Solutions for Working Full-Time With a Chronic Illness

At 4:45 AM, the morning ritual begins. First, my light alarm clock silently clicks on with the faintest of light. It will gradually get brighter over the next thirty minutes until it reaches its highest setting.

On the days I work in Chattanooga, an hour’s commute, the next alarm goes off at 5:00 AM. On those days, I have to be out of bed no later than 5:30 or I will never reach my office on time.

Two more alarms will ring at 6:00 and 7:00. The last alarm plays at its loudest volume and is a playlist of some of my favorite songs. Part of my mind can’t help but sing along.

The last alarm also means I’m down to my final hour, and most mornings I need all 60 minutes to get myself dressed and ready to walk out the door.

Why do I have so many alarms? Depending on my mental and physical condition, it may take all four to get me out of bed.

My game of alarms is one way I’ve learned to work full-time with a chronic illness. In the following paragraphs, I’ll share a few more habits that help me maintain a productive work-life.


A Little About Me

If you’ve not read my writing before, let me tell you a little about myself. I live each day with bipolar disorder, anxiety, and the chronic illness, Familial Mediterranean Fever (FMF). The last one causes continuous fevers, pain, and has caused wide-spread neuropathy.

I share this background so you have a better idea of why my mornings are so difficult. The bipolar mind can keep me awake until early morning. If it is nice and lets me rest, the physical pain may keep sleep at bay.

With little sleep, mornings suck. There’s no better way to put it.


Morning person? Um, no

I am not a morning person. If I didn’t have to be at an office, I wouldn’t get out of bed before 10:00 AM if not later. My brain rarely shuts down until 1:00 or 2:00 AM, so those next few hours are my best sleeping time.

An hour is the absolute least amount of time I need to get ready for work. If I take something for pain as soon as I get up, I should see some improvement before I leave.

Ideally, I should have two hours to get ready. I do better on the days I get out of bed at 6:00 and spend that first hour slowly adjusting to my day, writing in my journal, or spending a few minutes on the elliptical. That’s easier to do when it’s not dark in the morning.

While I can get ready in 15–20 minutes, one blessing of being a guy, I know that’s not a healthy habit for me. If I start my day rushing against the clock, my anxiety level remains in high gear all day.

Not only do I end up less productive, because an anxious mind often has trouble concentrating, but I also crash mid-afternoon. Then I’m doing good just to stay awake until it’s time to leave for the day.

Having a minimum of one hour in the morning sets the right stage for the rest of my day.

Plan Ahead

When you have a chronic illness, you never know what the day will bring. Even if you felt fantastic the night before — I can dream, right? — you may wake up with intense pain, nausea, dizziness, or a host of other physical symptoms. Add mental illness into the equation, and the chances of a good morning become even less likely.

Knowing that mornings can be unpredictable, I do my best to plan ahead. When I feel halfway decent, I’ll iron enough clothes to cover several days of work.

Most of my clothes are in the same color palette, so I don’t have to put a lot of thought into what to wear in the morning. I go to that section of the closet that has the clothes ready to wear and grab something. If I’ve been doing well, I’ll have outfits organized in the closet so they are ready to go.

I do my best to plan ahead.

The same goes for preparing lunches. Yes, I know that many people think you shouldn’t carry a lunch with you if you work in an office, but those people aren’t living on a tight budget. Money is an issue for me, so taking a lunch is the only way I get to eat.

I’ll plan a week’s worth of lunches before I go to the grocery store. Then, the night before, I’ll organize everything in one spot in the refrigerator so it’s easy to grab and go the next morning.

Finally, if I have to carry a briefcase or take files with me, I make sure that those things are near the door and ready to go. Often I’ll put my keys with it so I’m even less likely to forget something.


Budget Your Energy

Just like you budget your money, you must also budget your energy. That may entail turning down offers to go out at night, especially on work nights. It’s a sacrifice you make to work full-time with a chronic illness.

For me, I set a time limit for electronic devices. I try to shut off the laptop, tablet, and phone by about 9:00 at night. Even though I usually won’t go to bed until an hour or two later, that disconnect helps me to wind down.

I’ll also turn down the lights and only have one or two lamps on so my body can adjust to the coming darkness.

I spend those final hours before sleep reading a book or listening to a relaxing podcast. If I watch TV, I’ll pick something I’ve seen before so I’m not so into the story that I’ll want to stay up to watch the end.

