Have a Plan, But Keep It Flexible: Thriving Professionally After a Medical Diagnosis

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When someone is diagnosed with a serious health condition, it impacts several important areas of their life, including work. A person may start to wonder:

– How do I balance work and medical treatment?
– What can I expect from my employer?
– What are my legal rights?
– What do other people do in this situation?

One common misconception is that people who have serious illnesses do not want to work. The results of a 2018 survey of cancer patients and survivors commissioned by Cancer and Careers show otherwise. Sixty-four percent of survey respondents said working through treatment helps or had helped them cope. Each person’s reasons for wanting to work vary and are often multifaceted. For some, a steady income or access to benefits drove the decision to stay on the job, while others found in their work a sense of normalcy or purpose during prolonged or intensive medical treatment and recovery.

As you think about your own reasons for working following a diagnosis, here are some strategies to make it easier to thrive professionally while undergoing treatment and recovery:

Plan for Managing Side Effects at Work

Have a conversation with your healthcare team about the specific details of your treatment and how it might affect you at work. Be sure to share specifics about the mental and physical demands of your job.

Discussing common side effects of your treatment and how to manage them can help you make informed decisions about work accommodations you might need, such as modifying your schedule, making changes to your physical workspace, etc. Keeping a work diary to monitor how you feel throughout the day/week can also help you figure out how side effects might be impacting your work — and then find ways to address them.

Understand the Relevant Laws and Study Your Options

The law is one of the many tools you can use as you figure out how to navigate work after a serious medical diagnosis. Federal laws such as the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), and Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), as well as certain state laws, may be applicable and can create a framework of support.

For example, under the ADA, your company might be required to provide reasonable accommodations to individuals with serious health issues to help them continue to perform the essential functions of their jobs. Sometimes small adjustments can be all it takes to help you work while undergoing medical treatment.

Keep in mind that even if your employer isn’t required by law to provide you with an accommodation, that doesn’t mean it won’t. Typically, companies want to retain good employees, so it never hurts to ask for what you need to stay on the job. It’s also important to learn about your company’s policies on disabilities, flex time, telecommuting, and related matters before you disclose your diagnosis at work.

For more expert career advice, check out the latest issue of Recruiter.com Magazine:

Sharing Your Diagnosis

Whether to tell your employer and/or coworkers is a very personal decision, and you should weigh several factors before you make a choice, including:

– What treatment side effects are you likely to experience?
– What does the law require and how might it work in your favor?
– What is your work environment like?

Answering these questions can help you figure out whether you want to disclose — and, if so, what and when. Generally, you are not obligated to share any information about your health (though there are some exceptions). If you do decide to share, start by talking to those with whom you’re most comfortable or those who will be most useful in creating a workable solution for you (possibly your supervisor and/or HR). If you think you may need to request a job modification, you might have to provide some information about your health issue, although not necessarily an exact diagnosis.

Create an Action Plan

Having a plan can help restore your sense of control, but keep it flexible because things may change over time. Start by making a list of everything you need to do; breaking each task up into small parts can make things less stressful. Next, prioritize the tasks on your list and accomplish them one by one. Try to avoid multitasking, and be sure to delegate tasks when possible.

Setting Professional Boundaries

Knowing your limitations is important as you balance your work and health needs; you don’t want to feel overwhelmed. Although it might feel difficult to decline certain requests, there are ways to say no in a professional and team-oriented way — e.g., “I appreciate that you thought of me for this project, but I’m a bit swamped this week and am concerned about my ability to get this back to you in a timely manner.”

A serious medical diagnosis can lead to a wide range of treatments, side effects, and recovery processes, so it’s important to weigh all those factors and make the right decisions for yourself. While it’s difficult to know all the variables that may come into play when you are facing health challenges at work, there are things you can think about, organize, and communicate to get the information, clarity, and assistance you need to thrive.

Rebecca V. Nellis is the executive director of Cancer and Careers.

By Rebecca V. Nellis