Living with a Chronic Illness and Working

Living with a Chronic Illness and Working
Thursday, September 21, 2017
Lauren Bombardier Weeks Photo

Growing up, I was never quite sure whether my disease would allow me to work full time. I have lived with the chronic, life-threatening illness called cystic fibrosis (CF) my whole life. This disease that mainly affects the lungs has led to frequent hospitalizations due to lung infections throughout my life, as well as some fatigue, fevers, and a frequent cough that can interrupt my day unexpectedly. Because of this disease, I also face a shortened life expectancy. A blessing and a curse of the disease is that most people can’t tell by looking at me that I have a disability. Not only that, but the unpredictability of the lung infections that come with CF can make it difficult to explain why some days I am as healthy as the next person, and other days I can’t get out of bed.

                Despite the barriers CF tried to place upon me, I persevered. If it wasn’t slowing me down yet, I wouldn’t let it slow me down now. So I went to college and began working full time. After scoring my first job after college, the 40 hour plus schedule each week proved troublesome for my health. Within a few months, I was back in the hospital. Such is the balancing act of cystic fibrosis. With reluctance, I began to realize that the job I had chosen, which required me to be physically present each day, and contributed to a lot of stress mentally, was not the best option for my health.

                If you’ve ever gone to college, you know that finals week tends to be the week when most people get sick, as students who are lacking sleep and are overwhelmed with stress suddenly find themselves too weak to fight off the virus circling through their dorms. Balancing life with CF works in much the same way. Though things like the common cold and bacteria can lead to a lung infection, wearing down your body with things like a stressful work environment or an exhausting workload can weaken the body’s response to the bacteria which is always festering within my lungs. In other words, the stronger my body is, the better I can cope with the toll CF takes on my body, and the more productive I can be at work.

                Realizing that my job at the time was not the ideal environment for staying healthy, I hit the job market for the second time in 2 years. When I found Education Development Center, Inc. (EDC), it felt like the perfect match: a non-profit which brought me back to my passions for social justice; a flexible work environment; as well as an HR team who sought out the best for their employees and who valued a work-life balance. Getting the call that EDC was offering me the job in their Human Resources department was the beginning of my road to good health.

 EDC Logo

                Within a couple of months, I formally requested an accommodation of working from home once every other week. I found that having a day to sleep in, without the 45 minute commute each way, and without the stress and general energy it takes to make it through a work day was just what I needed to maintain a level of energy that allowed me to be both productive and healthy. It was also a place where I felt comfortable disclosing my disability so that on the unpredictable days where I couldn’t get out of bed, my supervisor understood that rest was required if I wanted to get back to work.

                Now, I work with our employees who need accommodations of their own, and I am able to use my own experience to be empathetic to their needs. I believe that, with the right accommodation, workplaces can encourage people with disabilities, whether visible or invisible, to be their most productive selves. I have seen first-hand what working at an organization like EDC has done not only for my health, but also for my ability to contribute in a meaningful way.  I am lucky to have found my match!

                At the Work Without Limits conference, I will be leading a session on Chronic Illness in the workplace. In it, participants will get to experience first-hand the balancing act of living with a chronic illness while working. I hope it will shed some light on the challenges that people with chronic illnesses face and show how the right accommodation makes all the difference.

Register for the Work Without Limits Conference

Raise the bar logo

Register for the Work Without Limits Conference to attend Lauren’s “Chronic Illness and Invisible Disabilities in the Workplace” Breakout Session by clicking here http://raisethebar2017.org/register/ Last day to register is this Friday September 29, 2017 so act now!

Author Bio:

Lauren Bombardier Weeks works in Human Resources at Education Development Center in Waltham, MA. She is also a blogger, speaker, and writer through her website thesowhatlife.com and is working on publishing her first book called "Growing Up Sick: The Secret to Happy Kids" about the way her parents raised her while living with cystic fibrosis, a chronic life-threatening lung condition. She has shared her story with pharmaceutical companies, government representatives, and has been a patient teacher at Harvard Medical School. Through her writing and speaking, Lauren shares her perspective about life with a chronic illness, with the goal of slashing assumptions while advocating for people with invisible disabilities.