Returning to work following a chronic illness: ‘I find myself feeling paralyzed’

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Advice for navigating transitions in work, life, and relationships from Dr. Loretta L.C. Brady and her team members at BDS Insight.

clarity art

Dear Dr. Brady:

I have been out of the job market for several months until recently due to managing a chronic illness. I have a lot of talent and have a few promising options to pursue. I find myself feeling paralyzed as I put myself out there; I really want this next position to be one that I can flourish in but after my last employer I wonder if any company can be a good fit. I want an environment that values me and my skills, not just the products of these. How do I pick a match that will work for me as I return to full-time work?


More than a Job

clarityDear More than a Job,

How wonderful you are returning to work despite your illness. More than 40 percent of Americans suffer from at least one chronic condition. While their severity and visibility differ, your letter suggests that your condition is severe enough to have impacted your ability to work in the past and that it became noticeable enough to your former employer that you are bringing this experience into the present. Understandably, you are hesitant to select your next professional home fearing this may happen again, or that you won’t be allowed to offer all you have to offer in the way you are most able.

I don’t know your options or your condition, but I know you’re not alone in needing a workplace that appreciates all the talent you and others can provide. So, how to pick the best place when some days it feels like there is no place to shine?

Do your homework. Sites like” and others can give you a glimpse into what other worker’s have experienced in the workplace. But, caveat emptor, you never know the backstory or if the reviews posted reflect the full context. Still, some insight is a start. Your best resource for what the culture of an organization is rests with those you may know who already or recently worked there.

Check your connections to see who knows something about the company and its history of including workers with chronic illness. If you are a member of a specific industry association it is also a great idea to check with them to see if they have any resources on chronic illness and the industry, tips for communicating with bosses, or lists of employers who have been recognized for inclusion in the industry.

Ask questions. On interviews, ask hiring managers to give examples of the workplace flexibility that the company offers its workers. Ask about the ways they partner with their health insurer to promote wellness in the workplace. Inquire with them the ways they see their workplace fitting people with non-conventional backgrounds or special needs. While you may feel what you are seeking is some special request, all companies need to figure out ways of including more people with illness and disability in their workforce. This isn’t because it is “nice;” it’s because there really are not enough workers available to exclude 40 percent of them due to rigid industrial-era notions of work structure.

Think this is just about getting some extra “sick” time? Research is clear that workplace flexibilty is an important bScreen Shot 2015-07-07 at 8.16.40 PMusiness indicator, whether you have to make use of it or not. The “When Work Works” award is given annually to companies in every state that promote the values and policies that make work actually work for their employees. If you are curious what those policies are and how they pay off, the Society for Human Resource Managers produced a toolkit for their managers to help them build the business case for adopting greater flexibility policies.

Get community. Managing a chronic illness requires the skills and stamina of a marathon runner. There will be days when progress is slow and slogging at best, and other days that feel easy and effortless. Connecting with others who have similar experiences can help you set the best pace for your journey, and learn tips to deal with the hard stuff. I have had patients with chronic pain that shared the community connection they made helped them feel less isolated. Pay attention to those members of the community who also work, since they will have a good idea of what, if any, accommodations in the workplace have made their work and illness management regime manageable. WEGO Health is one regional company that partners with patients with a variety of chronic illness to share their stories and you might find their resources helpful as you adjust to your illness and work demands.

Know your rights. The Americans with Disabilities Act protects workers with disabilities from workplace discrimination, but there are limits to who and how it helps. Understanding this law and how it may or may not apply to your workplace or condition can help you prepare any accommodation requests you may have. It is best to make those requests after you have received a job offer since many with disabling conditions report “soft” discrimination if they report their condition during the interview process where they receive no call back or no offer despite otherwise positive evaluations.

Once you decide what is next, don’t shy away from advancing up the ladder. Many people will tell you that the higher your position, the more control over your time you have. It may seem counter intuitive to seek more responsibility when juggling personal and health demands, but many stories confirm this pattern.

Screen Shot 2015-07-07 at 8.11.43 PMSheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In” describes how she advises young women who are considering job promotions and weighing when and if to start a family that the further they can get in their career while they consider parenting, the more options they will have for managing their schedule once they become parents. While a chronic illness is a little different than being a parent (afterall, the kids eventually move out!) there is wisdom in considering this as you weigh your next position.

In the end your decision about where to write the next chapter of your resume will be a leap of faith, but there are many before you that have made the jump and landed well. Once you have a professional home, remember to pace your activities and manage your projects and your self care so that you have the best chance of contributing long into the future. Your experience is important for whichever company you choose to work with, and they benefit from having someone with your skills and perspectives. Knowing this will help you create the work life that will embrace and expand your whole self.

A few other resources:

Workplace Health Practices for Employees with Chronic Disorders 

Managing Chronic Illness at Work, NYT


All right, it’s your turn. I hope you’ll join me in seeking clarity for the shifts you are navigating.

Readers of Manchester Ink Link seek relevant, local, and pragmatic reporting. Carol Robidoux provides layered reports that allow all of us to feel not only part of the story, but partners in resolution. My hope is that this column will serve as a compass for readers seeking clarity in the chaos of their businesses, personal lives, or relationships. From time to time we will have guest columnists offer their insight on a challenge. This information is simply opinion, but I hope you will share your stories so that others can gain clarity for themselves. Questions are powerful. We hope you will share yours here.

Loretta L.C. Brady
Loretta L.C. Brady

Loretta L.C. Brady owns BDS Insight a culture, crisis, and conflict management firm in Manchester.  She is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Saint Anselm College. She, her husband Brian Brady, and their 5 children live and work in Manchester.


The opinions or views expressed in this column are not intended to treat or diagnose; nor are they meant to replace the treatment and care that you may be receiving from a licensed professional, physician or mental health professional. This column, its author, the newspaper and publisher are not responsible for the outcome or results of following any advice in any given situation. You, and only you, are completely responsible for your actions. Dr. Loretta L.C. Brady, clinical and organizational psychologist, offers her and guest columnist opinions on a variety of current event and reader submitted subjects. She and they are expressing personal and professional opinions and views. Manchester Ink Link and Dr. Loretta L.C. Brady are not responsible for the outcome or results of following the advice of this column in any given situation.

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About this Author

Dr. Loretta Brady

Loretta L.C. Brady, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, writer, and Professor of psychology at Saint Anselm College. She received her doctorate from Fordham University and has been a source for the New York Times, USA Today, and the Washington Post on issues related to inclusive workforce development and resilience. Her career includes a Fulbright fellowship, McNair fellowship, international consulting, and entrepreneur advising for over two decades.