships, then all of a sudden, working with a chronic illness doesn’t seem so bad.
But there is a catch.
2.) Don’t abuse it.
Meaning don’t blame your chronic illness for conscious mistakes just because you’re embarrassed to admit it. Missing work due to a late-night binge of Netflix and a bottle of red wine should NOT be blamed on your chronic illness.
Believe me, I’ve dealt with that temptation… but a good boss can tell the difference any way, and you don’t want to build doubt – it will warp his/her perception of you and cause problems in the future.
If you want to be dependable, and respectable, then HONESTY is (and always will be) the way to go.
And on the note of late-night binge watching…
3.) Take care of yourself.
So that means NO late-night binging… on anything. Even, The Bachelor.
Sleep. Eat well. Exercise (if possible, depending on your illness). If you want to give your best performance at work despite your limitations, there is no room outside of work to be irresponsible with your health.
I know, it doesn’t seem fair. But a stable income and job is more important than junk food and television. Don’t waste your precious energy on all the things that contribute to poor physical and mental health.
And remember, this also includes what you do AT work, so be sure to…
4.) Bring your own lunch and stay away from the crap!
Move away from the vending machines. They don’t have your best interest in mind. And neither does your workplace cafeteria… which literally sells kids cereal and chicken nuggets.
It’s so much cheaper, and more nutritious & delicious to bring your own lunch. Think whole foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts & seeds, roasted chicken, wild-caught salmon, avocados… oh yeah.
If it doesn’t make your mouth water, I promise it will once you make the switch to a real, whole foods diet. All it takes is 1-2 weeks until your body starts to crave all the flavorful goodness of nutrient-dense foods.
Then your co-workers begin to ask questions about all the strange foods in your lunch. They’ll tell you that they thought about you the other day when they saw “gluten-free” bacon. And soon, everyone’s inspired and bringing in their own food!
Eventually you can share!
And now that you are inspiring your co-workers with your delicious and nutritious foods, inspire them with simple, work-appropriate (non-sweaty) exercise.
5.) Take a daily walk.
It’s true. My daily walk started with just me, which then multiplied into 5 other people joining me.
Your dedication to health is contagious! People love this stuff. Soon, everyone is excited, and they’re all high-fiving, building comradery and a healthful vigor that no one can deny!
So, take a daily walk and invite some people along. It helps build relationships and establish the communication that is so vital in the workplace.
More importantly, though, it keeps YOU moving. And since a desk job is really the exact opposite of health, there needs to be multiple times a day that you emerge from the depths of your cubicle and move your legs!
Another tip is to drink water (not coffee, or sweet tea, or soda). Lots and lots and lots of water. So much that you have to make a trip to the bathroom every hour… which also helps use your legs.
And yes, I walked daily while experiencing major chronic fatigue and brain fog. Some days, it was at a snail’s pace. I’d “007” my way out of the building without anyone knowing because I just wanted to walk at that snail’s pace… by myself.
It was crucial for my mental health. The fresh air was good for my brain.
But I know what you’re thinking – ain’t nobody got time for walks!
6.) Clear the clutter
For the sake of saving precious minutes or hours, trim off the edges of your workload. Nix all the tasks, reports, etc. that are completely and totally unnecessary.
An example, you say?
How about those weekly reports that nobody reads? They only started because one time, 5 years ago, so-and-so from marketing mentioned how useful it would be, and now it’s become the standard… even though it’s useless (speaking from experience here).
Have an honest (and forward) chat with your boss. Do you have some tasks that are super inefficient? Maybe you can delegate those to an intern, and then work with some tech people to develop a system to improve efficiency (or develop a system yourself).
And while you’re at it, help your brain out and clear the clutter from your desk so that you can focus more on your work and less on the squirrel that just moved into the nest of papers to the right of the stapler.
Clearing the clutter of unnecessary work opens up your schedule so that you can finally take those daily walks and also…
7.) Schedule Strategically
Schedule your walk (or other sort of mental health time) into your daily calendar so that when people see a time blocked off every day around walk-time, they won’t bother you.
And while you may not have control over regular meetings held by other people, you do have control over the meetings YOU schedule. Particularly 1-on-1s with co-workers.
Personally, my mornings were my BEST time. I felt kind of clear-headed and functional. So, I scheduled everything for the mornings. Then, by the time 2:00pm rolled around, my brain was toast. And I knew that anything covered in these meetings would just bounce off my face.
In fact, one of my interviews was during this dark time, and it was the WORST interview I’ve ever had because I couldn’t think or see straight.
I learned a very important lesson that day.
8.) You CAN say: “No.”
Of course I wouldn’t have said “No” to an interview, but knowing just how much I struggled in the afternoon, I should have at least moved it to an earlier time. I focused on being flexible and consequently, it hurt my performance.
The same thing happened when I didn’t say “no” to busy-work that was piled on top of an already un-manageable workload. I wanted to impress my supervisor, but all I did was send myself into a major Hashimoto’s flare, a crash and burn full of tears in his office, and 3 sick days in a row.
Remember, it all comes down to dependability. It’s totally okay (and healthy) to ensure you have a balanced workload.
The only issue was that saying no sometimes made me feel like I was letting my supervisor down, or that I was a full-on wimp with a poor work ethic… but then I discovered a little trick that earned me some major brownie points.
