25 Successful Ways to Have a Career with a Chronic Illness
Living with a chronic illness means that each day is full of the unknown. Yes, you may have plans or expectations for the day, but that can all change in an instant with a flare of a symptom, or worse, symptoms. Throw a career into the equation, and there’s a real problem to figure out. Is it possible to work, at home or at the office, when the days are unexpected? How can one be successful in a career with a chronic illness? And how does your professional self-care impact a career?
If you would have told me three years ago that I would some day have a successful website, be writing for various companies including an international magazine The Fibromyalgia Magazine, I would not have believed you. I would not have thought it possible to accomplish much of anything with the condition and symptoms I was experiencing at the time. Getting through a typical day with the daily demands of my family was more than enough, much less any kind of additional work.
Yes, I did complete my bachelor’s degree and much of my master’s degree, but that was under different circumstances and before I was diagnosed. Doctors told me my pains were normal, and that my daily struggles were just a part of motherhood. Because I didn’t want to seem like a complainer or seeking special treatment, I hid my pain and suffering through the multiple jobs and various classes. I dove into my studies, work, and daily family life like a “normal” person. It wasn’t easy, but I made it, and I accomplished more than I thought possible.
Even now I ponder whether I put my body through more harm than good.
Once I did receive a diagnosis after reaching my mental limit of pain, I realized how much more pain I put my body through by not listening to it. Not taking the cues to rest, staying up all night to study or avoiding the foods that upset my stomach only damaged my body further. I vowed to no longer neglect my body. This is the one body God blessed me with, broken and all, and I was not going to abuse it any longer. Things changed.
That was the point I decided to start this blog, Being Fibro Mom. I wanted others to know they are not alone in their illness, there are others out there, and many of us are parents of some sort. We have goals and aspirations, and we don’t need to put those dreams on hold because we living with a chronic illness. We want to do more than just survive fibromyalgia – we want to thrive in our lives. Hence my tagline, “helping fibro sufferers become fibro thrivers”. However, if I was going to do this, I needed to setup a successful environment.
It has been trial and error for the last few years in order to find the best professional self-care for my body, but in the last six months I have found some effective methods. There still needs to be some fine tuning for changing of the seasons such as summer time and school year, but for the most part it’s successful.
Here are more than 25 effective ways I practice professional self-care in order to be successful in a career with a chronic illness.
1. Take meal breaks
I had a habit of eating most of my meals in front of the computer in my office while I worked. Typing would only break in order to quickly shove a forkful of food in my mouth. (Okay, maybe not a forkful because the easiest meal to have at my desk was a sandwich.) This was one of the first bad habits I nixed. Now, I take all meal breaks entirely away from my office. I sit at the dining room table with my husband and/or kids for each meal. I do not discuss my work which keeps the conversation light and humorous.
2. Eat healthy meals and snacks
Grabbing a bit of chocolate or drinking a soda may seem the best afternoon pick-me-up, but it only does your body more harm than good. The crash that follows that burst of energy leaves you feeling more tired than before eating or drinking it. Instead, I sip on herbal teas that contain herbs to naturally boost energy or eat natural energy boosting foods. And not just in the afternoons when I feel the most sluggish. In order to stay ahead of the slump, I regularly incorporate these foods and teas throughout my days. I do still feel tired in the afternoons especially after a day of errands or writing all day, but it’s not nearly as bad.
I had a bad habit of clicking on every notification. Each click led to another click to yet another click. Next thing I know, it’s thirty minutes later on Facebook or Pinterest (pins are a weakness for me – aren’t they effective at drawing you in?) with no task accomplished. Now, I turn off all notifications while working in order to better concentrate on the task at hand. Distractions include cell phone notifications, social media networks, television, and any other interruption that will disrupt the flow of thinking. Focus on one task at a time, and stop all other activities. Turn off the wi-fi if working offline.
If possible, use reusable, silicone ear plugs to cut out background noise.
