Managing your career whilst living with a hidden illness.
Exclusive Feature: The Leaders of FCM.
Written by Courtney van Schalkwyk
Enjoying the nice view after a long day at work
‘But you look fine?’
‘But You’re always so happy. How could you possibly have a chronic illness ?’
‘I knew someone who had something similar. She cut out carbs and now she is cured!’
‘Have you tried yoga? Maybe that would help’
These are some of the things I hear on a regular basis from innocent souls who don’t understand what it’s like to live with a hidden chronic illness. And I have two. For the most part, I am healthy! And I have come such a long way since I was first diagnosed in 2017.
But it hasn’t been an easy journey. And navigating a corporate career whilst often battling symptoms that are invisible to the naked eye, in and out of doctor's rooms and hospital beds over the years has at times, been difficult to manage and tough on my mental health.
I am often placing a greater deal of pressure on myself to perform and show up to make up for the days I’ve spent with specialists. Which can be a vicious cycle when managing stress goes hand in hand with managing my symptoms.
How to manage an invisible illness in the workplace:
Firstly, be open with your employers about your condition. That hasn’t always been an easy one for me. Health is deeply personal and my condition is complicated and hard for people to understand. For years I held off being completely transparent about my issues for fear of being seen as inadequate for the job. Would they let me travel? Will they think I am a burden? Will my frequent trips to the doctor's office make them think I am less capable than someone else?
All of these thoughts have been a major point of anxiety for me. But I have been so blessed to work with leaders who always showed kindness and compassion towards me when I told them what I was going through. It has always made things easier and better by being totally transparent. Hiding your reasons for being off work only manifests more anxiety and being able to be totally honest with zero judgement has really helped me to feel more ‘normal’ in my pursuit of getting back to some sort of normal again.
I have also learnt to really listen to my body and how stress levels impact my health. I take breaks when I need them and opt to work from home on days I feel more comfortable doing so.
What employers can do to help:
Be supportive and flexible! You don’t need to understand everything about someone’s health to be able to show compassion. You cannot control their physical health, but you can contribute directly to their mental well-being. Make sure it’s a positive contribution. They may be dealing with more than you are aware and hiding symptoms from you.
Managing hidden illnesses on the road
If you are travelling with a work colleague, be open with them about your condition. They may see you taking medication, or you may fall Ill whilst on the trip. Having someone there who knows what you are going through can help them show support and be an advocate for you should you need to see a doctor.
Always carry a folder of your medical history. Have everything together in one place that highlights your emergency contacts, your key local doctors’ details and all referral letters detailing your history and current state. This is crucial! And it really helps me feel more in control when leaving my comfort zone of known doctors and support advocates.
Have good travel insurance. Finding insurance that covers existing medical issues isn’t always easy. But they do exist! I encourage you to keep searching until you find one. One of the best ways to settle your anxieties is knowing you can seek medical attention abroad without worrying about exorbitant medical bills.
Doing something exciting on a day off from work
How FCM’s helped me manage my hidden illness:
FCM already encourages a flexible work environment. So, this basic company culture already made it easier for me to manage my time and specialist appointments with ease whilst remaining discreet:
Because of this flexible work policy, I am yet to put in a day’s sick leave! I simply work around my appointments or choose to work from home on days I am battling with debilitating symptoms.
A culture of ownership - I have always been open with my leaders at FCM about my health issues. And as soon as I was, I’ve never had to explain myself again. I simply keep them as informed as possible and communicate how I’m feeling or what I might need from them without judgement. In return, I take ownership of my work as if it were my own business. And they give me the tools to get the job done, at times that are convenient for me.
Despite my fears of my chronic illness impacting my ability to grow in the corporate world, I have been lucky enough to see 3 promotions over the past 3 years. Whilst this has a lot to do with the hard work and dedication I put into my career, I can thank my illness in many ways for this too. Illness and near-death experiences have a way of guiding you to follow a path of positivity, dedication to always bettering yourself and always finding solutions in seemingly impossible situations. I strongly believe this has encouraged my work ethic and positive outlook in the workplace and keep me focused on my career goals and aspirations. Work has a great way of distracting you from your health worries too and can be used as a tool to coping with the physical and mental pressures of hidden illness.
Something we need to ponder:
According to the HKG census and statistics department 24.1 percent of HKs population suffered with a chronic illness of varying degree in 2020. That’s almost 1 in 4 people in a city with the longest life expectancy. Your colleagues and employees could be one of those people. Be kind….