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How to Balance School or Work with a Chronic Illness

The transcript can be found under the video.

In today’s video, I'll be talking about how to manage school or work responsibilities alongside a chronic illness.

No matter if you are a student or already a working professional, there are a lot of responsibilities that come with that. If you're a student, you're trying to balance your symptoms, homework, extracurricular activities, a social life, self-care, and doctor appointments. It's a lot.

As a working professional, you have to deal with the hours you put in at work, plus the overtime that happens at many workplaces, as well as striving to advance your career, reaching goals, prioritizing expectations, and managing your symptoms. It can become overwhelming.

So what can be done to simplify all this as much as possible? Feel as if things are flowing more smoothly and that your career/school work is not in a tug of war with you taking care of yourself?

I'll be sharing a few tips on exactly how to do that.

Tell people about your illness

This is one of the hardest things for people to do. I didn’t want people to think that I'm weak or that I'm making excuses. And when I didn’t have a diagnosis it was really tough because I wasn’t sure exactly what I was asking for. With having these conversations I've noticed that people weren’t really interested in exactly what health problem I had but they wanted to know how it would affect my work.

Open and honest communication is necessary, but setting realistic expectations and boundaries is even more important. It also helps since people will understand when there are emergencies. I didn't have to waste any more spoons attempting to explain what was going on when I experienced really bad flare-ups and requested a sick day.

People were more or less understanding because I had previously communicated with them, and they also recognized that I would make up my work as soon as I felt well maybe later that day or if not the following weekend, etc.

This works with a boss or even with a professor. You can use this chance to brainstorm together. It's always better to do so before a flare-up hits than right in the middle of one. So don’t hold off too long on this conversation.

Create a support network

Is there someone at school that can take notes for you or someone at work that you can confide in? At work, I had a few people that knew more intimately about my condition. They could tell when I wasn't feeling well by my expression, and it felt great to be supported. They stood up for me as well. I also had someone to vent to and which was beneficial at times. When people are unaware of what is going on, they can feel isolated.

Depending on what country you're watching from, that's why I can't be too specific. If you're in school, reach out to the appropriate center for help. A center for disabled students can be found at several colleges. They can help with making the appropriate accommodations.

In the US, there's something called a 504 Plan. Whether you're in high school or university, your school may have a similar disability plan that will assist you. There are also accommodations offered in many workplaces. People are often more friendly and welcoming than we give them credit for.

Know your surroundings

What quiet places can you go and be alone if you're not feeling well?

One of my previous jobs had these little private workstations. I'd go in, close the door, and take a deep breath. A place where you can lay down and put your feet up is ideal, but a quiet little area will do if impossible. Bathrooms can always be a good last resort in universities and busier workplaces. Find somewhere you can go when you aren't feeling well.

With that, figure out an exit plan. In school, part of my accommodations plan was that I requested to sit as close to the exit as possible so that when I wasn’t feeling well I could quickly leave the classroom. At work, I also had a similar arrangement. I sat in a slightly more secluded area.

Could your surroundings be online? Is there a way to ask for online options? At my university, I tried to take as many online courses as possible as I got to eliminate the fatigue of getting ready and getting to class. This was years before Covid, so now there’s more flexibility with this.

Set Boundaries

Similar to how you put on your own oxygen mask first before helping others, the same thing goes here. You're no good to anyone if you don't look after yourself.

So, what exactly does this imply? It entails establishing appropriate boundaries and saying no when necessary. This, I believe, is the most important lesson that chronic illness teaches us. Many people have problems setting boundaries, so chronic illness helps with that.

A large number of your classmates may be attending a party. Then there's need to get up really early the next day. There may be moments when you want to do something fun but know it will result in a flare-up. Then it's a matter of judging whether or not it's worth a flare-up.

I'm not suggesting that you fully isolate yourself and stop doing anything. However, filter out what you actually want to do and don't feel obligated. Many of us feel the need to say yes to activities we don't want to do.

At work, it might look like setting boundaries for working hours. I used to work at a place where late nights were really common. But since my co-workers were working such long hours, they would spend hours socializing. I knew that I couldn't work past 8 pm because otherwise, I would feel terrible the following day, which was non-negotiable. I would take shorter breaks socializing throughout the day to get my work done.

As hard as it sounds, don't compare yourself to others. We each have our own difficulties, and we cannot fully know what others are going through. Put yourself and your self-care first.

Prioritize Self-care

Structure in days or moments of self-care. When I was at university, I made my schedule to have each Wednesday off. On most Wednesdays, I would go to physical therapy, but that's all I really did. It was such a great midpoint throughout the week to thoroughly rest and get ready for the rest of the week. If you're working, then can you structure your week so that Saturday or a weekday, you're not doing anything except resting or painting or being in nature, taking a bubble bath, and so on.

Lastly, have an honest conversation with yourself. If you don't feel supported at your school, is there a way that people can better help you? If not, is there a way to transfer so that you cope better? Due to health reasons, I had to take a semester off in high school, and although I felt so terrible and guilty for having needed that, I still graduated on time. Looking back, it doesn't make a difference at all. Same with a job.

Is the job you have the best for your health? If not, what can you do? How can you use your existing skillset to find something new that's better suited to your physical limitations? I haven't had personal experience with these resources (listed below video), but job portals and nonprofits help those with disabilities find jobs. It's becoming more and more possible. Covid has also opened the door for employers to be more flexible.

With this new shift in working comes new flexibility and understanding. Times are changing, and it's getting easier to work or go to school and manage a chronic illness. Not only with the tips I have shared but also due to wonderful organizations popping up to help people and social change.

What tweaks have you made to your school or work routine and how has it helped you?

Let me know in the comments below.


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