Working with IBD: Tips for a Successful Career

Work life balance takes on a whole new meaning when you have chronic illness. Molly Dunham-Friel can attest to that. Diagnosed in 2012 with ulcerative colitis, one year after receiving her undergraduate degree, Molly was forced to begin her professional career with unexpected titles she was just getting accustomed to—IBD and IBS. Molly remains just as ambitious and aspirational as she was prior to her diagnosis, but undoubtedly has experienced common roadblocks that come along with living with chronic health conditions.  While the career detours were not always welcome, the experiences Molly has had over the last nine years blossomed into finding what she is truly passionate about.

This week on Light’s Camera Crohn’s we take a close look at having IBD in the workplace, whether you work in an office or at home.

Quite the Go-Getter

While IBD is unpredictable, one constant in Molly’s life has always been her go-getter attitude. She tells me she’s been known to work multiple jobs since the age of 15.

“I am not very good at slowing down and I get frustrated when anything gets in my way, including being chronically ill. The one professional aspiration that I have always held is my drive to help people in need, the marginalized, the forgotten, the invisible, the ones who truly need my help.”

Since her ulcerative colitis and IBS diagnoses, Molly has worked full-time, while often holding additional part-time jobs. At one point she was working five jobs, simply to pay for her healthcare costs! Molly says life got more complicated and extremely overwhelming once she turned 26 and could no longer be on her parents’ medical insurance

“It was stressful and defeating because now I had added pressure to hold a job that provided me with affordable medical insurance to get the care I need as a chronic illness patient. IBD is extremely expensive to manage due to the medication, procedures, doctors’ visits, labs, you name it, it costs a lot. This felt heavy as a 26-year-old still learning how the world works and how I wanted to make the world a better place.”

Molly has had to leave jobs she enjoyed to go to companies with better benefits, which also came with less satisfaction.

“I have been stuck in jobs solely because I needed the cost controlling benefits the organization offered. I have had to say no or not apply to amazing jobs and organizations because the benefits would not cover my chronic illness needs enough where I could afford it. I feel like my health insurance needs as a chronic illness warrior trump my career aspirations, which feels suffocating and leaves me frustrated. I want to do what brings me joy and not just what brings me healthcare coverage.”

New purpose, new goals

After starting her blog, Better Bellies by Molly, beginning to volunteer with the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation, and connecting with amazing warriors via social media. Molly realized her passion for helping to support the IBD community.

“My goal is to support, educate and empower chronic illness patients, particularly those living with IBD and IBS, so they don’t feel alone, like I did upon my diagnosis. I am also passionate about helping patients feel empowered to advocate for their health. I haven’t figured out how I will turn this into my career, but blogging and social media is a great start!”

Advice for those with chronic illness nervous about working

There is no sugar coating how hard and demanding it is to work full-time on top of the full-time job of managing chronic illness life. Here is Molly’s advice:

  • No job is worth your health. Put your health first whenever you can.
  • Know your rights. IBD and IBS are both conditions listed in the American Disability Act. If you are discriminated against due to your IBD or IBS, speak to someone you trust to fight for your rights. Depending on the organization, employees with disabilities can submit formal paperwork to receive reasonable accommodation, which is any modification or adjustment to a job. Like most things with chronic illness, there is a lot of paperwork involved, but reasonable accommodation is one mechanism to look into in addition to going to HR and asking what other accommodations your employer offers.
  • Who you work for matters. Having an empathetic and compassionate boss and supervisor makes working full-time while chronically ill more enjoyable.
  • Disclose what you wish to disclose when you wish to disclose it. I currently find disclosing my disability status/medical conditions helpful so that my leadership can support me, but it took me six years to get to this level of confidence speaking about my chronic illness life. Give yourself time and grace. I have not always been met with compassion and understanding so follow your intuition and share when you feel ready. I have only held two jobs in the last 10 years where my diagnosis was discussed prior to being hired and onboarded and one of those times it was because my diagnosis related directly to the work and the other was because my advocate work made its way onto my professional resume and after sharing my story online and growing comfortable talking about it.
  • The more flexibility the better! Ask about work life balance ahead of time. It is especially hard to work an 8:30-5 job which a chronic illness because work hours directly conflict with when doctors’ offices are open and operating. Most medical facilities outside of hospitals are not open for routine or diagnostic care on nights and weekends so the more flexibility your work will allow, the better.
  • Follow your passion, even if you must detour. I have had so many career detours due to my health insurance needs and flare-ups, but I have never stopped pursing my passion for helping others, even if that meant starting something of my own outside of my full-time work.
  • Working full time is hard, working fulltime while chronically ill is harder. Juggling work alongside appointments, sick leave, flexible scheduling, and economical health benefits can be overwhelming. These can be hard to find, but as chronic illness patients we are no stranger to doing hard things.

