Navigating chronic illness and work?
November 14, 2014 1:51 PM   Subscribe

I have chronic, often severe stomach pain and related problems that have gotten worse over the past few years. I’m unsure how to navigate these issues at work as it seems the rules have changed or aren't really clear?

Job (full time):
Requires meeting strict deadlines. Employed over 1 year.
I’m over capacity – probably doing the job of 2 people but we're looking for a new person.
People regularly work entirely from home as their job, or a mix, we also have part-timers.
I had 10 days PTO for the year, includes sick leave and vacation with only 2.5 left.
Nothing in our handbook about working from home when sick
There are about 35 ish total employees

My department had a meeting stating you can’t email saying “hey I’m working from home!” and that it needs to be PTO or approved ahead of time. That’s fair. However it was stated that if you’re sick/contagious you could work from home if it was approved.

It felt like these things were being directed at me – not the first time. Also that it’s very unclear.

If working from home I’ve:
Asked as soon as I knew I was sick and offered to take PTO
Noted what projects I have and that, if I take PTO, may have to work extra to meet deadlines
Always work my full hours, if not more, and sent time sheets
Only done this if feeling extremely sick/in pain and unable to function.
Only happens – besides actual planned appointments – once a month ish.
(I did have a lot of doctor’s and dentist’s appointments and my supervisor agreed it would be silly to use an hour or two of PTO for those if I could make them up.)

Therefore I’ve been playing by the rules, right? Well jump to now.

Friday I was sick and was approved to work from home. I felt sick all week. Yesterday I was in extreme pain/nausea/horribleness, asked to leave 1 hour early. Was approved and worked 2 to 3 hours at home.

Emailed yesterday about possibly needing an urgent appointment, not knowing what time and that I’d be happy to use PTO or make up that time.
(I’m still trying to figure out what the hell is wrong with me.)
Last night I was up for 4 hours, in excruciating pain. I emailed at 8am after making an appointment, stating I was up all night sick, and had an appointment later. I asked if I should take PTO, or make up time due to deadlines that I HAVE to meet.

The response was that I could take half a day PTO (for the appointments and such) and that I could make up the rest of the time (that’s fine) but that they are “not really supposed to allow working from home for sick time.” What??

1) Obviously, this policy is unclear to me. The last I was told was that if it was approved you could work from home if sick, now I can’t? This came from my supervisor, not HR. How do I tactfully ask about this without making too much of a fuss? How do I bring up the fact that I have so much work on my plate that just taking PTO would mean not meeting those deadlines? Plus I’m low on PTO. I’m going to do my best to get into work Friday.

Honestly for this month I might end up working unpaid time just to meet deadlines because of extra projects and not being able to make up a full day.

2) Also, if that is the policy now – how do I navigate asking for accommodations? How do I ask for this accommodation without using unpaid time off or stating that I’m disabled? Do I use FMLA? ADA? If I can get my work done and it’s only occasionally then it seems weird to just have unpaid time off, (or PTO when it renews in Jan.) especially with my workload.

What are my options? I’m totally lost when it comes to things like this, since it’s not just “I want to work from home on Tuesdays.”

I really hate the fact that I can’t just be “normal” and don’t want to feel like I need special treatment. However, I have to come to terms with the fact that my chronic illness does really affect my life and work and ability to sometimes be in the office, but not my ability to fully complete my work overall.

I’m totally lost when it comes to figuring this out. This is my first traditional job; on top of the fact that this is the sickest I’ve ever been in my life. What do I do??
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
IANAL, but I'd suggest looking into your options under both the ADA and the FMLA, as well as any applicable state labor laws.
posted by starbreaker at 2:03 PM on November 14, 2014

I have been in a similar situation, although I'm more senior at my job and they were more understanding as a result.

One really lousy side effect is that being stressed out by this tends to make your physical symptoms worse. (I am NOT saying it's in your head. But stress exacerbates a whole host of physical illnesses.) Anything you can do to manage stress will help -- exercise (when you're up for it, even if it's just walking around the block), keeping your schedule and sleep as regular as possible, practicing self-care.

Another thing. Some doctors will offer you help, and some doctors will wait for you to ask. So if you haven't asked your doctor for pain management, I would do that. Bentyl doesn't help everyone but it does help some people, and depending on your symptoms, it may be able to help you.

Also, doctors won't generally follow up with you -- you have to make yourself annoying and follow up with them. I would be very clear with them about how this is affecting your daily life and your ability to do your job. Sometimes doctors don't know to take you seriously until you are VERY SPECIFIC that this is keeping you up X hours at night, that you have missed X days of work, etc. If you haven't been referred to a gastroenterologist, I would really push that until you are.

Which brings us to the work notes: My doctors generally do not offer notes to bring to the workplace. Your doctor may not offer to do this, but I bet they would if you asked. You could ask for a general note that explains that you are sometimes sick and need to work from home. I don't know if your boss would take that seriously or not, but it might help.

I would also suggest asking Ask A Manager. I didn't see anything super-similar in her archives, but she always has good advice and it's a good question.
posted by pie ninja at 2:21 PM on November 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

Have you actually sat down with your supervisor and/or HR and discussed this? That's the first step. Do they know you have a chronic problem you're battling? Have you provided a doctor's note as to how often you may need days? Have you been clear about what you may need and when, and asked how they'd like you to handle it?

