How to Keep Your Job When You Become Ill


by Monica Steinisch

Many employees would say that, even under the best of circumstances, showing up on time every day and giving 110% to a job can be a challenge. For employees living with chronic illnesses such as Parkinson's disease, MS, or cancer, the average workday is made even more difficult by the demands of managing their condition.

According to the Partnership for Solutions, an initiative to improve the quality of life for those who live with chronic illness, 41% of working adults age 20   65 have at least one chronic condition (a medical problem that lasts a year or longer, limits what a person can do, and requires ongoing care). For employees who need   or want   to work, the inevitable question is: How can I hang on to my job?


First, the federal American with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers with 15 or more employees to make a "reasonable accommocation" for a disabled worker as long as it does not present an "undue hardship" to the company and the employee can perform the job's essential functions. Reasonable accommodation can cover everything from allowing an employee time off for medical appointments to arranging for work to be done at home.

Under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), companies with 50 or more workers must provide eligible employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave during any 12-month period to deal with the birth or adoption of a child, their own illness, or that of a family member (child, spouse, or parents), without fear of losing their job or medical insurance.


To tell or not to tell: On one hand, you may fear that disclosing a chronic illness will be bad for your career, assuming that your employer will favor healthy workers over ill ones. On the other hand, by not disclosing your illness you lose out on any protection, accommodation, and time off provided under the ADA and FMLA. And co-workers left in the dark about your condition may resent being asked to pick up extra work without understanding the reason.

According to Rebecca Hastings, manager of the Society for Human Resource Management information center, whether or not employees should disclose "will really depend upon their work environment. Some people who work for companies that encourage close employee relations feel very comfortable being open about their situation, others feel they need to really watch what they say and do."

Rosalind Joffe, founder of Boston-based, coaches people with chronic illnesses on how to survive and thrive in the workplace. Joffe, who herself has lived and worked with chronic illness for 25 years, advises being "as public as you need to be and as private as you want to be."


Approach your boss with as much professionalism as you would any other work-related discussion.
Wait until you know what kind of accommodation to request (time off, more frequent breaks, permission to work at home, a more ergonomic work station, and so forth) so you can talk specifics.
Present solutions that show your employer you have put serious thought into maintaining the quality of your work and minimizing workplace disruptions.
Reassure your supervisor by explaining how you've successfully managed your condition in the past and what you're doing now to keep symptoms under control.
Always have work with you so you are able to be productive even when you can't make it to the office.
Recognize supervisors and co-workers when they help and support you.

There was a time when the diagnosis of a chronic illness would mean an end to full-time employment. Thanks to improved medicines and treatments as well as supportive laws and a more enlightened attitude, it's very possible for employees with long-term ailments to adapt and succeed in the workplace. Examine your situation and, if your goal is to keep your job, create a plan that will allow you to do just that.

© 2009 Credit Union National Association. Reprinted with permission and adapted from a longer article published by Home & Family Finance Resource Center.


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