4. Stretch, Move
Taking regular breaks is essential to prevent body stiffness and achy joints. My husband and I walk in the garden to check on our plants if the weather permits. Stretching out on the couch or floor feels great on my back and legs. Doing restorative yoga in small chunks is also beneficial to the body when sitting all day. The Washington Post published an article a couple of years ago about The Health Hazards of Sitting which also contains simple exercises to do to prevent these harmful effects. Who knew that sitting could do so much damage to various parts of the body such as the heart and brain?
Having proper lumbar support also improves back support.
5. Healthy Doses
Healthy doses is a collection of inspiring quotes in order to motivate you, and can bring mindfulness, optimism, gratitude, love, or humor to your day. The feature I like about it is that the app allows you to save the daily quip to your personal log for future re-reading. One of my personal favorites is the quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson:
Healthy doses is a tool on the Health Storyline app. The Health Storyline app is a FREE app created by Self Care Catalysts, and was created in order for patients to become more empowered and better advocates for their own health. To get to the daily healthy doses:
- From the home page of the Health Storyline app, select “Healthy Doses”.
- Choose which type of motivation is needed – gratitude, optimism, love, funny, or mindfulness.
- Once selected, choose to save it or not. To save, click ‘save it’.
- If you choose to save it, it will be saved in your Healthy Doses History. From here, you can access all the ones in the past using the orange arrows by the date near the top of the page, and comment any thoughts if you’d like.
6. Set a work schedule
And stick to it! This is the most difficult of all the habits to change. Notice I use ‘is’ because I’m still working on it. Ideally, I want to work Monday to Friday, 7 am to 4 pm similar to being at an office. When the kids are at school, I’m able to focus on my work and have it completed by the time they get home from school. I can then focus on my children, dinner, homework or other family related tasks without the worry of work.
During the school year, this goal is more realistic. The summer time is a whole other story (I’ll let you know when I get it figured out! And if you have any advise, please let me know.)
7. Good sleep hygiene
Along with setting a work schedule, there needs to be a sleep schedule. Sleep is hard to come by with a chronic illness, I know, but setting hours to be in bed will make sleep come easier. Read more about the fibromyalgia sleep-wake cycle as well as 13 tips for quality sleep.
Saying ‘no’ was hard for me to learn in the early stages of being diagnosed with fibromyalgia. I’m such a ‘yes’ person no matter how big or impossible the task may be. Being an Aries with a type A personality makes me a problem solver by default. If there’s a problem, no matter mine or a stranger’s, I’m going to worry over it until I solve it. That’s just how I am. Was, anyways.
I’ve learned the hard way that it’s not realistic for me to always say ‘yes’. Saying yes obligates me, my time (my time is more precious to me than money), and worse still, it stresses my body. Stress + Fibro = flare = no fun.
When asked to do something, no matter how big or small it may be, I consider my resources – physical, emotional, mental, financial, spiritual. Then I weigh that effect on those resources in order to reach my yes or no answer. Saying no doesn’t make me a bad person or unreliable. In fact, it makes me a better decision maker resulting in a dependable resource for myself, family, and others.
Learn how to make The Best Yes
9. Know your deadlines
When you have made an obligation with anyone, know the tasks’ requirements, and most importantly, any deadlines associated with the task. Mark it on a calendar with several reminders leading up to those deadlines. If possible, break the assignment into more manageable chunks and set mini deadlines for those chunks. This makes the task more realistic and not so overwhelming. And remember – there’s no penalty for completing it early and meeting the deadline ahead of schedule.
10. Listen to your body
Taking cues from your body will limit flares or feelings of anxiety. If you notice your heart rate increasing, a dull pain becoming more pronounced, or your joints becoming stiff, take action sooner rather than later. Ignoring these signs can trigger a migraine or bring on a flare in symptoms leaving you out of work for a period of time; thus becoming counter-productive.