9.) Take on the mindless tasks that no one wants to do
I know… what? Especially after tip #6 of clearing the clutter, this might seem confusing. But every job has these types of tasks – they ARE necessary in some way, they may not be efficient because there is no way to make them go faster, and no one wants to do them because they are boring and mindless.
Perfect for brain-foggy times.
Remember, I couldn’t think. I continuously asked my boss if I could do the data-entry type of tasks that required zero brain power. At one point, it was my favorite type of work. They kept me busy and productive even when I was totally discombobulated.
I’d plug in my favorite tunes and just type away, sipping on some tea and enjoying the therapy of mindless work (Einstein at his finest). By taking on these tasks, I really stood out from my peers because no one else asked to do them.
And, since I needed to go easy on the brain, it was crucial for my sanity.
10.) Keep a list
You have your schedule (strategically planned, of course), and your mindless tasks, but the thought of doing it all for another week sounds exhausting (and it is, if you suffer from chronic fatigue).
Make a list! Then, divide it into smaller, manageable tasks. Start your day, every day, with reviewing your list and writing out a plan for the day so that you don’t have to think about what to do next. Save your brain power for actually DOING the tasks, rather than guessing what to do next.
11.) Don’t procrastinate.
Get er’ done! Maximize the time of day you feel the best and use that time very wisely. Save the off-topic socializing with your buds for another part of the day.
Even just maximizing 2-3 hours of the day can put you at the same level as (or above) your peers who do NOT suffer from a chronic illness.
At least where I worked, distractions were everywhere and time management was not the strong suit for the majority of people. I got just as much done, if not more, than the average person by diving in every day and staying focused.
But despite all of these tricks… despite all of my hard work to maneuver my workload, weeks upon weeks of continuous work dragged me down – physically and emotionally. I learned just how important it is to:
12.) Listen to your body.
A crucial skill – because there is no such thing as “pushing through” when you’re chronically ill and your body is screaming at you to STOP, rest, take it easy. Pushing the limits can land you in the hospital.
So, check-in with yourself every once in a while. Can you feel the stress building up? Did you know that stress can be JUST as detrimental to your health as a poor diet, lack of movement, etc.?
Personally, I needed a break OFTEN. Thankfully, I had a phenomenal supervisor who always let us take it easy on Fridays, especially during the summer months. But sometimes, it was even more often than that.
My strategy for this debacle wasn’t very fun, but it worked.
13.) Use personal/vacation days strategically.
Where I worked, there were no “personal” days. Just vacation days. And unfortunately, at that time, due to my financial and health situation, vacation was nothing more than a day or two to sleep at home.
Holding a steady job while managing a debilitating illness was my sole focus… so I used my vacation days to recover from the toll of my autoimmune-ness. I know that doesn’t sound fun. But this was survival, this was my financial future, and that’s nothing to mess around with.
Vacation days were also the perfect days to go see my doctor(s). I would line up all of my appointments on the same day so that I didn’t have to take time off work to go to them (and possibly decrease my dependability).
So, no vacations for me. Occasionally some appointments, but mostly rest. Which I still deeply enjoyed. Chronic illness can really help you learn to enjoy the simple things.
But the best part about all of this leads to my final tip.
Combine all of tips 1-13, build up that dependability and then…
14.) Negotiate Flexibility
You wanna know what perk would have helped me succeed even more, if I was just given the opportunity to do so?
Yes, if I was allowed to take a nap at work for just a half hour each day, I would’ve been on FIRE. Instead, my whole afternoon was always burned by my fatigue.
Once I had my first child, I called up my boss and asked if I could work from home a few days a week. To my surprise, he was totally open to it. What?!
Finally, I could take a short daily nap and feel kind of energized and WORK in the same afternoon! Imagine that. And now that I didn’t have a 45-minute commute to and from work, I could use that extra time to finish even more work.
Flexibility can make all the difference. If you prove yourself, and show that you are dependable, this can be one of the greatest options to negotiate with current or future employers. Given today’s technology, many jobs can be done at home.
But above all, you deserve RESPECT. And you should know your rights.
My autoimmune disease may have hindered my work in some ways, but it was never an excuse to treat me poorly. I was incredibly blessed with understanding supervisors and co-workers who went above and beyond to help me and treat me WELL. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case for everyone.
Though my Hashimoto’s Disease would have never landed me a viable disability claim (which is unfortunate, because it can be truly debilitating), I know that there are so many other types of diseases that make working almost impossible.
If this is your situation, research your rights in the workplace and meet with an HR representative to determine your next steps (this article is a good place to start). Some illnesses qualify as disabilities, which can then allow you to press the Pause button, and take some much-needed time off to heal.
Do you work with a chronic illness? How do you make it work? Share your favorite tips with our readers by leaving a comment below!
LIKE THIS POST? SHARE IT AND SAVE IT TO YOUR FAVORITE PINTEREST BOARD!
Hi! I’m Anna, co-founder of Healthy Habits Reset. After managing my own autoimmune diseases using lifestyle, habit, and mindset changes, I now work to teach others how to navigate the treacherous and confusing journey of chronic illness living. I firmly believe YOU hold the power to question, think critically, and become your own rock-solid advocate in a world full of unhealthy habits. Consider me, and my husband, Frank, your autoimmune disease health coaches. Are you ready?!