I found transitioning from university to working life quite difficult. I couldn’t take regular naps in the day between lectures, I lost the support network the university provided for me to help me get to and from places.
Now this is just my experience and I can’t speak for everyone. But working with ME and bipolar disorder is difficult. There are many factors I need to take into account every day, keep my exertion to a certain level so I don’t trigger a flare up in my ME, make sure I keep track of my mood so that I avoid any potential stress triggers, if possible…the list goes on.
So I’m going to go through the top 3 most important things in working with chronic health conditions.
1. Place of work is crucial.
Now I have had three jobs since graduation. The first one, I was let go. I do not necessarily blame them; I was very ill and trying to cope by pushing myself to my limit and beyond, just to get by. I did not know how to do any better; I didn’t know what to ask for to get the help I needed. But on their part, they did not understand my illnesses or how they could affect my work.
My current job is wonderful. Yes I am still somewhat behind my colleagues here but they have researched and understood my background, what I’m attempting to deal with and there have been two significant deaths close to me which have thrown me. I hate to sound like I’m making excuses but my work understand that I haven’t had the chance to be at the same level as my colleagues because the playing field wasn’t even when I started.
What I am trying to say is that the workplace is important. The way you are managed, how they listen and try to understand your needs and work to them can make ALL the difference to your success at work.
(Of course this also relies on you being open with your place of work about your illness. Maybe this is number 1.5 on the list. Be open and honest or they can’t help you. Occupational health exist to keep you in work if possible, to change circumstances to allow everyone to be on the same playing field).
2. Find your limits
Now if anyone reading this hasn’t heard of the spoon theory, go and google it now, otherwise this will sound a bit odd.
I can tell in the mornings normally how many spoons I have for the day. At my old job and at the start of my current job, I would work as hard as possible which meant I had no spoons left to do much of anything else. I’d go straight to bed after work and sleep for much of the weekend. Sometimes that happens now but what I now do is if I know I have fewer spoons, I work with that. If I have limited spoons it makes more sense for me to work from home rather than expend spoons getting ready to leave the house, do the drive, be around the bright lights and the noises of the office (all things that wear me down). Working from home is something I am incredibly lucky to be able to do, and if you are a spoonie like me, see if there’s a chance to do it too. It has kept me safe from driving when I’m not fully ‘with it’ and it means I get more work done because I can use my limited energy on work, not the things mentioned above.
Finding you limits is the most difficult thing and with many chronic illnesses they can change day to day. But you have to try and find them as it will make a huge difference to your working and personal life.
3. Use your annual leave
This might sound obvious but if you’re anything like me you like to put your best effort in at work and that means dedication. And sometimes you can get so wrapped up in work that you forget about breaks. Or maybe you use your annual leave to go on holiday and you get exhausted doing that (yay holidays making you need a holiday just to recover). What I found most useful this year was using some of my annual leave to just rest. I slept and relaxed and I did minimal tasks, nothing stressful. I think I just about managed a small bike ride with a nap straight after. This meant I was recharged for going back to work instead of getting more and more drained as the weeks went on. I still have times when I have to sleep when I get in from work but it’s not pleasant to lose every evening that way, so if you can block off a couple days here and there to catch up on some much needed rest, I found it did me a world of good.
Note: if you have fully burnt yourself out and you are sick DON’T use your annual leave, take it as sick leave. These are very different things. I had to do it, there’s no shame in it. With a lot of invisible and (visible illnesses I’m sure), there’s sometimes nothing you can do to prevent a flare up. And trying to push through that *every time* only made me worse, and of course my work suffered too.
So that’s my thoughts about trying to work with chronic illnesses. It was more geared towards my ME experiences but I think it applies to mental illness too. I know my bipolar has had a severe impact in my work experience and I am very grateful that I have such an understanding employer to deal with how erratic I was.
If you take only one thing away from this: be honest with your employer. They might not all be great about it but I believe most just want to get the best out of their employees and that can’t happen if you’re struggling by, trying to hide your condition. Be honest, find your limit, and use your breaks.
Can you think of anything else I’ve missed? What have you found is useful at work when living with or without a chronic illness? I’m always eager to hear your thoughts.