Handling Chronic Illness in the Workplace

October 22, 2019

By Leah Williams

On October 26, 2015, my life changed forever. I unexpectedly had a pain in my stomach that would turn into a life-changing diagnosis. At 22 years old, I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, an autoimmune disease which affects the entire digestive track. Growing up, I never imagined I would face health issues. I always admired the strength of those who battled diseases, but never imagined being in similar shoes. After the diagnosis, I knew my life would never be the same.

Life with a chronic disease is unpredictable. It’s constantly facing your biggest challenge — every day. Each morning, I am unsure of whether I will face a peak or valley on the physical and emotional roller coaster that is Crohn’s disease. Many of the symptoms cannot be physically seen on the outside of the body. As a result, someone with Crohn’s disease can appear completely healthy but be very ill.

After my diagnosis, I worried about how my disease would affect me in the workplace, as well as what adjustments I would need to make. Since being diagnosed, I have strived to make the workplace more comfortable for anyone battling illness. I recommend these three “bes” for employees battling illness and for managers whose direct reports might be battling illness.

Be Prepared

Employee: A chronic illness such as Crohn’s can flare up unpredictably, with little or no warning signs. It’s the employee’s duty to be as prepared as possible. That can mean keeping pain medicine nearby, knowing where the nearest bathroom is, being aware of warning signs, and having a strategy of how a situation will be handled when it occurs at work.

Manager: When a direct-report employee has a chronic illness, the manager should research and learn as much as possible about that illness. The information acquired from this research can be use by the manager in interacting with the employee. Working with the employee, the manager can determine a plan of action, including how the manager will be informed should an unexpected medical emergency occur.

Be Transparent

Employee: Since being diagnosed, I have had many internal battles of whether or not to share my diagnosis with my manager. But the sooner the information is shared with the manager, the more prepared the employee and manager will be in a situation. Informing the manager from the beginning is always better than being forced to share the news when a situation is occurring. The employee should be comfortable with being transparent with the manager when symptoms of the illness occur.

Manager: Clear communication helps establish a culture of honesty and transparency, which should be set by the manager. Managers should discuss specific expectations, guidelines and procedures with the employee if a situation arises. In addition, employees should feel comfortable informing a manager when they are having a health situation.

Be Considerate

Employee: An employee should respect the manager’s viewpoint in the situation. The manager is striving to accommodate the employee — while also meeting business needs. The employee should understand that the manager might not always say or do the right thing.

Manager: Attention to detail can make a difference. For example, for a lunch meeting, consider dietary restrictions of a Crohn’s warrior or for someone with celiac disease. Small acts of inclusion can go a long way.

Additionally, pay attention to silent signs from someone with a chronic illness. For a Crohn’s warrior, for example, some of those signs include fatigue or skin discoloration. If you notice such symptoms, try to offer such accommodations as a flexible work schedule or an adaptive workload. Providing options to assist balancing health and work life can make a huge difference to the employee with a chronic illness.

When sickness occurs in the workplace, it can be a tough situation for all parties. Crohn’s disease is one of many “invisible” illnesses. By being prepared, transparent and considerate, managers and employees can create a comfortable workplace for all.

Leah Williams, PMP, CSCP, is a supply chain analyst at Northrup Grumman Corporation in Linthicum Heights, Maryland, and a 2017 ISM® 30 Under 30 Rising Supply Chain Star. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author.