For many of us who are managing chronic conditions, the thought of entering the workforce can feel very daunting. How are we supposed to work an eight-hour day while keeping up with treatment and attending doctor appointments? Where do we even begin looking for a job, and how do we start that process?
I spend my days working with job seekers across the world, providing advice on navigating the workplace while living with chronic illness and disability. Living with a chronic illness myself, I’ve also struggled to find the right job for me and my health needs. From my experiences, I’ve identified several tips that can serve as a beginner’s guide to navigating the world of work.
Many job seekers jump into their search without first reflecting on their skills and passions. I say skills AND passions for a reason — just because you’re good at something doesn’t necessarily mean you are passionate about it.
Most people will work for several decades, and it will be difficult to stay motivated if all you feel is apathetic about your job. Think about what kind of work brings about high emotion for you.
On the skills front, think about both your hard skills (learned abilities acquired through education and practice) and soft skills (interpersonal and behavioral abilities). For example, are you the handy type who’s learned how to fix things around the house? Are you a strong communicator who works well in groups? There are many skills out there, and both types are equally important.
Accommodations, also known as “productivity enhancers,” enable us to have an equal opportunity not only to get a job but successfully perform tasks to the same extent as people without illnesses or disabilities. When I entered the workforce, I didn’t know that accommodations existed and that I was entitled to them. After learning about my rights under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), I now utilize accommodations on a daily basis.
Accommodations can be major or minor changes but can truly make work more accessible. The Job Accommodation Network is a free resource by the U.S. Department of Labor. For examples of specific accommodations, check out their website.
Hannah Olson pictured with a Chronically Capable community member at the United States Capitol
While the internet is a great place to start researching different career paths, speaking with others in professions you’re interested in and hearing their firsthand accounts can provide invaluable insight into whether that career might work for you and how to pursue it. Even today, with a full-time job and a company to run, I schedule calls with other leaders in my field to continue learning and get their advice.
Additionally, with more remote events and work environments now available, there are more opportunities to connect with others you might not have been able to connect with before due to your location or your health restrictions. Learning from others’ experiences through organized networking events or even one-on-one chats is a great way to help you zero in on your own path!
Internships, returnships, apprenticeships, and mentorships are wonderful opportunities to gain valuable experience in your desired industry. No matter where you are in your career journey (early career, mid, or late), there are always opportunities for trial runs. Luckily, today, most internships are compensated. Seek out these opportunities as a way to gain experience in your desired field, as well as a way to meet leaders who can help advise you on next steps.
Another way to gain experience and knowledge in a particular field is to do freelance work. While I was getting my company off the ground, I spent years doing freelance marketing work for various health-related organizations, which helped me learn how to manage my company’s brand.
If you’re wondering what’s next, let’s talk about one very important consideration for after you’ve identified a career or industry you’re interested in: disclosure. I run a job platform that supports over 60,000 job seekers with chronic illnesses and disabilities, and this is the No. 1 challenge our job seekers face.
It’s important to know that you do not have to inform an employer of your illness or disability when you apply for a job or when you are hired — even if later you need a reasonable accommodation. It is your right to decide when and if you’d like to disclose.
At the end of the day, jobs are a two-way street. You must also interview the organization that is interviewing you and make sure the career is a fit for YOU. For further career advice and support, we encourage you to come join us at Chronically Capable!
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