11. Set a timer
When working, time can move faster than you notice. To prevent time from slipping away from you, set a timer for each task. This will help you stay on track and meet any deadlines on time. Knowing your biggest time suckers is important, too. For me, Facebook and Pinterest are my biggest time suckers. I like interacting with my Fibro Parenting group and reading all pinned articles I can about fibromyalgia. One hour can zip by in no time!
Setting a small desk timer helps me stay on track. I usually set it for fifteen minutes for each small task, and immediately move on once the time is up. Having a timer keeps me focused and prioritizes the needs of each task. Basically, a timer makes me more efficient with my time.
Getting a cute kitchen timer keeps the mood light and more entertaining like this pineapple timer.
12. Keep a journal
Keeping a journal is a way to release stress. Recording your feelings allows you to release any pinned up emotions you may not be aware you are carrying around. A journal will help track your flares and what triggers those flares. Triggers could be your work load, outside stressors, or level of activity. Whether it’s a pain journal, emotional journal, or the journal tool through the Healthy Storylines app by Self Care Catalysts, keeping a journal is an effective method of healing. Either way, it’s a way for you to express yourself.
To use the Health Storyline My Journal tool:
- Select ‘My Journal’ from the home page of the app.
- Select which topic you’d like to use for the journal entry, then type the entry in the ‘Entry’ box. Select the privacy of the entry using the block box ‘Who can view this story’ in the bottom left. To submit the entry, click ‘Add to journal’.
- Review all journal entries by date using the orange arrows near the top of the page. If you’d like to comment on an entry, select the entry from the list then click ‘Click on a response to leave a comment’.
- Leave a comment then click ‘comment’ to submit it.
13. Stay connected with others
Staying connected with others in your niche not only forms future potential networking, but enables thinking outside the box and boosts socializing moods. No matter how great and awesome we think we are (and I AM pretty awesome), we could always use improvement in some way, shape, or form. What better way to make improvements than connecting with others in your same field? Remember – stay on task with a timer (refer to number 11).
14. Stay hydrated
It’s so easy to loose track of time, but it’s also easy to loose track of staying hydrated. Staying hydrated is crucial to healing and thinking. Most of us are already dehydrated which is why we feel tired and can’t focus properly. There are many more reasons to stay hydrated, but bottom line – feed your energy tanks with water and proper nutrition to feel energized and work optimally.
To help stay hydrated, get a water bottle with ounces marked to track your water intake…
15. Make a to-do list
Throughout each work day, I come across tasks that I need to complete. Some of them are important and others are not as important, but nonetheless they all need to be completed at some point. Instead of completing the tasks as they arise, I track them on an ongoing list pinned to my bulletin board next to my desk. At the end of each day, I make a to-do list for the following work day.
The next day’s daily to-do list consists of tasks I did not complete that current day, and items from the ongoing list.This allows me to stay on track, and keeps me focused.
Stay on track with inexpensive to-do lists like these perforated pads.
16. Prioritize your to-do list
Regardless of my symptoms each morning, I prioritize my daily to-do list. I get the most important tasks done first leaving the less important ones for later in the day. Sorting the tasks in this manner allows me to get the work completed in case something unexpected arises later in the day (errand, appointment, flare).
17. Keep calendar in view
I use two types of calendars – family and work. My family calendar is a large at-a-glance monthly calendar located in the kitchen, and tracks appointments and other family related news. Even though it is a family calendar, I still place my work deadlines on it because it reiterates these deadlines, and helps me to remember them.
My work calendar consists of individual monthly calendars that are regular 8 1/2″ x 11″ sheets of paper. I use a pencil to track published posts (past and upcoming), deadlines, and regular weekly tasks such as weekly newsletter publishing days, etc. I use the free printable calendar from i heart naptime.
18. Daily moods
Knowing, or becoming aware of, your daily moods and how they relate to work is best when setting a schedule or knowing the best times of the day/week to work. The best way to track your moods is to use the Daily Moods tool in the Health Storylines app created by Self Care Catalysts. Your moods can be tracked over time and can be viewed in the history section of the app.