The new perception of working from home

The pandemic has helped companies, organizations, agencies, managers, supervisors, and senior leaders recognize that so much can be accomplished and in many instances that more can be accomplished, by working from home, teleworking more often, and commuting less. It’s not surprising that companies that have pivoted into a more flexible scheduling system will be more likely to retain top talent, including us chronic illness warriors!

“I wish it didn’t take a global pandemic to teach the world that we can work from anywhere, that we can be trusted as employees and that yes more flexibility might actually make us better employees. I think the perception of working from home has drastically shifted and is no longer viewed as an “easy way out” or something that will lead to employee’s “slacking off.” However, I have realized that while many companies and leaders have made this shift, not everyone has and that there is still much room for improvement.”

Working from home benefits patients with IBD and IBS by:

  • Being able to use our own bathrooms, with our preferred toilet paper and easy access. No longer fearing if the bathroom is occupied when the moment hits.
  • Not commuting lowers stress and gives us back the time it takes to travel back and forth each day.
  • Being able to work while feeling ill is easier when in the comfort of your own home, with your blankets, heating pad and supplies to help keep your body as comfortable as possible, while also getting work done. Many times, this would not be possible in an office setting.
  • Leaving the house can be anxiety producing for those with IBD and IBS due to the often very sudden need to use the restroom. Being able to work from home can diminish that fear.
  • Having access and privacy for administering medications throughout the workday is easier done at home.
  • Allowing flexibility to work around doctor appointments, infusions, lab work, procedures, you name it.

Breaching the subject with a boss or superior

Much like the stress surrounding when to tell a love interest about your health conditions, knowing when to the tell a boss you have IBD can be worrisome as well.

Here are Molly’s tips for approaching the subject:

  • Unless an emergency is forcing you to disclose your condition, I recommend sharing when you feel comfortable to do so.
  • Begin by asking if they know what your condition is “Have you ever heard of IBD? Do you know what IBD is?”
  • Based on their answer, follow-up with education and explaining how your condition impacts your life.
  • A good supervisor will ask you how they can support you. Be prepared to ask them for what you need which might be a flexible schedule or understanding that your illness is invisible, and you are in fact a motivated and loyal employee.
  • Sharing is not for everyone, but you might be surprised who else at work is dealing with a chronic illness, bosses included.

IBD Wins in the Working World

*Having bosses who support you personally and professionally lowers stress which supports optimizing mental and physical health.

*Finding ways to unwind—whether it’s exercising, taking Epsom salt baths, or going to therapy.

*Use each professional experience to help shed light on where your passions lie. You’re constantly learning what you like, what you don’t like, and each experience helps to inform the direction your career will take.

*Celebrate all the wins—large and small.

*Be mindful of how your employer handles a hospitalization, flare up, or surgery. It’s telling to see how your work family supports you or doesn’t in times of need. Your health should always be the top priority.

*While chronic illness may hijack where you thought you would be in your career, it may help dictate what you enjoy doing.

“As chronically ill workers we need to voice our needs and push for systems to change so that we can break down barriers, make working more accessible to the chronic illness community, and to obtain and retain talented chronic illness employees.”

Key Takeaways

  • It won’t be easy, but you can do it!
  • Feel empowered to stand up for yourself.
  • You deserve to be accommodated in the workplace and it is not a weakness to have a disability or need special needs.
  • Chronically ill people belong in the workforce.
  • You can still achieve your dreams after diagnosis, they might just look different.
  • Your career path might not go according to plan, and that is ok.
  • Follow your passion and heart whenever possible.
  • Working full time isn’t the answer for everyone.
  • Give yourself grace.
  • No job is worth your health.
  • If a job is making you sicker due to stress, toxic environment, or lack of flexibility, work towards changing that situation.
  • Your aspirations, dreams, goals, and plans will shift over time. Honor where you are and how far you have come!

Connect with Molly

Instagram: @betterbelliesbymolly

Facebook: Better Bellies by Molly

YouTube: Better Bellies by Molly

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