Working With A Chronic Illness

Posted on Category: Career Management
Working With a Chronic Illness

For most working individuals, life can get very stressful when an illness strikes. If this progresses into a chronic illness, it renders you sick for the long run. Working with a chronic illness impacts people of all ages. However, older workers statistically suffer the effects more as their bodies age. This is a particularly tough situation for breadwinners, for whom the option to quit their jobs is simply not on the table.

Regardless of whether your chronic illness manifest itself physically or mentally, it will reduce your ability to perform at peak. Medical appointments, therapy sessions and medication management will all demand your time and focus. On top of this, the added expense of medical bills puts some people in a hapless situation. Just when you need the paycheque most, your body gives up on you and now, you start worrying about becoming redundant. So, how exactly can you navigate the workplace while suffering a chronic illness?

Disability Benefits

When your health fails, the obvious thing to do is to reach out to your healthcare provider to obtain a diagnosis and treatment plan. Become familiar with your annual sick leave entitlements. Members of a union often receive superior sick leave entitlements through collective bargaining agreements. You might need to use these days to the maximum allowable. 

Some employees also receive extended health or disability benefits through work. You will find them very valuable if your doctor recommends a temporary leave of absence to bring your chronic illness under control. Short-term disability benefits generally pay a portion of your salary for 3-6 months and most long-term disability benefits do so for up to 2 years. Qualifying to receive these benefits often present challenges. Insurance providers make the application and appeal processes onerous. This will be frustrating, particularly when you are also fighting an illness. In some cases, you will require legal intervention.

Individuals without workplace health plans should look into government funded options, such as EI Sickness Benefits, to take extended time off from work to manage your health.

Seek Accommodation

Rely on your medical team to help you understand your chronic illness, your coping thresholds and limitations. In addition, pay attention to triggers which aggravate your symptoms. With these in mind, your doctor can craft a work plan, or a return-to-work plan if you have taken time off. It outlines the boundaries within which you should operate at work.

Ontario’s Human Rights Code requires your employer to accommodate your illness when you return from work, albeit on a temporary basis. Presenting them with your work plan will allow them to investigate how much accommodation they can reasonably provide, without it impacting their ability to operate an effective workplace. Examples include a graduated return to full time hours, time off for medical appointments and therapy, modified duties and responsibilities as well as ergonomic modifications of your work environment. Some forward thinking employers go even further and offer retraining and transfers to alternative positions, to retain valuable employees. 

Chronic Illness: Constructive Dismissal

However, this is not always the case. You must remain vigilant of co-workers and managers who will start viewing you as “damaged goods”. Your chronic illness might render you less efficient than before. What used to come easily may now require extra effort and planning. When your illness puts a burden on others, resentment will set in, regardless of what the law states about accommodation. 

Consider this a red flag. Under these circumstances, supervisors and coworkers can put obstacles in your way to ensure you fail, rather than support you to succeed. Constructive Dismissal is a very unattractive by-product of employment relationships turned toxic. This is where your work environment is so bad, it compels you into quitting, unwillingly. Bullying, harassment and discrimination because of your chronic illness is completely illegal. Before you resign, understand your rights by contacting an employment lawyer.

A Support Network

Your illness remains your own business and you are not obliged to divulge it to your employer. However, you also do not want to be perceived as an unproductive employee. The best way to mitigage hostility at work is to build alliances. Shore up a network of support for yourself through skilled diplomacy.

It can start with a candid coversation with someone in authority who you believe will be sympathetic. Ensure your supervisor and the HR department are also kept in the loop in the event tensions arise with co-workers. In addition, proactively arrange check-in meetings with your supervisor to ensure he or she remains satisfied with your performance. Permit them space to offer feedback. 

At the end of the day, your health must remain a priority. Many workers suffering chronic illnesses report being able to get work done, but just not on a rigid schedule. If you know your limitations and create an environment where you are able to ask for help when you require it, you can successfully balance your chronic illness with the demands of your job.


Susan Heim is the president of Equity Career Transition and Outplacement Services, offering personalized coaching services for individuals in their quest for the perfect job and career. Equity also provides cost-effective outplacement services for organizations, large and small, in both the private and public sector.

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