One medication I take for bipolar disorder helps me to get to sleep. To have the best results, I make sure that I take that medicine at the same time every night, usually two hours before bed. Setting an alert on your phone is a good way to remind yourself.


Work Schedule

The final thing I do to assist me to work full-time with a chronic illness e is to compress my week to four days.

Now, before you think there is no way your employer would ever let you do that, let me tell you about my experience. I’ve had six employers over the course of the last twenty years. When I started each job, none of them had ever allowed full-time employees to work a four-day week.

I know I function at a higher level when I only work four days, so each time I have presented a proposal to the employer. I asked them to let me work a four-day week for a month as a test run.

If at the end of the month, the schedule was creating issues for the business, I would go back to five days. I also agreed to take my day off on the slowest day for the business. For most of them, Wednesday had the lightest schedule for appointments and telephone calls. It works great for me to have a break in the middle of the week.

I asked them to let me work a four-day week for a month as a test run.

In every case, my employer noticed that I could complete all of my work in those four days, and my absence on the fifth day did not result in any issues with clients or other staff members.

Another great result from my experiment was that four of the six business then instituted a four-day week to any employee who desired such a schedule.

Granted, you have to be in the right position financially to give up a day’s pay every week, but if you keep your expenses low, it’s very possible. However, it is one reason I have to take my lunch with me to work.

It’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make for my overall health.


Learn What Works for You

These are just a few of the things I’ve learned about working full-time with a chronic illness. It’s important that you watch yourself and follow your own trends to find the things that work for you.

I’m a strong advocate for keeping a journal. In fact, I’ve kept one for over 30 years. One of the many benefits of journaling is that it can help you see trends with your life and health. Start tracking the things you do each day and how you feel and then look for the similarities that exist.

I won’t lie to you, working full-time with a chronic illness is difficult. There are mornings I take a shower and then have to lie on the bathroom floor until I have the strength to get up and finish getting ready. On the worst days, I can’t make it to work at all.

By pacing myself and planning ahead, so far I can continue to work full-time with a chronic illness. With some effort, you may be able to as well.

Are there other tricks you know that help you work with your chronic illness? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.


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This story originally appeared on Medium on December 11, 2019.

Working full-time with a chronic illness can be difficult, but it's not impossible. Here's what I do to keep myself on the right track. | #chronicillness #spoonies #worklife
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8 thoughts on “Solutions for Working Full-Time With a Chronic Illness

  1. Thank you for this. It’s a poignant reminder of the value of self-care. I lost my husband to bipolar about six months ago, and have been coping with flare-ups of my own hypersomnia and ADHD since (initially anxiety flare-ups, but I seem to have moved into a new phase where it’s more the ADHD that is flaring). Routines are absolutely critical, and trying not to do too much. I also set multiple alarms in the morning–one is on a desk across the room so I have to get up and walk over to turn it off. I have a bright light on a timer that goes on a few minutes before I have to get up. And a bossy cat who comes over and purrs in my face–she’s a huge help, too. I also do things like keep a small aromatherapy diffuser in the bathroom (essential oils aren’t good for cats, but I diffuse them just in the shower). Setting a coffeemaker up so the coffee is made when I get up helps enormously too–I have it set to make the coffee early, so I can lie in bed with the smell of coffee wandering in. Now that I’ve got my morning routine fairly functional, I’m working on getting during the day routines in place–I’m not quite there with them, unfortunately, but getting there. For a while I had built in a morning meditation, then I started skipping it to try to work, but skipping it has not made me any more productive. I think I need to build in exercise, too. It’s a work in progress–I’m basically automating every last thing I can, and trying to tie each necessary activity to some other activity that triggers it.

    I like your evening time limit for electronic devices idea–may have to try that!

    1. I’m so sorry to hear that your husband lost his battle. Bipolar claims so many victims. It sounds like you are doing a lot of good things to take care of yourself, and that care will help you also cope with the grief you must be feeling. Thank you for sharing your routine and what works for you. I need all the positive suggestions I can get.

  2. It’s impressive how far you’re willing to go to be a productive member of society. Inspiring is a good word for it. I hope your message is heard far and wide.

      1. That you’re just trying to pay the bills is exactly why your story is inspirational… we don’t do what we do for any goal loftier than showing others how it can be done, how we do it. That’s as good as it gets as I see it, man.

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