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Coping with Invisible Illnesses in the Workplace

I don’t know about you, but I’ve lost out on several professional opportunities because of my physical and mental states. Between bathroom breaks, joint and muscle pain (including a fun case of tendinitis), and a roller-coaster of mental stability, my resume reads like a game of workplace hopscotch. Ultimately, when looking for work I often have to think about not only my capabilities to meet job requirements, but also how well I will be able to control/deal with my physical ailments. To be honest, it’s exhausting. As I recover from being recently laid off (long story short: I called in sick with a migraine which quickly escalated to being let go due to “cutbacks” and time to deal with, what my employer referred to as, my “issues”) I remember this tedious, mind-numbing process and think back to my time in the workplace…

To Share, or Not to Share: The Problem of Disclosure

As people who live with IBS and other invisible illnesses, we are constantly struck with the dilemma of disclosure, especially within the workplace. Do we tell our superiors? Do we share our horror stories with coworkers and colleagues? Who can we trust to not judge us? How can we know that we will not be stigmatized? These are a few of the questions that run through our minds. It is what Margaret H. Vickers calls the ‘damned if they do, damned if they do not’ syndrome. If we share our illnesses we risk being discriminated against, but if we don’t we risk further mental stress and misunderstanding. There’s almost nothing more disheartening than being considered lazy or unproductive in the workplace when struggling with illness.

I know, first-hand, how traumatizing it can be to put your heart and soul into a company you believed in, only to be pegged as an irresponsible or unreliable employee due to my “issues.”  It is because of these experiences that I felt the need to look into the connection between invisible illnesses and the workplace.

Being Absent Physically or Mentally

There is an interesting discussion in some academic fields regarding productivity and invisible illnesses in the workplace. Presenteeism -considered productivity loss resulting from real health problems, wherein an employee is ‘present’ physically but not mentally -provides a rather topical and interesting starting point for this conversation. According to Paul Hemp, author of “Presenteeism: At work -But Out of It,” presenteeism can occur from illnesses such as, allergies, migraines, IBS, depression or anxiety, and acid re-flux and has the potential to cut productivity by one-third or more! So, I ask myself, what is better: calling in sick or showing up and hindering the overall success of the company?

Of course, the issue at hand can be much bigger and more serious than this, but considering the notion of presenteeism versus absenteeism, which research suggests does not affect productivity nearly as much, relativity seems rather moot. Ultimately, the company will lose more money to employ someone who is struggling to be present than it will to allow them to take a day off or, if possible, work from home. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to acknowledge that invisible illnesses can impede concentration and be incredibly distracting in the workplace. This is not to say that those of us with said illnesses are the odd-one-out; on the contrary, we are the only ones who seem to understand the bigger picture. We understand how much work still needs to be done, how much research needs to be completed, in order to allow for equal and accessible opportunities for everyone. We were the first ones to say that we needed a ‘mental health day.’ We worked our butts off to get where we are, while dealing with a world of hurt. We got it. We get it.

Stop Judging, Start Living

When we evaluate ourselves in light of our illnesses we lose sight of the bigger picture; we judge rather than reflect, we fall behind rather than pursue our dreams, and we suffer in silence rather than share our experiences. We lose out. Moral of the story: you are not your illness but knowing your limitations/abilities and goals allows you to find the right place for you. What is perhaps most important to remember is that you are also not responsible for your company/employer’s lack of education or compassion. It’s hard to get fired, laid off, or forced to quit due to your invisible illnesses -in fact, it sucks, but are you better off without them? Is this the case of welcomed ‘door closing/opening’ cliche? For me, it was.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The IrritableBowelSyndrome.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

  1. Hemp, Paul. Presenteeism: At Work -But Out of It. Harvard Business Review: HBR At Large (October 2004): 1-9.
  2. Vickers, Margaret H.  "Life at work with “invisible” chronic illness (ICI): the “unseen”, unspoken, unrecognized dilemma of disclosure", Journal of Workplace Learning, Vol. 9 Issue: 7 (1997): 240-252.

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