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6 Ways to Handle Sick Days When You Have a Chronic Condition

By Corinne O'Keefe Osborn
May 03, 2024

It’s not easy to live with a chronic health condition, and it can be even trickier to work with one. Different types of workplaces and industries have varying levels of tolerance for taking time off. For some people, taking the day off isn’t even an option. They continue to work despite symptoms, pain, and exhaustion, fearful of the consequences of calling in sick too often. Others may have an easier time taking paid sick days, until they run out. Whichever boat you’re in, navigating what to do when getting to the office is too difficult can be tough. Here are some ideas on how to work and not work when you have a chronic condition.

Get Ahead of the Situation

Calling in sick and taking time off is generally less stressful when your supervisor is aware of your condition. Of course, you’re not obligated to share medical information with your boss; but, doing so may help lead to greater understanding.

One of the most effective ways to communicate about the severity of a chronic disease is to have a few science-based facts about your condition readily available to share, says Carla Marie Manly, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in California. “An HR department or boss will generally respond very well to seeing scientific data when it comes to chronic disease,” she says.

So, if you feel comfortable doing so, round up some facts and resources about your condition to share with your supervisor. This can be particularly helpful when informing your workplace of your condition before a flare-up, relapse, or episode happens.

Call in Sick

When you’re not feeling well, you have a responsibility to take care of your body and help it heal. But that becomes harder the longer you continue to push yourself. Take, for example, people who have psoriatic disease or another autoimmune condition. Their bodies respond to stressors like pain by releasing a flood of inflammatory chemicals. Doctors have hypothesized that mental stress may trigger the same process. Forcing yourself to work when you know you shouldn’t could potentially increase the severity and longevity of a flare-up or make you feel worse. In other words, call in sick if you need to.

Read Up on Policies and Your Rights

Before approaching your supervisor or HR representative, you will want to arm yourself with information about your company’s policies related to time off. Check your employee handbook and review your benefits. Find out how many sick days you are allotted.

If you’ve exceeded your available sick days, “review company policies to determine if you are eligible for any other kind of paid leave, such as vacation—or even unpaid leave,” suggests Amber Clayton, director of the Knowledge Center at the Society for Human Resource Management.

“If there is a serious health condition, an employee could be eligible for leave under federal or state job-protected leave laws,” Clayton explains. “If an employee has a disability, they could be eligible for leave or telework as a reasonable accommodation.”

Propose Creative Solutions

In some cases, a chronic condition could interfere with your ability to work. For example, skin plaques and joint swelling can make it very difficult to continue performing certain manual tasks. If you find yourself having trouble doing your job because of your condition, you might want to talk to HR or a supervisor about switching you to another role, where you would be able to perform better—maybe a job that allows you to spend less time on your feet or working with your hands. If you are finding it too difficult to get to your workplace, you may want to inquire about working from home for a while, if the job can be done remotely.

“If an employee wants to telework as a reasonable accommodation for a disability, they should follow company policies and practices, which may include instruction on how to notify a manager or HR about a request,” says Clayton. “It may also include obtaining forms such as a formal request for telework and a form to provide to their doctor to confirm the disability and need to telework.”

Ask About Extended Leave

Sometimes, the best decision you can make for your health is to take an extended period of time off from work.

“A longer period of time could fall under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which provides 12 weeks of leave in a 12-month period,” says Angelique Hamilton, the CEO of HR Chique Group in Jacksonville, Florida. “The employer is required to return the employee to the same job or an equivalent role with the same pay, benefits, and duties.”

Unfortunately, not everyone qualifies for time off under FMLA. “HR will typically have the information needed to determine if an employee meets the eligibility requirements,” says Hamilton, “including that they were employed for at least 12 months, worked 1,250 hours in the prior 12 months, and work at a worksite with 50 or more employees within a 75-mile radius.”

You may also want to ask your HR department about the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which occasionally allows an extension of unpaid leave, beyond the 12 weeks provided under FMLA.

Know When It’s Not Working

If you’re feeling consistently stressed about taking time off or irked that your boss won’t let you work from home, you may be in the wrong job. We spend the better part of our week at work, and that time shouldn’t be spent in pain or misery.

“Protect your energy! Let go of toxic people, places, and things,” says Tasia Milicevic MSW, LCSW, a psychotherapist practicing in New Jersey. “Do yourself a favor and listen to your body. Do what you can and give yourself credit for doing all that you do accomplish each day. Don’t go to war with yourself…don’t push yourself when you’re in pain.”

Instead, plan how you can get yourself a job that fits your experience and skill but also is doable while living with your condition. This may require you to invest in yourself and your future. Maybe sign up for a few online courses. Or get trained on a new type of software. Figure out what you want, and work to make it happen.

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