Opinion: Chronic Illness and the Workplace—Something You Should Know

Opinion: Chronic Illness and the Workplace—Something You Should Know

I have a co-worker whose husband was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer two years ago. Naturally, he needed care, and his wife was the primary person to do so. In order to accommodate his various doctors’ appointments and treatments, Jane needed quite a bit of flexibility within her full-time work schedule. She asked to be able to do that under the Family and Medical Leave Act.

Joanna Mechlinski

Joanna Mechlinski

Until then, I’d had no idea this was possible. Sure, I had heard of people applying for FMLA before, but I had thought it was for more long-term leaves, such as following the birth of a child or to undergo chemotherapy. And that’s certainly true; under FMLA an employee is eligible for up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per calendar year. But FMLA also protects you if you need to take sporatic sick days, not necessarily a large number but perhaps simply more than an “average” person would take. In my particular (and admittedly slightly peculiar) case, I am allotted a generous number of sick days each year; yet if I were actually to use them all, I would be under “suspicion”. Thus filing FMLA paperwork indicating that I have a valid medical reason in the event that I needed to do so is extremely important. Then, if necessary, I would still be able to be out sick, albeit unpaid, and not have the additional strain of fearing I will no longer have a job loom over my head.

As everyone’s workplace differs, of course, I know this will not be the case for everyone. Some may have positions that require finding a substitute or someone to carry out duties that cannot wait for their return. Some may have positions with little or no paid sick time. In any case, FMLA will help sort out the details.

Within the section pertaining to chronic illness or conditions, your doctor will be asked to assess your ability to do various tasks such as lifting, standing, stooping, etc. and state whether there are any restrictions or special needs (e.g. such as an adjusted work schedule or special dietary requirements).

I was rather surprised to discover just how little of my medical details were revealed to my workplace. I’m actually pretty friendly with my direct supervisor and so have shared information about my issues with her over the years. I am by nature an open person, and I certainly don’t feel that an illness which could have happened to anyone is something of which I should be ashamed or need to hide. I also feel that it’s important for the key players in my daily life to have some idea of what’s happening to me. However, that is entirely my choice. I can control what I reveal and what I don’t.

Essentially all my doctor had to do was tell my employers that I have a chronic condition which may impact my attendance and/or certain job responsibilities. The only thing that might give the workplace a hint is being able to determine just what kind of doctor is advocating for you, e.g. a rheumatologist or oncologist.

Once you’re officially established with your employer as having special medical needs, it becomes simpler to request other workplace accommodations as needed. For example, I spend the majority of my work day sitting at a desk in front of a computer. After some time I began to experience tremendous pain in my lower back. So I talked to my supervisor about it and she was able to get me a special chair cushion which helped greatly.

Whatever your personal circumstances, if you are employed and having difficulties because of your illness or pain, please don’t hesitate to speak up! Too many people may believe that if they are unable to perform all their duties every day as initially hired to do, they have to quit and go on disability. For countless individuals, the reality lies somewhere in the middle; while they may need a few tweaks here and there, they are still overall able to be productive outside the home. FMLA exists and was created entirely to make this possible.

Joanna Mechlinski is a former newspaper reporter who now works in education. She is a lifelong Connecticut resident, avid reader and animal lover who has battled several chronic illnesses since her early twenties.

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Image courtesy of United States Department of Labor.

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Authored by: Joanna Mechlinski