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Career Advice

How to Manage Work When You Have a Chronic Illness

Posted by Glassdoor Team

Career Advice Experts

Last Updated April 5, 2018
|6 min read

Chronic illness can shake your world. One moment you’re perfectly healthy, enjoying life. Then, the next moment, you’re seriously ill and struggling to do the simplest tasks. Activities that used to come easily now require careful thought and planning. Life activities you once took for granted, such as breathing, eating, or walking, are now difficult.

You once worried about work-life balance, but now your primary concern is making it from one day to the next without experiencing a serious health crisis. Laws like the ADA and FMLA are designed to protect employees from being fired due to disability or medical reasons, but the reality is that it can still be a challenge to maintain employment and still take good care of yourself. Yet many chronically ill workers who are facing serious health issues need to keep working due to the financial burden that comes along with their massive medical bills and the need for health insurance.

If you’re facing this dilemma, we’re here to help. Here’s how not to get fired when you have a chronic illness.

Be honest with your boss

You don’t have to tell your supervisor about your illness if you don’t want to. However, if your illness is beginning to affect your work, you’ll need to speak up at some point. If your work quality or production level starts to slide, the last thing you want is for your boss to think you’re being lazy or you don’t care about your work.

In this case, it’s a good idea to meet with your boss and let him or her know you have a chronic illness. It’s up to you how much detail you give.

Talk to human resources

Although your boss might respond with concern and empathy, you should also have a chat with your human resources representative. It's important to make sure someone else in authority is aware of your illness — this way, you’ll have an easier time defending yourself if a misunderstanding arises, and your job is suddenly on the line.

Ask for accommodations

Is your work schedule wearing you down? If the way you’re working right now seems to be negatively impacting your health, it’s time to make a change. Ask your supervisor if he or she could make adjustments that would help keep you healthy and get your work done.

Perhaps you could request to work from home a few days a week. If doctor’s appointments have become difficult to schedule because of strict office hours, ask whether you could change your work schedule, so you can get all your appointments in.

Know your rights

Although many employers would do their best to accommodate a chronically ill employee, you could run into resistance. Some bosses will not be eager to assist you, especially if you don’t look visibly ill. If you’ve been denied an accommodation that is necessary to do your job, speak with your human resources manager. Tell him or her about your situation and why you need the accommodation. Some illnesses are considered disabilities, so it might be your legal right to receive the adjustment. If you’re unsure, consult with an employment lawyer.

Beware office bullies

Just about every office has at least one bully. When you have a chronic illness and receive accommodations, you could become a target. Some co-workers might get jealous and feel like you’re unfairly receiving special treatment. If they are not aware of your health status, their jealousy and resentment could put you at risk for bullying.

This type of situation can occur when a chronically ill worker doesn’t look visibly ill or disabled. Receiving a modified work arrangement for an “invisible” disability or illness, such as asthma, could make others in the workplace become resentful or think you’re exaggerating your illness.

Consequently, others might complain about you to your boss and pick on you for minor work issues. Be on guard for this behavior, and document everything that goes on.

Take care of yourself

You won’t perform at your best level if you don’t take good care of yourself. Eat a balanced diet, get enough sleep, and follow your doctor’s orders. Also keep track of how you’re feeling from day to day, and make sure to keep in regular contact with your health team. Don’t ignore any nagging symptoms in favor of getting a work assignment done.

As soon as you start to feel sick, address the issue, and get the treatment you need. Delaying care could cause complications at work. Waiting to see a doctor could mean more days out of work and a longer recovery time.

Check in regularly

Don’t assume everything is OK because your boss has been quiet. He or she could be waiting to talk until review time. Instead of waiting, your best bet is to have a regular check-in meeting to make sure you’re still performing well. Ask your boss whether your work is satisfactory and whether there is anything you need to do to improve. This way, you won’t run into surprises that could have been avoided had you checked in earlier.

Build confidence

Know you are more than just your illness. Work and personal life can be very hard when the people identify you so closely with your illness. However, it’s important to remember you are separate from the disease you’re battling. Managing a chronic illness can take a great toll on your sense of self-worth, so it’s important to remind yourself you have value. And it’s important to do your best to maintain your self-esteem, so you don’t hinder your career advancement due to a lack of confidence.

Resist the urge to shrink into the shadows and fall below the radar. Your financial future could depend on it. “People with low self-esteem often try to remain under the radar screen because they don’t want to be noticed, but especially in this economy, that is the wrong thing to do,” Lois P. Frankel, author and founder of Corporate Coaching International, told Forbes.

Get support

Managing — or more accurately, battling — a chronic illness is physically and mentally taxing. It will be very important that you have someone to talk to regularly. A mental health professional can help you work through all of the ups and downs that come along with balancing sickness and a demanding work load. Also, keep close friends and family in the loop.

You’ll need as much support as you can get. Having a trusted support circle will reduce the chances of you having a meltdown at work when things get tough. It’s OK to be sad or angry about what is happening to you, but dealing with those emotions in healthy ways is key.


There are tools available to help you thrive in your work and personal life while managing a chronic illness. You can still have a successful career even though you aren’t as healthy as you once were. Here are some resources that can assist you with your journey.



This article was originally published on The Cheat Sheet.

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