Health and wellness touch each of us differently. This is one person’s story.
At some point, we all dream of landing our dream job: As a college professor. Or maybe graphic designer. Airline pilot. Pediatric brain surgeon. Boutique owner.
But landing that dream job is never as easy as we imagine, especially when a chronic illness is part of your resume.
I began my lupus journey 17 years ago and encountered my first professional disappointment when my recently launched nursing career came to a sudden halt. Instead of helping others heal, I was sent home from the hospital with a nurse to assist me with simple activities of daily living.
After a few small strokes, blood clots, and a brain aneurysm, I got the news from my physician that I should begin searching for a new career…
Though illness had weakened my body, it never took away my desire to create and contribute — a common theme I see in others living with chronic illness. After some soul searching, I realized I needed to find a way to combine my skills and passions with my circumstances, and determine the best way to earn a living.
Initially, I worried that my body’s ability to keep up and perform would be my greatest challenge. But ultimately, many of the biggest hurdles I faced revolved around external obstacles.
As chronic illness warriors, we are our best advocates. And while we usually hear this in the healthcare space — the workplace shouldn’t be any different.
While in this uncharted territory, I learned a lot about disclosing my illness, asking for accommodations, and learning how people with illnesses are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
These experiences taught me how to advocate for myself in order to find an employer who could see beyond my illness and focus on my worth.
Whether you’re interviewing for a position or asking for accommodations, consider the following ways to approach each job experience. As chronic illness warriors, we are our best advocates. And while we usually hear this in the healthcare space — the workplace shouldn’t be any different.
Disclosing your illness during an interview
Whether to disclose your illness or disability during an interview is a very personal decision. Factors to consider include the type of illness or disability, the job you’re applying for and its requirements, and your personality and comfort level.
I prefer to get things out in the open but will typically wait until the second or third interview, so that I have a better idea of the personalities and flexibility of those I might be working with.
Opening up about my illness actually helped me land my job as a reporter for Gannett. The managers and vice president saw the successes I had despite my health challenges. In interviews, I highlighted how these challenges made me a more patient person who is calm under pressure and can handle multiple things at once. While there had been previous cases when my lupus scared off employers, this time I believe it actually helped.
How do the experts feel about disclosing illness on an interview?
Rosalind Joffe, a career coach for people with chronic illnesses and founder of ciCoach, offers this advice: “If symptoms get in the way of doing the job as it is expected to be performed, and it will be obvious from the day you start, you should disclose the illness.”
That being said, if you’re not comfortable disclosing your medical issues, don’t. However, there are some things to consider when choosing this route. If, down the road, you believe you’re being discriminated against or treated unfairly, an employer could use the nondisclosure against you.
Joffe has encountered situations where an employer’s insurance policy includes fine print that a person can be fired or excluded from medical coverage if they don’t disclose an illness in advance.
Not sure if a potential employer has a similar policy? Joffe recommends asking to review the health insurance coverage during the negotiation stage.
Requesting accommodations at work
The ADA requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for people with an illness or disability in order to help them perform their job. Accommodations are different for everyone and may include longer breaks, flexible hours, working from home, special lighting, the use of a service animal, or special equipment.
If you ask for an accommodation in person, follow up with a written request so there’s a record. Approach the request from a positive perspective, such as: “I’d like to request an accommodation that will allow me to become a more productive employee.” Also, be prepared to offer suggestions to your employer, and keep an open mind about their ideas.
Perhaps the most powerful way to advocate for yourself when interviewing is to know the value you bring to an organization. Maraliz Campos, who lives with RA, lupus, and other chronic illnesses, suggests “defining your boundaries ahead of time, being realistic, and without shame.”
Campos, an invisible illness advocate who works in the wine and liquor industry, found a supportive employer in Colangelo & Partners, based out of NYC. “This company has supported me through reintegration in stages. I started working here part-time, since I had just stopped taking chemo. As my body grew more accustomed to NY life, I requested more hours. Each time, giving myself a few weeks or even months to get accustomed to the hours. The company stayed by my side, and now, I work full-time.”
While not every person living with a chronic illness is able to work full-time, that doesn’t mean a fulfilling position and supportive employer isn’t out there. Campos recommends looking for positions through people you know and asking your contacts to advocate for you when starting your job search.
At the end of the day, knowing your value, being realistic about what your body can handle, and advocating for yourself can give you the confidence boost you need to ace your next interview and find a career you can thrive in.
Marisa Zeppieri is a health and food journalist, chef, author, and founder of LupusChick.com and LupusChick 501c3. She resides in New York with her husband and rescued rat terrier. Follow her on Facebook and on Instagram.