/ Body/ Managing Chronic Health Conditions in Busy Work Environments
Learn about chronic health conditions, strategies to manage chronic conditions at work, and how managers can offer better support.
According to research conducted by the Government of Canada, 44 per cent of adults aged 20 and above have at least one of the ten most common chronic health conditions, including hypertension, osteoarthritis, mood and anxiety disorders, osteoporosis, asthma and more. Following the pandemic, these numbers don’t include those impacted by long COVID-19, with symptoms such as difficulties with memory and thinking (“brain fog”), fatigue, racing heartbeat, gastrointestinal problems, or chest pain for months, or longer after contracting the virus. Although the number of individuals with chronic health conditions is increasing, they remain relatively misunderstood.
We spoke to Cherry Poon-Crowie BN (Bachelor's of Nursing), a life coach who is part of the Inkblot network of life and health coaches, on how individuals can better manage chronic health conditions and get support at work. Poon-Crowie helps us understand chronic health conditions, how to manage them better, how to communicate chronic health conditions to managers, and how organizational leadership can better support employees.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines chronic illness as any condition that lasts one year or more, requires ongoing medical attention and limits your daily activity. Some examples include diabetes, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, and various mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety. Poon explains that there is a large spectrum of chronic illnesses, all which affect people differently, and that not all chronic illnesses are visible.
Poon-Crowie describes the domino effect chronic health conditions can have on work, motivation and mental well-being. For instance, if chronic health symptoms make it difficult for employees to be productive during work hours, this could lead them to overexert themselves. This, in turn, leads to burnout and low motivation and can impact their ability to show up in other areas of life. Additionally, many individuals struggle with the decision to disclose their illness due to fears that it could jeopardize opportunities for career advancement and result in discrimination.
Poon-Crowie recommends assessing your daily battery every morning. She explains that this reflection will allow you to recognize when you need to give yourself more grace and make changes to your day to show up where you are needed.
To do so, reflect on what it looks like when your battery is at 100 per cent. How much work are you able to get done, how do you show up at work, and how much energy does it take to do your daily tasks? For instance, normally, it might take 20 per cent of your energy to complete your daily tasks. On a good day when your battery is at 100 per cent, this still leaves a lot of energy for other activities. However, if your daily battery starts at 50 per cent one morning, that limits your energy to complete other tasks to only 30 per cent.
“Reflect on what fills up your cup,” Poon-Crowie explains. Nutrition, movement, sleep, and time spent on things that bring you joy are all important to be able to show up at work, manage a chronic illness, increase your energy levels, and prioritize your mental health. She also recommends mindfulness and meditation to reset when you are running low on motivation due to symptoms of a chronic illness. Mindfulness can be as simple as being fully present as you eat lunch by focusing on the taste, texture and the act of chewing.
When managing a chronic health condition, it is important to give yourself a lot of understanding and compassion. Meet yourself where you are and know that days can fluctuate for everyone with a chronic health condition. Return to the things that are fun for you and give you energy on days when your symptoms are worse.
It is crucial to note that deciding to disclose your chronic illness is an individual journey. It depends heavily on your circumstances, the managers you are interacting with, and your organization's culture. Although, if you find your chronic health condition is affecting your work performance, it might be helpful to have a conversation with your manager and ask for accommodations.
Poon-Crowie describes two ways to approach this conversation. She suggests that if you have a supportive manager that encourages open lines of communication, it might be helpful to be transparent about your chronic illness and how it affects you. Consider expressing any fears you may have, such as missing out on opportunities or not giving in your best work when your illness is at its worst. Since many managers don’t have much knowledge on chronic conditions, painting a picture of the daily impact of your chronic illness and describing what it’s like when your illness is at its worst can help foster better understanding. It can also help to limit any assumptions managers may make.
Alternatively, if you feel that your manager will be less receptive to this type of conversation, Poon-Crowie recommends having a physical doctor's note for backup and approaching the conversation with an action plan for accommodations that would be helpful. Some examples of accommodations include, a more flexible work schedule, time off for medical appointments, modified job duties, ergonomic and physical changes to the worksite, or work from home days. It is important to work with your manager to create a game plan together, consider both sides and set expectations that can be met.
Questioning current practices and reflecting on where things can be adapted to be more inclusive sends a message that employers understand that they have a role to play in addressing and accommodating chronic illness in the workplace. “The normal Monday to Friday 9-5 schedule was initially designed for able-bodied men”, Poon-Crowie explains. Therefore, if possible, it is crucial that managers and organizations prioritize rethinking what is considered a ‘normal schedule,’ accommodating more flexible schedules and allowing work-from-home in their DEI strategy.
For instance, employees with chronic pain may find they are able to be more productive later in the day, after their pain medication kicks in, making a 10:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. schedule more beneficial. Alternatively, split-work schedules, where employees can work from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. and then from 3:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m., might be helpful for those with chronic illnesses. Poon-Crowie also suggests organizations offer education sessions on addressing chronic health in the workplace. Offering education and resources ensures managers and employees are better equipped with the tools necessary to support employees with chronic conditions.
While living with chronic conditions can significantly impact the mental health and well-being of an individual, with the right support they can be managed effectively. Inkblot offers a holistic, comprehensive Chronic Disease Management Program as part of our specialized clinical services. This program supports individuals living with chronic diseases in all aspects of whole health, including medication management, diet, physical activity, health teaching and mental health. If you are struggling with managing a chronic illness at work, reach out to your HR leader about Inkblot’s Chronic Disease Management Program and lean on your Inkblot EAP for additional support.
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