Chronic illness and disability are more ubiquitous than you may realize: more than 40% of the U.S. population lives with at least one chronic illness and that number is expected to increase to more than 50% this year. And 26% of the U.S. population lives with some form of disability. Given that such a significant portion of the population is affected, it is disquieting that the disabled unemployment rate is nearly triple that of non-disabled unemployment.
Hannah Olson, founder and CEO of Chronically Capable, shared her insights on the misconceptions and challenges people living with chronic illness or disability face while job-hunting, and how they can navigate their search during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Chronically Capable (CC) is a recruitment platform that connects people living with chronic illness or disability to flexible employers. Olson founded the company after she had to leave her first job due to treatment for Lyme Disease that required her to be hooked to an IV for six hours daily.
“Although my ambition and intellect were intact, the physical demands of a traditional workplace environment simply couldn’t co-exist with my life-saving treatment,” Olson says. “Demoralized, I began to worry that there was no place for people like me in the workplace. It wasn’t designed for people who suffer from illness or disability. So, I decided to change that.”
Olson’s mission is to remove the fear and stigma of living with chronic illness or disability from the hiring process. CC creates a tacit understanding between employers and jobseekers: employers who are part of the CC network believe that people living with chronic illness or disability are capable of being productive employees—and jobseekers who use the CC platform can feel secure that participating employers care about their success. Unlike most recruitment platforms, CC doesn’t show applicant profiles to employers.
Misconceptions about employment and chronic illness
It’s a worst kept secret that traditional workplaces have failed the chronic illness and disabled communities. The big question is: why?
“What we’re fighting for—workplace equality—is not something new,” Olson states. “I believe that [employers] have taken so long to adapt because there is still a huge educational component. We need to continue to teach [them] that [the chronic illness and disabled communities are] still just as capable of contributing to the workforce.”
Elevating awareness and education with employers starts with understanding their misconceptions. In conversations with employers, Olson has learned that the two most common fears they have are higher rates of absenteeism and expensive accommodation needs.
“Unfortunately, unlike most disabilities, there isn’t a standard accommodations list for the chronically ill community, as their needs fluctuate,” Olson notes. “The most common accommodation request we see is the need for flexibility. This doesn’t mean that chronically ill people need to work remotely 100% of the time, but it is important that employers allow their employees to leave early for a doctor’s appointment or skip out during their lunch break to get blood drawn.”
Olson suggests that employers have Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) to support chronically ill and disabled employees—as well as to help employers understand how their policies affect these communities.
“After speaking with hundreds of chronically ill individuals over the past year,” Olson says, “I’ve learned that my story is not unique. I’d venture to say that most chronically ill people struggle with asking for support upfront, out of fear. It’s very hard to dig up the courage to share your story with a stranger, [let alone] a potential employer.”
The job hunt
“Not every job is appropriate for someone with a chronic illness or disability,” Olson explains. “That’s why CC focuses on flexible and remote opportunities, including full time, part time, and contract work. Our community’s top backgrounds are communications, IT/computer science, professional services, and sales. Since our community ranges so much based on accommodation needs, I don’t like to say one job type is better than another.”
There is no one-size-fits-all way to overcome the awareness and education gap that employers may have. “There was a lot of fear involved in applying for jobs, because I didn’t want to be judged based on my illness,” Olson recounts. “I had done incredibly well in college and wanted to talk about what I had gained rather than what I had lost.”
The gains that Olson alludes to are the unique skills that you have as a result of your chronic illness or disability. These skills include:
- The ability to adapt and change. Chronic illness and disability force you to adapt to frequent physical, psychological, and medical changes.
- Time management. Your health status may require flexibility, but it also has made you more discerning and focused about how you spend your time.
- Resilience. Changes in your health teach you mental toughness where you’re consistently challenged and need to learn to work through new obstacles.
Without a doubt, the COVID-19 pandemic has triggered anxiety for employers and job seekers. Olson acknowledges that this time is challenging, but it also presents clear opportunities. “Many of the largest and most successful organizations in the world are realizing that to be productive, an employee does not always need to be physically in the office,” Olson says.
“It is possible to increase accessibility and flexibility and still maintain a high-quality work product. These trends present new opportunities for working age individuals with disabilities or chronic illness who have long been left out of the job market.”
For job seekers, those unique skills that have been nurtured from chronic illness or disability are more relevant than ever during this pandemic. “Always speak to those strengths,” Olson advises.
Making accommodation for employees living with chronic illness or disability turns out to be simpler and lower cost than originally thought. “Employers shouldn’t forget that just because their employees are working remotely, that doesn’t mean they [won’t] need accommodations,” Olson reiterates. “Employers should communicate with their employees and continue to check-in regarding accessibility needs. Additionally, they should create opportunities for visibility and allow their employees’ voices to be heard. During this time, there are some policies that employers should have in place to ensure inclusion of the chronically ill and disabled workforce, such as an easily accessible reasonable accommodation process and an available Employee Assistance Program (EAP).”
Own your (health) story
When all is said and done, the most significant question you face may be whether or not to disclose your health status to a current or future employer. This is a deeply personal choice and no one can tell you what to do, but there are things you can do to boost your confidence while you work out how to proceed. Figure out what the right job for you looks like and what accommodations you need to do your best work.
And don’t be ashamed of your illness or disability. Take the time to see what you have learned from your health journey and appreciate how that has shaped you. As Olson says, “Grow confident with your story.”
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.