In my teens, I eagerly stroked the idea of my twenties. I would spend hours doting on notions of what financial independence would look like (mostly, the clothes I could buy) and how glamorous my commutes would be as I strutted the cement runways towards my office. And by 24, I made it happen.
I had just landed a journalist role for my favorite publication and had hit my stride professionally. What I didn’t anticipate was a series of small, and yet complex health problems immediately after I started. After one year of feeling chronically fatigued and in constant pain I was diagnosed with Inflammatory Bowel Disease, an untreatable illness (at this stage) that tends to complicate simple day-to-day tasks.
Frequent trips to doctor’s offices, countless tests, and several costly surgeries had started to take their toll. So finally, after one of my regular bathroom-breakdowns, I booked an emergency appointment with my psychologist.
“Frequent trips to doctor’s offices, countless tests, and several costly surgeries had started to take their toll.”
Though resigning, sitting on the couch, and drowning my sorrows with chocolate was tempting, the reality was, as the breadwinner in my marriage, the bills had to be paid and I needed to start working my way towards a pay rise to support the added cost of this illness.
So instead, we decided to put in place some practical strategies that would help me still succeed at my job—and not just survive—while also, taking care of both my physical and mental health. Stay with me, it’s possible.
Contrary to my initial plan to resign, Breanna Jayne Sada, an Australian Psychologist for Lysn, believes that continuing to work after a diagnosis can in some cases be beneficial by providing “routine, purpose, social connection and the ability to help you remain financially independent and stable.”
And while the realm of chronic disease is intricate and highly individualized, below are some strategies that I found to be helpful while juggling work and health over the last year.
Ask your doctor for clear boundaries
We know setting up boundaries both professionally and in our personal lives are important, an idea (that thankfully) has become resurrected by Brene Brown’s books. But, maintaining solidarity to them when it involves your livelihood becomes harder to navigate. Sada emphasizes the added importance of boundaries when your health needs extra attention. “For work to continue to be a positive place, it needs to be guided by specific boundaries so it doesn’t become a drain on you.”
With a completely new understanding of the mind-gut connection, I learned quickly that stress and fatigue were instant triggers for me—plus, my doctors wouldn’t stop reminding me of this fact. Staying back at work and not taking a lunch break elevated my stress levels.
“Your success is only guaranteed if you’re healthy enough to get to the finish line. That means putting yourself first.”
So, as an unbreakable rule to myself, I left on time. If I had deadlines, I would work during my commute or in bed, but being at home (tea and chocolate in hand) made all the difference to my mental state and meant that I was not in a deficit for the rest of the week.
Communicate your situation to your employer
Feeling like a weak link in your team is never easy. Especially in competitive industries. Throw in some Imposter Syndrome and being honest about your illness seems impossible. If you have a supportive manager or HR team, setting some time aside for a meeting and having key points prepared for what the next few months may look like will help create transparency.
Aubrey Blanche the Global Head of Diversity at Atlassian sheds a light on how this communication should look in healthy office environments, and what you should research before your meeting. “It’s important that companies have policies and practices to support people in these situations (including anti-discrimination policies), and that as an employee you are aware of them before entering into a conversation,” says Blanche.
Blanche also notes that open dialogue between employers and employees needs to be fostered in order to encourage a transparent work environment, “it’s critical that companies build an open culture where people feel they can show up authentically—and authentic means not only bringing in the fun, easy things but also those that are difficult.”
Generate and focus on your long-term goals
I found myself most guilty about leaving the office for midday appointments or taking extended leave at busy periods when I needed surgery. So, in order to maintain my self-esteem, I stopped focusing on short-term inconveniences, and instead created long-term, unique goals I could help the company achieve.
Next, I discussed them with management and created weekly micro-goals around the bigger plan in order to feel like progress was being made. This is also beneficial when it comes to annual reviews or remuneration discussions because you still have a concrete success rate to refer to and can reassure yourself of your value in particularly low moments.
In a world where multi-tasking and side-hustling have become glossy words, I’m the first to admit that making myself a key priority in my own life was not intrinsic. I felt like my body had failed me, and thus, I was doomed to fail professionally.
But if there’s anything I’ve learned from the reality of living with chronic illness, it’s this: your success is only guaranteed if you’re healthy enough to get to the finish line. That means putting yourself first. And, with a few careful maneuvers, you may actually learn a new set of skills that will help you steer your career in new and pioneering ways.