Having an invisible illness can be extremely difficult in the workplace as it can be hard for your managers and colleagues to understand and empathise with the intense pain you’re suffering when you look perfectly healthy on the outside.
I suffer with Sickle Cell Disease, a blood disorder which means that blood cells, unlike normal blood cells which are round, are curved and hard. This means that they don’t flow as easily and can get stuck in the small blood vessels of your chest, stomach and joints which is what’s known as a sickle cell crisis. The intense pain this causes can last anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks and the pain is debilitating. Because you can’t predict when a crisis will occur, inevitably it will sometimes manifest at work. In my time at investment bank Lehman Brothers, I experienced crises on several occasions and there were times when an ambulance was called and I was rushed to hospital to control the pain. These events were extremely traumatic for me and for my colleagues who were understandably uncomfortable seeing their workmate in such pain and didn’t know how to react.
Anyone suffering with an invisible illness will find that it will affect their work as it can be so difficult to focus and you are constantly aware of the feeling of ‘letting people down’ which only exacerbates the stress.
The other challenge with invisible illnesses is that managers can struggle to take these conditions seriously, not because they don’t care but because they can’t see how much pain you’re in and unlike with physical disabilities, are unsure how to implement changes in the workplace to help you. From the sufferer’s perspective, things can be very challenging, leaving your job isn’t always possible, and if you enjoy your work it’s upsetting to have to leave because of something you can’t help.
To deal with work and my illness I had to develop coping strategies which allowed me to survive the corporate world.
To cope, you cannot be shy
Everyone in your place of work must know that you are living with an invisible illness and you must coach them to understand what that means, in my case I would wager that most people have never heard of sickle cell. Explain to them the causes and symptoms and be honest when you’re not feeling your best. Most people will be sympathetic and helpful when they understand what you’re going through.
Be kind to yourself
Demonstrate discipline. Eat right and do those simple things that remove stress from your life. When possible exercise and keep your mental faculties working. Find a good doctor who understands your disease, and get the best medical recommendations you can.
Fill your life with love
I am very fortunate to have an extremely loving and supportive family who understand the disease and make allowances for me. This simple kindness gives me space to prosper and with that become a success. I am a Christian and the faith that I hold gives me a daily reference point for what is good in the world.
Take personal responsibility
The previous recommendations sound like utopia but real life is not that smooth. I found out that I had to be my own person, and whatever life threw at me, was just another challenge to be overcome. Whether you have a disease or not, it is still up to you to get the most out of life you can.
Everyone’s life is very different. Mine was made harder because people couldn’t see the challenges I was going through. I embraced that difference and continued on with life, knowing full well that I kept this quiet confidence and strength inside of me because I would be a success, regardless of what I pursued.
About the author
Anne Welsh is the founder and president of Arise Consult, a leading branding, marketing and relationship firm. Her new book, Pain- Less, Living with Pain, Finding Joy (Published by Silverwood Books) is published on 18 June 2019 to coincide with World Sickle Cell Day.