How to manage a chronic condition in the workplace

Having a chronic condition can be painful and limiting, not to mention extremely pricey. That expense only gets worse if you lose your job— and possibly your health insurance— as a result of your condition.

That threat is real for millions: About half of all Americans have a chronic condition, and about a quarter of Americans have two, according to research by Rand Corp, a nonprofit global policy and research think tank. If you’re among this group of Americans, don’t worry just yet. You can follow a few simple steps to manage your job without jeopardizing your health.

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A new diagnosis

Before you make any moves after receiving a chronic diagnosis, read up on your condition and know what symptoms might occur in the future. If your symptoms are mild enough that they’re not interfering with work and may not for some time, you don’t need to ask for help yet.

“Live with the condition, read about it, and know as best as you can what’s coming before you talk with your employer,” says Rosalind Joffe, a career coach who exclusively works with professionals suffering from chronic illnesses. “There’s no rush to ask for help before you need it.”

While you’re doing research, it’s also a good idea to learn your rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA “is really a civil rights law protecting people with disabilities, so they can live and work like anyone else. Most chronic conditions are well protected,” says Linda Batiste, a principal consultant with the Job Accommodation Network (JAN). JAN is a service funded by the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy.

Protections under the ADA are broad, Batiste says, and you might never need to invoke them if your employer is willing to work with you. Nevertheless, it’s best to know your rights and responsibilities before you approach your boss about making any accommodations.

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Start a dialogue

The time to talk to your employer is right around the time you’ll need some special accommodations to get your work done. If you’re close with your boss, you might want to disclose your condition sooner, but that’s entirely up to you. Health information is sensitive, and it’s not always easy to ask for help, but asking before things get too difficult is key.

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“If you’re beginning to have problems at work, it’s best to reach out to your employer before it starts impacting your performance and you get disciplined,” Batiste says. “It helps if you know what type of accommodations you need,” she adds.

Accommodations can include anything from time off for treatment to accessible parking or keyboard attachments. To get an idea of reasonable moves your employer can make for your condition, visit the JAN directory of disabilities. Although the ADA doesn’t have a list of conditions that qualify for protections, JAN has official recommendations for a variety of common conditions.

If you aren’t getting anywhere …

There’s always the possibility your employer will be hesitant to make your work life easier, whether due to cost or a misunderstanding of your condition. “At this point, it’s not a bad idea to put in writing what your requests are and your rights under the ADA,” says Batiste.

Include in the letter what you’re asking from your employer and why. It’s possible your employer doesn’t understand your condition and minimizes your needs. “Keep those lines of communication open, and if worse comes to worst, you’ll be glad you had a paper trail,” Batiste says.

After you’ve put your request in writing, if your employer still isn’t making enough changes you think are reasonable, this is the time to seek help. Career coaches like Joffe who specialize in chronic illnesses are rare, but JAN services are free.

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What job seekers should do

There’s no need to tell a prospective employer about a health condition until you’ve been offered the job. “The interview process is in place to see if you’re a good fit for their company,” Joffe says. “Some hiring managers don’t even want to know that information until they’ve decided whether you’re a good candidate or not,” she adds.

“It’s illegal to discriminate based on your health status,” Batiste says, “so there’s no reason to mention it until you’re in the negotiation phase.” At that point she says it’s a good idea to mention any accommodations you’ll need, assuming you believe you can perform the job with them. “Be honest with yourself and the employer,” she advises.

And if you honestly know you can do a good job, be honest about that, too. “Your condition is a part of who you are, but it isn’t all of who you are,” says Joffe, who says her most successful clients know that and are persistent. If you can do great work for an employer, own it and don’t be afraid to ask for a little help.