How to Approach Career with Chronic Illness

Career with chronic illness can be difficult to manage. Whether diagnosis interrupts an academic track or forces you to take medical leave, the vision and aspirations you once had can easily get thrown off track or completely eliminated. 

It’s important to first acknowledge this loss, which is always most effective with the guidance of a mental health professional. That said, it is also important to be open to the possibility that this might not be as detrimental to your career as you might think. In today’s society, accommodations can be made in ways not previously available, and with so much moving online, there are opportunities to forge unique paths in the career of your passion. As our society has adapted to the pandemic over the past two months, many industries have found ways to move their systems online providing more flexibility than ever before to employees and even business owners. 

As we discuss some important perspectives on this aspect of living with chronic illness, it’s important to remember that nothing is more important than your health. It isn’t worth powering through your symptoms to try and get the promotion and then be too sick to fill the position. Listen to yourself and trust your body in the process.

Don’t Give Up Just Yet

Having worked with individuals as a patient advocate and an Illness Recovery Coach for two decades, I have seen a variety of circumstances when it comes to career and chronic illness. What I have found is that more often than not, we mistakenly assume that an employer won’t be flexible or willing to accommodate our needs. I have seen dozens of circumstances where employers made extensive accommodations such as allowing flexible hours, offering work from home, even shifting aspects of someone’s role-so that they can still do what they love without extra stress or having to be in situations that might be particularly difficult due to disability. 

One of my clients is a professor at an Ivy League and had significant departmental responsibilities when she was facing a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis (MS). For years she had been saying her workload was too much, but the department had not found a solution. When her health was on the line, she made it clear that her previous request was now a requirement in order for her to continue at all. In a matter of days, the department completely restructured so that she would only have to do the pieces of her job that she most enjoyed. They found a way to delegate all her other responsibilities. While she wouldn’t have minded taking a pay-cut for doing less, her employer didn’t even bring it up and continues to pay her in full.

While many employers can be understanding and I encourage you to seek accommodations, I have also seen confidentiality broken and loopholes used. Employers have many legal obligations to you when facing illness and disability, but it is important to take caution because there are those who don’t handle illness ethically. We all want to believe that especially in a time of global crisis, people will have more compassion, but it’s always best to proceed with caution. Seek legal counsel when sharing your medical information with an employer to make sure that you are protected. 

Be Flexible

“Flexibility is the key to stability.” – John Wooden

“What is malleable is always superior to that which is immovable. This is the principle of controlling things by going along with them, of mastery through adaptation.” – Lao Tzu

When we have our eyes set on something or have already enjoyed success in a particular path, it can be tough to pivot. Pivoting is the mantra of the most successful people of the world. Be open to new ways of pursuing something you love. There are so many ways to contribute your unique gifts and passions to the world. It’s important to be flexible about the how of your career. There are many paths to the same goal, and opportunities are endless. By remaining rigid you will close yourself off to opportunities that could perhaps bring you even more job satisfaction than you previously had. Rigidity is also stressful which is not going to help your symptoms. Staying open-minded and flexible allows you to have eyes wide open to new ideas. 

One of my clients had an extensive and successful career in radio. She thought she loved her job, but her body was getting worse each day-to the point where she could not sit at a desk. Through her healing journey, she discovered that she loved sharing with others what she was learning as she achieved more internal alignment. She became a coach and now says, “I thought I really liked working in radio. I had no idea how unfulfilled I actually was and never would have considered that I had the skills to be a life coach. I love my career today, and feel like I finally found my purpose. The bonus is it’s on my own schedule, which allows me to prioritize my self-care.”

Consider That This Might Better Than You Imagined

“You may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you.” –  Walt Disney

It’s easy to feel like something difficult like a diagnosis is happening “to me.” Consider that this shift in your life could be happening “for you.” Take this opportunity to step back and reflect. Have you been satisfied by your career? Were your aspirations truly your own or were they someone else’s? Have you been wanting to make a change but didn’t know how or to what? You might have to explore an entirely new path that requires some letting go but that leads you to something better than you ever imagined possible. My MS diagnosis has completely shaped my career. I was diagnosed at twelve years old so there had not been much time to envision my dream career yet. But at a young age, I became a public speaker, an advocate, and a CEO and founder of a nonprofit. Decades later, I now run my own business, on my own hours, helping others with chronic illness reduce their symptoms and shift their lives from illness to wellness. Who knows what career I would have had without this diagnosis, but I would never even think twice about it. I’m grateful of my personal experience with career and chronic illness that I can serve others facing similar challenges in such a profound way. 

Be open to unfolding. Diagnosis changes who you are in many ways and career changes with chronic illness. As you discover your new self, your new strengths and even limitations, notice new passions and talents emerge and don’t be afraid to trust them to guide you to a new path. You may just find that you love your new life more than you thought possible. 


By Kaley Zeitouni

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