Using the Daily Moods tool along with My Journal (see above for further details) will help you pinpoint what caused your moods to be up or down. Maybe working in the mornings would be better than working in the evenings for you because you are better rested and overall in better spirits. The evenings may be better because you are slow to get going in the mornings. Either way, the Daily Moods together with the My Journal tool will help determine the best schedule for you and your professional self-care.
To use the Health Storyline Daily Moods tool:
- Select ‘Daily Moods’ from the home page of the app.
- Select your current mood, then type the reason for the mood in the box. If you are uncertain for your current mood, simply write “I don’t know.” Going back at a later time, when checked against a journal entry for that particular day, may reveal the reason of that mood.
- Review all moods by date using the orange arrows near the top of the page. The moods can be reviewed by weekly templates. If you’d like to comment on an entry, select the entry from the list then click ‘Click on a response to leave a comment’.
- Leave a comment then click ‘comment’ to submit it.
19. Use a diffuser
A few weeks ago, a neighbour helped me understand essential oils, and how they have helped her get relief from her symptoms. She has fibromyalgia along with a litany of other ailments, and essential oils along with prescribed medications have helped her better cope with her variety of symptoms. Since the introduction of essential oils, I have used them extensively and they have helped with moods, nagging symptoms, and alertness.
I currently use a diffuser in my office, and drop in calming blends for focus and body aches. I can switch out the blends on a daily basis depending on my mood or ailment I’m experiencing that morning. It doesn’t have an overwhelming scent, and it creates a peaceful aroma that calms my entire body and mind. It’s a necessity for me. The best part is that it does not use heat and does not add humidity to the air.
There are various diffusers available, but the one I use is a rechargeable diffuser with seven ambient lights and four timer settings (with auto shutoff). I was able to get this amazing set for only a few dollars through SnagShout.
20. Play soothing music
I always play classical music in the background while I work. Listening to classical music can boost cognitive function, and has been shown to produce a calming effect (source: How does the brain respond to Classical music? by Clair McAdams).
21. Open door policy
I actually should call this a “closed door policy”. Even though I have windows on my office’s French doors, I keep them closed when I need to be left alone. When they are closed, my husband and kids know that this is the cue to not interrupt. It’s a polite way of saying “not right now” without the interruption of a knock and request.
22. Block off hours for important meetings and appointments
When I’m planning ahead each Friday for the following week, I’m sure to block off any hours needed for important meetings, phone calls, appointments or other obligations. This allows me to plan my work around those blocked times so as not to get behind schedule or miss a deadline.
23. Natural light
I am fortunate enough to have my office facing the Southern light. Most of the day my office is swallowed by sunlight making it bright enough to not need any overhead lights turned on. The abundance of sunlight uplifts my mood and decreases fatigue. Studies have shown that workers exposed to natural light have overall better sleep quality, better sleep efficiency, less sleep disturbances, and increased daytime function (source: Exposure to Natural Light Improves Workplace Performance by Christopher Bergland).
24. Setup your office or workplace for success
According to NeoMam Studios, there is a way to setup your office for success. Using the color purple is ideal for the home office because the color is associated with creativity and wealth. The use of angular lines has shown to reduce tiredness and increase productivity. Also, natural light improves concentration and a desk not facing a wall improves concentration and creativity (pin this infographic to improve all the rooms in your home).
25. Have a Plan B
No matter how well you plan and how many lists you make, there will still be a day where you cannot work. Sometimes getting out of bed for any daily life task can be too much, much less any work tasks. These are the days to have a plan B. Here is my plan B:
It’s okay to give it a rest. It’s okay to not work. Your work will not go anywhere, and can be completed when you are feeling well again. One of the worst things you can do when you are feeling ill is to push through it. It only leaves you feeling more exhausted and cause your symptoms to flare. You will feel better sooner when you rest.
No matter where you work, how you work, or what you do for work, a successful career is possible when living with a chronic illness. Listen to your body, set yourself up for success, and rest when you can. You can do this.