Returning to Work after a Long Illness – Are You Ready?

Once the acute phase of a chronic illness passes and you have some sense of stability, the desire or need to get back to work usually arises with it. It’s often easier to return if your leave has been relatively short, but what if it’s been a year, 2 years or longer? What are your options? Do you dare try? If you’re feeling confused and uncertain about when and how to re-engage, it might help to understand the physical and mental/emotional impact of the recovery process before answering some of the most common return-to-work questions.

The Impact on Your Body

Slide18Managing a chronic illness consumes a lot of energy, physical, emotional and psychic energy. Not only is the body doing its normal work of staying alive, it’s been simultaneously working overtime to heal the areas that have been compromised by your illness. No doubt, there have probably been days when you felt like a tornado slammed into you!

I’ll use my condition, Crohn’s Disease, to illustrate. On and off for about 13 years, certain areas of my large and descending colon were often in some state of inflammation. (This is where the disease gets me; some people get in the small intestines and a rarer few, in the esophagus, too.) At times my symptoms were mild and relatively manageable but at other times things got really bad. Flare-ups were accompanied by severe diarrhea and the intestinal lining was ulcerated in places, so there was also bleeding resulting in chronic low-grade to severe anemia. At one point my T-cell count was so haywire that I developed surface infections in my foot and on my forehead. My body also developed a fistula, which is a tunnel in the wall between one organ and another that is not supposed to be there!

That’s a lot to combat in a biological system that is central to everyday functioning. Whatever your illness is, your body has been waging a similar war. It takes a lot of energy! And, it takes time to fully regain the abilities of a normally functioning body, if ever.

Now let’s look at the Mind

Keeping your wits about you when your body breaks down and “betrays you” for months or years at a time is not easy. Let’s not forget the foggy brain that arises when pain and/or medical treatments interfere with your chemistry. It’s normal to fluctuate between fear and hope and despair and frustration, and determination. Anger, depression and even apathy? Yes, those too. And, these are just your feelings, never mind the feelings of those around you.

At some point in the recovery process you notice…what’s this? I feel better! And, oh my God, I can think again! That’s right around the time that the desire to BE A PRODUCTIVE HUMAN reignites in earnest. Cautiously excited? Those are good words too.

Once your mind is freed from the survival concerns it, too, goes through a healing process. It either races ahead into the future, impatient to get back to work, or it lingers in reluctance and worry, not quite trusting that it’s OK to re-engage. It will probably do both. That’s its nature.

Can You, Should You, Dare You?

“Lily,” who had been out on Long Term Disability for a year, never lost her determination to get back to work. However, as much as she loved her work as professor of science at a prestigious university, she eventually realized that it would not be healthy to return to the same position. After some exploration, she decided to take classes to earn a teaching credential, and bring her science knowledge to high school students. While still on disability, she started taking classes to earn her teaching credential.

Lily was still symptomatic, and she couldn’t always complete her class assignments when they were due. At times she had to drop a class, and pick it up again later. None of this was easy for her, and she felt everything from shame to disappointment to frustration, but she persisted. Eventually, her disability benefits expired, and she had another decision to make.

Lily and I stopped our coaching work right around this time. However, I’m happy to report that she has, indeed, returned to work, not as a teaching professor, but as a research scientist at the same university. And, yes, she completed the ¬†teaching credential program too.

The timing might not always be clear, and the road back might be longer than you’d like, but if you can find it in yourself to be compassionate, patient and persistent, the answers to the questions “can you, should you, dare you” will reveal themselves. If you’re not sure you’re ready, that’s OK. Just keep asking the questions.

As always, your comments and questions are welcome. You can post in comments or send me a private message from the contact form on my website.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.