Working 9-5 With Severe Asthma

“It is easier to manage work, than it is to manage chronic illness.” – John Bradley

Asthma in the workplace is never an easy topic. As a person who was not shouting asthma diagnosis from the rooftops, and certainly not at the office, I have endured my fair share of stealth inhaler taking, sick days and office gossip. There was even an incident where I had to pretend that I was looking for something in a supply closet because I was so out of breath that I could not make it back to my desk. This incident was a learning lesson that I do not recommend learning the hard way. Colleagues should not have to drive you the ER.

I recently had the pleasure of attending a talk by John Bradley. John is a patient advocate and guru on chronic illness in the workplace. The similarities in our experiences, resonated with me. Here are some general guidelines.

Depending on the severity of your disease, your experiences will likely differ from mine. I went through a significant period of exacerbation where getting through the work day was a mighty feat. I recently heard a comment to describe the situation as “your work day takes everything out of you, that by the end of the day there is nothing left in the tank”. “That was certainly true for myself. I was never a napper but now I generally get 6 good hours out of a day before I need to recharge. The way that I made this work with my 9-5 job was to move towards a split day and a flexible schedule. It took some negotiating and working with my employers on my accommodation needs. These needs are mostly covered under “duty to accommodate.” The realities of duty to accommodate or the employers rebuttal “within reason” or without causing undue “hardships” to your employer are tricky waters to negotiate. I was extremely fortunate that my employer was very understanding and I approached it from an attitude that I could do everything in my portfolio, however that I might need to do some things differently. It did take some finessing. Only disclose information about your asthma within the legal or human rights government parameters, or information that will help you achieve your health and career goals. While you may gain empathy from telling employers or colleagues about how bad your symptoms are. It is not likely going to help you be seen as a good employee, and not a sick person. Employer flexibilities will vary. Be proactive on, how you will get your work done while balancing your asthma. I cannot stress enough that you should have a plan for how you are going to handle this. You need to demonstrate that you are a good be an employee first and a patient second.

The most challenging part is dealing with an illness that is episodic. Many of my days are good, I don’t even think about my crappy lungs and then other days, I am being smacked in the face by it. The best thing is to have a plan, can you work from home that day or is it a day that you need to take a sick or personal day?

John Bradley breaks down the process as understanding the following in two main categories. The first category is what you need to understand about your illness.

  1. It wasn’t going away
  2. Juggling your illness can sometimes be a full-time job, in addition to your job or career. You will need to juggle many things at one.
  3. Identifying a career path where you can succeed at being employed and managing  your illness.
  4. Being successful at being ill
  5.  The only certainty, is uncertainty

The second concept he discusses is, what do you do once you have sorted out the above considerations.

  1. Being ill vs knowing you are ill. There is a difference between being ill and having an outlook on your illness that you are still productive.
  2. Having a career/Health strategy. Understand where you want your career and health to go. Identify your priorities for both and make a plan to achieve those goals.
  3. Putting your strategy in action. This the management strategy that you determined in step 2.
  4. Sharing information with your employers. Be strategic. Only share what helps support your career/health strategy. You want to be seen as a good productive employee.
  5. Understanding what constitute success. Is success for you managing your full time job and severe asthma? Is it having a  focus on health and considering part time work instead?

There can be some stress involved in developing work strategies. However, once you have them sorted out, you may find that you are less stressed about that component and can keep things in balance.

I would love to hear what your strategies are for managing your asthma in the workplace.

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