Are you prepared to deal with chronic illness?

I could probably count on one hand the number of sick days I’ve used in my adult life before this year. I figured that would change when I had a baby, either to stay home with a sick kid or because I may get sick more often myself, and I was right. But I was unprepared for dealing with issues of chronic pain and illness.

I’ve had some physical issues this year that have noticeably affected my work. I haven’t had to take any sick time directly because of my illness, but I have had to take so many half days to see doctors trying to diagnose and then treat my issues, and then recently took a few days off following a treatment. And all throughout these months, so much of my time and energy outside of work has gone to dealing with the pain and doctors.

This has given me a great appreciation of what it must be like to work with a chronic illness, something I’d read about but didn’t know very much about. As much as I may have tried to hide it, I have definitely been less productive than I (or my boss) would have liked. I have missed promised deadlines, something that I never do, and finally had to tell my boss what was going on. As always, he’s been very kind and understanding, and I know how lucky I am. I even have a slight advantage (depending on the circumstances) in that my pain and the ways I’ve dealt with it are often visible with an obvious root; it can be extremely difficult for people with invisible illness (think fibromyalgia, depression) to deal with others not understanding or believing that they do in fact have an illness.

Even with a flexible schedule and sympathetic boss, I had to consider how my productivity was going to affect my job moving forward. As a postdoc, I’m expected to be in the most productive phase of my training – no classes to worry about, no teaching duties, just all research all the time! So what does it mean when I’m really not being very productive? For that matter, what is productive enough? Where would I need to draw the line, either because of my productivity or to preserve my own health, and consider taking a medical leave, going on disability, or cutting back my hours?

Then I realized that I had no idea how medical leave or disability insurance worked or what other possibilities were. And a number of reasons make it difficult to look into those things while in the midst of health issues – let alone after a traumatic accident of some sort. Sarcozona over at Tenure She Wrote recently wrote a wonderful post about some of these issues and more, and how to value and support [student] researchers with chronic illness. I think we should all take some time when we’re healthy to learn and think about how to deal when we’re not, for our own health and for times when we’re called upon to help or work with someone else like a student dealing with these issues. Talk to your HR representative, read that part of your employee/student handbook you may have glossed over, look into disability insurance – you never know when you might need the benefits suddenly!

In the meantime, take care of yourself and stay well!


3 responses so far

  • Ria says:

    This is such a relevant post, and it's so rare that someone in our field recognizes the challenges of continuing to work with chronic illness. I hope that you were able to achieve diagnosis and effective treatment. I've struggled with chronic illness that has resulted in many lost work days. I was still as productive as my other colleagues, but it required working extensive hours (when not in the midst of an attack), finding ways to work from home during extended exacerbations of my illness, and continuous efforts to be more efficient. Now, as I manage my own lab, I can see the real benefits to my experience. I try to be understanding of the challenges that people face, whether due to illness, young children (and their illnesses), or just the vagaries of life.

  • Socal dendrite says:

    Ugh, yes... my husband got an unusual form of mono back in January - it took 2 months to even get a diagnosis, so I know what you mean about spending time going to multiple drs appointments. Although he's over the acute phase, it has left him with some chronic fatigue, which has insidious effects. We also have two kids under 3 and he's going up for tenure this year, so it has been... difficult. His colleagues have been pretty understanding so far and his chair delayed the tenure application deadline by 6 months, but I know they can't see the true effects and I worry about the impact his lost productivity and momentum in this vital year will have on his chances of tenure. We were relatively "lucky" in that his chronic fatigue had a clear viral onset so is somewhat easier to explain. As you say, I really feel for those who get it and other hidden illnesses more "out of the blue" and meet with a lack of understanding.

    Sending you best wishes and hoping you feel fully better soon.

  • sweetscience says:

    Thank you for your comments and well wishes, @Ria and @Socal dendrite! I am definitely on the path to recovery. @Socal dendrite, good luck on your husband's tenure decision! That is a promising sign that the chair delayed the application for him.

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