The rise of chronic diseases such as long-COVID, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and mental illnesses have cast a shadow on our efforts to age well. The CDC reports that 60% of Americans are coping with at least one type of chronic illness. In the EU, over 35% report having a chronic health problem. And Dr Jame Abraham from the Cleveland Clinic believes population aging and rapid socioeconomic changes have brought India to the brink of a “tsunami of chronic diseases.”
Still, medical advances and improvements in healthcare do offer a silver lining around this cloudy future. More people are living longer, enjoying a considerable quality of life, and continuing to be an integral part of their communities and their workplaces, in spite of their conditions.
Therefore, thriving in the workplace in spite of a chronic disease or disability is not the concern of a few individuals but an important personal goal for all of us. Let’s look at how this can play out for us as individuals.
Aim for transparency
John F. Kennedy’s cover-up of his Addison disease diagnosis is truly unique and also, at an extreme end of the spectrum. Times have changed and our culture is more open and understanding of the specter of disease. For instance, right up to his death, Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson was fully transparent about his battle with pancreatic cancer.
The stakes are different for different employees, but where possible, try to get more comfortable with being transparent about your condition. Remember that how much you wish to reveal is up to you, though. Legal expert Thomas O’Brien suggests thinking ahead of any accommodations you need to make for yourself before talking to your employer. He also recommends talking to your supervisor first and then involving the HR team to avoid any miscommunication. Very often, your doctors may also be able to share advice on how to communicate with those at the workplace about your condition, so be sure to have a word with them as well.
Accommodate the limitations posed by your illness
Whoever said it’s about work-life integration, not work-life balance, hit the nail on the head for professionals with chronic diseases. The illness you face does not recognize or respect boundaries and you will need to acknowledge the limitations it places on you, even at work, and ask for accommodations that your body deserves.
For instance, as a kidney patient, you would have to plan your work around your treatment options and doctor’s appointments. If you travel for work, you may want to discuss telecommuting or a change in responsibilities to prioritize your body’s changing needs.
Prepare ahead, and alert ahead
Every organization has a legitimate reason to fear dropping the ball, and that’s why preparing for any contingencies is crucial. Chronic diseases with sporadic and unpredictable acute episodes, like migraines or fibromyalgia, could mean that you are suddenly unavailable for tasks, meetings, or previously committed deadlines. But this does not have to be a panic-inducing moment for your colleagues.
Keep a daily work journal where you update your progress on current jobs. Add documentation that can help your colleagues pick up from where you left off, and maintain a regular handover sheet so that your team can take care of your tasks in case of an emergency.
Do not wait for an episode to reach a crescendo before speaking about it to your team. If you sense the onset of an attack, inform a colleague and try to get home safely to rest. It also helps to have a care protocol in place with a supportive teammate – you can brief them on methods to alleviate your symptoms, for instance, helping you avoid strong odors and getting you your inhaler in case of an asthma attack, or dimming strong lights and reducing ambient noise in the case of a migraine.
Remember, throughout, that you are not alone. There will be many others like you within your organization who have walked this path before you, are going through the same journey now, or will tread this way in the future. They, along with your allies in the workplace, will be there for you, as long as you find the strength to advocate for yourself, your health, and your potential.