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Living with Chronic Illness | Finding a Job That Works for You

Nisha Kumar Kulkarni profile image

Nisha Kumar Kulkarni

Living with Chronic Illness | Finding a Job That Works for You

In the U.S., you can’t watch TV or flip through a magazine without seeing a pharmaceutical advertisement addressing illnesses like depression, diabetes, fibromyalgia, and heart disease. The ubiquity of such ads highlights the growing problem of chronic diseases, which are on the rise around the world.

An estimated 133 million Americans live with “incurable and ongoing chronic diseases,” and 100 million Americans live with chronic pain. These conditions can affect a person’s needs and energy—and, therefore, where and how they work. That being said, health limitations don’t have to hold you back from having a meaningful social-impact career.

Continue reading to learn more about how you or someone you know can find fulfilling work while living with chronic illness.

Working with chronic illness

Chronic illness can be unpredictable. Symptoms, medications, side effects, and doctors’ appointments affect your energy levels, making your daily productivity a mixed bag. Because modern work culture can place high value on maximum productivity, working with a chronic illness can leave you facing an impossible choice: your career or your health.

This choice feels even more dire if you have an “invisible illness,” or one which isn’t obvious at first glance, like an autoimmune disorder or chronic pain. Because there’s a lack of general awareness or understanding of what chronic conditions look like, you may find that your manager or coworkers doubt the severity of your health status. This can take an additional toll as you overcompensate to prove yourself and keep your benefits.

The right job for you

If you have ever found yourself wondering if you can have a meaningful career with your chronic illness, the answer is yes—you just have to find the right job.

The key is to take into account your unique considerations so that you find and secure a social-impact role that works with your needs and limitations and capitalizes on your strengths.

Here’s how:

  1. Make a list of your daily needs and health-related commitments. How many times a day do you have to take your medications and supplements? Do you need to have your meals or snacks at specific times to dampen side effects? How often do you need to rest? How often do you have to visit a health practitioner? Put it all down in writing so that you can assess what you need to best support your health.
  2.  Be honest about your limitations. Your limitations include activities that require more energy or concentration than you’re able to consistently commit to, just as much as it includes skills that aren’t your strong suit. Write this down and keep it in mind as you explore opportunities.
  3.  Research job options. Living with chronic illness requires a certain level of flexibility. Depending on your health status, you may want the option to work remotely some or all of the time, and to have more control over your schedule. Jobs that may allow for such flexibility include: administrative assistant, editor, graphic designer, proofreader, software engineer or programmer, transcriber, and writer.
  4.  Focus on your strengths. What are you good at? What do you love doing? Write that down and compare it to the research you’ve done. Eliminate any jobs that won’t support your needs and limitations.
  5.  Update your resume and LinkedIn profile. When you’re ready to start applying for jobs, it’s time to update your resume and LinkedIn. Be sure to not only focus on experience relevant to the job you’re applying for, but also, if possible, on your ability to be a productive, reliable employee during past or present flexible working arrangements. If you have any prolonged periods of unemployment due to your health status that you’d like to address, recruiters recommend doing so with something like, “Personal leave of absence: [Years]. Will discuss in person.”
  6.  Know your rights. As you research your options and submit job applications, you'll want to make sure you know your rights. There are federal laws, like the Americans With Disabilities Act, that prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability, but there may also be state-specific legislation that dictates local discrimination law.
  7.  Build out your support system. As you look for the right job for you, make sure you have a trust circle to encourage you and offer advice, as needed, on your journey. Don’t be afraid to turn to your people during the highs and lows of your search.

Your health always comes first

Once you decide you’re ready to re-enter the workforce or change your job, you can’t control how long it may take to find the right role for you—but you can control how well you take care of yourself during the process. Keep up with that list you made of your daily needs and health-related commitments, and pay attention to any changes. Trust your instincts when it comes to new job opportunities and how comfortably you’ll be able to commit.

And lastly, a reminder: you are not your chronic illness. You live with it, but that doesn’t have to hold you back from also working with it.


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Nisha Kumar Kulkarni profile image

Nisha Kumar Kulkarni

Nisha Kumar Kulkarni is a writer and creative coach in New York City. She helps women living with chronic illness and mental health challenges to pursue their passion projects without compromising their health.


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