When my mother had a severe heart attack at age 60, her life was literally turned upside down. Since I was young, she had worked full time and loved doing so. She also frequently suffered with various bouts of fatigue and pain (and no diagnosis) that could put her to bed. Although she never missed work nor stop herself from doing anything because of the fatigue or pain, she lived most of her adult life with unpredictable and relatively debilitating health. From my vantage point, it seemed like she regarded it as a fact of life and spoke about it without self pity or anger.
But the heart attack, requiring surgery and long bed rest, combined with the weight of a life threatening diagnosis, was a turning point. Years later, she confided that when she returned to work, she felt that people treated her differently and she felt she’d lost their respect. This made her very uncomfortable but she didn’t think there was anything she could do about it. At the same time, she got the strong message from her husband, her doctor and some friends, that she was making her health worse by continuing to work. She wasn’t ready to retire but she didn’t see any options. When she left the workforce, she made what felt like the easiest choice available. I can’t say that leaving the workforce prolonged her life. But I do know that she experienced a lot less satisfaction with her life.
For most people, the sudden onset of debilitating health challenges feels similar to being hit with a steamroller. Even those who are familiar with chronic heath problems. Typically, you don’t have the time, however, to stay down. Work and life responsibilities are demanding you keep going.
The fact is that few of us have the skills or preparation to integrate difficult health into our lives. We are even less prepared for how others will respond to it. It is probably the single biggest issue that comes up for my clients. Ironically, it is a relatively straightforward issue to address.
Recently, a reporter for The Daily Muse asked for my thoughts about this (How to Handle a Major Health Issue at Work). Her article makes valuable points and I urge you to read it if you’ or someone you know is facing this.
The bottom line is that there is a minefield you want to avoid: the trap of thinking that you can do this alone. Health challenges, and especially chronic ones, are a significant setback. It’s admirable to want to be positive and intend to keep living your life as you’ve always done. But it’s rarely easy or straightforward and it often requires a different way of viewing your life and your interactions with others.
I explore the challenges of living with illness and working in detail in both my book (Women, Work and Autoimmune Disease: Keep Working Girlfriend) and my Career Thrive Booklets. My mother wasn’t the only person who left the workforce before she was ready because she couldn’t figure out how to manage her health and other people’s responses to it. If you’re struggling with unpredictable/debilitating health and challenged by how to manage this at work, give yourself a gift. Take the time, devote your resources, and spend what it takes to integrate difficult health into your life so you can continue to create the successes that allow you to thrive .