Spoiler alert – you can still have a brilliant career with IBD. Now I’ve said that, hopefully you will know what to expect from this blog article – because guess what, being diagnosed with IBD (or any chronic illness) doesn’t mean you can no longer shoot for the stars and achieve your dream career. It doesn’t mean you have less earning potential and it certainly does NOT mean you are not as brilliant and talented as your colleagues.
Why do I have the authority to say this, you might ask? I’ve been working in the media industry since I was 21, and I have been through plenty of blunders in the process of trying to understand how to make my work and Crohns work together. There is no handbook for this stuff and I didn’t realise how easy I had it at university in terms of being able to manage my workload based on my illness. Of course, I had deadlines and exams, but I could revise from my bed, without anyone questioning it. I could write essays in my PJs, saving energy on getting dressed and commuting. I could dip out lectures if I was poorly, and it didn’t mean I was impacting anyone else apart from myself and I certainly wasn’t losing money doing so.
When I got my first full time job out of university as a receptionist at an animation agency, it was a total shock to the system. Not only was I commuting from my parents into London (an hour and a half each way), I was also working 0830 – 1830 hours. I didn’t know how to tell my manager about my Crohns because I barely understood how it was going to impact me at work myself. It was a struggle, but six years on I have figured out a way to try and make it work.
Before you read on, you should know I absolutely do not have this all figured out. One of the gifts of my industry is it is very fast paced, so moving jobs regularly is normal. It’s a gift because I have had the opportunity to try out multiple work arrangements with no impact on my future employability (because every young journo is doing the same!). After having to tell managers about my Crohns so many times, I think I have finally nailed the conversation about my chronic illness and I’m not scared to ask for what works for me anymore, and that’s what I want to share with you in this blog.
I have always worked and never been afraid of hard work, but I didn’t know how to balance my Crohns until I started work after university. I had my first Saturday job at 16, and always worked throughout the summer at cafes, bars, shops – anywhere that would pay me, basically! I worked as a receptionist after university for 4 months, before I landed my first job in a large news organisation. Getting this job was the first time I had a conversation with any manager ever about my Crohns. I never declared it at my Saturday jobs (I suppose my 18 year old self thought I didn’t need to), but after a brutal 4 months of not telling my workplace at the animation agency, it was clear as day that I needed my managers to be in the loop.
Shortly after I started at the news broadcaster, I had a huge bowel obstruction and needed major abdominal surgery. I was off work for 8 weeks in total and my bosses were absolutely amazing and totally supportive. At this stage, you would have thought I would be able to have the same conversation with my manager when I moved to a new department. But I didn’t. Plagued with feelings that I wouldn’t be seen as good enough (combined with my own imposter syndrome at even being a TV producer), I didn’t tell any managers. I worked shifts for a year and a half full time and it led me into a pit of exhaustion. So much so, I quit. I led myself to a point of complete exhaustion that I couldn’t see the wood from the trees – and I was convinced I didn’t want to be a journalist anymore. I moved into a completely different role in a new organisation, which I convinced was right for me. It wasn’t.
At this point I realised I had to start telling everyone who was involved in my work life about my Crohns. I am extremely fortunate I returned to the same organisation as a freelancer and have since had unbelievable support from every department I have worked in. It took that entire experience for me to realise that if I wanted to make my dreams a reality, I had to be honest and I had to ask for what I wanted. Since then, I have worked a mix of full time, and doing part time when my health was unstable. I am now starting another new role in a different department in a week (at time of writing), and I’ve already told them about my Crohns. It is unbelievable relief for me to be able to do so, and actually helps me perform better at work.
How to have a conversation with your boss about your IBD/chronic illness
From the questions and comments I’ve received in my inbox, this is the thing you guys dread the most! However, I think this tick list will help you prepare for the conversation and how to have it. Honestly after years of avoiding this conversation and now having it seemingly every 6 months, I can promise it is really not as bad as you think! As always would love to hear if you guys have any further tips – so please do message me if you do!
Top tips for dealing with colleagues
Ultimately colleagues don’t need to know the ins and outs of your illness like your manager does, but equally, if your health demands you are absent for recovery or appointments, this may impact them (it certainly works that way in my industry). I have found it best to let my colleagues know they can ask me questions at any time, and I will always explain if someone asks why I was off sick/away. I won’t announce my life story or tell them the ins and outs of Crohns unless they ask, but I will make it clear that it’s not a secret. Equally, don’t feel obliged to share more than you are comfortable with – and if you have concerns, don’t be scared to raise issues with your manager.
Dealing with money worries
It’s all very well me saying go part-time, but we all know that this means a pay-cut and actually, this really isn’t always viable. I think this is why it is so important to establish an open conversation with your manager. If you have a chronic illness, you should also have the right to ask for reasonable adjustments to make your job work for you, which may include flexible working arrangements, like working from home or reducing your hours when your health requires it. To learn more about reasonable adjustment and other options, click here.
What are your rights as an employee?
Many of you, like me, will have really understanding employers who value your work and value YOU. However, if you feel you are being treated unfairly, Crohns and Colitis have brilliant advice here.
Go get it
I really hope this blog has provided some helpful advice for how to cope with managing a career with IBD. The thing is about having a chronic illness is that it makes you question everything, and I firmly believe we should never ignore these questions. Remember that nothing is forever and if it costs you your peace, it’s too expensive. Rethink, re-evaluate and don’t be afraid to ask for what you want.
If you’ve got this far – THANK YOU! As always, please do get in touch with your thoughts – love hearing from you all!