It's okay to be a special case, really, but you need to talk to your workplace and work something out with them. You definitely have rights under ADA and FMLA, but someone at the company needs to know about your problem or they can't accommodate you. Start from the assumption that they will accommodate you. I have been the employee with health problems, and I discussed them with my employer and we worked something out. But if you were my employee and you just called out sick all the time and never came to me to discuss it, that would be a problem for me.
posted by brainmouse at 2:22 PM on November 14, 2014 [6 favorites]

If you're under a doctor's care, your doctor probably has experience with being asked to provide letters requesting reasonable accommodation. The letter my doctor provided, which is in my personnel file, reads like so:

To Whom It May Concern:

Please be informed Ms. [MyRealName] is under my care for a medical condition which may require a work accommodation. Her condition may require appointments as often as several times a week and she may need some minor accommodation with her work hours. Your cooperation and understanding is appreciated.

This information should be considered confidential and released only with permission given by Ms. [MyRealName].

[signed] Firstname Lastname, MD
posted by Lexica at 2:46 PM on November 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

On preview: what MoonOrb said.

I will speak from the manager's side (and only my personal experience, in case it helps) with chronically/intermittently sick staff. I prefer that being sick at home means being offline and using PTO. If you mix work and sick at home it makes it more difficult to cover projects with other staff.

I wondered about this: "Yesterday I was in extreme pain/nausea/horribleness, asked to leave 1 hour early. Was approved and worked 2 to 3 hours at home." Did you work the 2-3 hours that same day? If so, the impression (and not the reality) is that you're "not that sick." Your desire to keeping working when feeling horrible might be working against you.

When possible, I like specific info, like "Hey blueBoss, I felt crappy last night so I'm going to stay home and be offline this morning, take PTO and then work from home in the afternoon. My plan is to start working at 12pm, but I will IM you to confirm the time." This way I know I need to cover morning issues, but likely will have that person working after 12pm. And it's likely I will see 4 hours PTO and 4 hours work on the timesheet. I would still not give them anything terribly taxing, but I would appreciate the willingness if they are feeling better. Unfortunately, it doesn't sound like your symptoms are mild enough or predictable enough.
posted by bluemoonegg at 2:48 PM on November 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Building on what bluemoonegg said, this really stuck out to me:

If working from home I’ve:
...Only done this if feeling extremely sick/in pain and unable to function.

"Unable to function" to me, as a manager, means "unable to work" -- or if you are working, your work quality is going to be very poor. Personally, I would not want someone working while feeling "extremely sick/in pain and unable to function". That is what sick time is for.

You really need to sit down and talk with your supervisor and HR about this. I had an employee with a chronic pain condition that required some accommodation. However, she was also a private person who wasn't willing to ask her doctor to provide us with the proper documentation for ADA accommodation. So, I do what I can as her supervisor to make sure she can work, but there is no official accommodation. Also, it took a while to get to the point where she would even talk to me about it... and before she did, I was pretty much of the impression that she did not care about her job enough to do what all the other employees were doing -- in short, before she sat down with me to tell me what was really going on, I figured she just had an attitude problem.

Talk to your supervisor.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 3:02 PM on November 14, 2014 [4 favorites]

It sounds to me like you are sincerely trying to work as hard as you can, and they are sincerely trying to accommodate your needs, but there are communication issues. If you are trying to be Super Employee who is not just "normal" but is doing the jobs of two people and extra projects, then it is understandable that they are confused about how to accommodate you. And I think their ad hoc explanations that they keep giving you are probably intended to be friendly and helpful but are actually confusing for you.

“not really supposed to allow working from home for sick time.” What??

Employers shouldn't make an employee work when they're sick. Sounds like your employer thought you were sick at the time you were emailing, and thought you were asking whether you should just work while sick or what. And if that was truly the situation, then they gave the right answer that an employer should give: if you're sick, take your sick time, don't work. Or if you intend to do some work, then don't count that time as sick time.

if you’re sick/contagious you could work from home if it was approved

I think this means that if you're sick enough to want to stay home, but not too sick to work, working from home could be approved. If you're working from home, it counts as work time, even if the reason for choosing to work from home is that you're feeling a little low.

If you feel like you need to work off the books just to keep up with your job responsibilities, don't tell your employer. Do not breathe a word. They don't want to know about it, because it would be wrong of them to make you (or even allow you to) work off the books. And I would think really hard about whether pushing yourself to get it all done, especially when your employer is trying to do the right thing and not make you work during sick time, is really best for you in the long run.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 3:21 PM on November 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

If you're paid hourly and working while taking sick time, that could mean that you're working unpaid time, which could be a wage and hour violation, which could mean your employer could face liability. I don't know, but if that's right, there's a reason for them not to like it.

You need to sit down and explain to them the kind of accommodation you need. Sorry.
posted by J. Wilson at 4:22 PM on November 14, 2014

I have all the same things going on that you do. I went to the designated Equal Opportunity Officer at my place of employment. My place of work is the 2nd or 3rd largest in a major city, that employs thousands of people. You may be part of a smaller staff. I got the recommendation to meet with the Equal opportunity office through Human Resources. I emailed this person, met with them, and hammered out accommodations. I also had an intermittent FMLA on file. You DO NOT NEED to be disabled to get accommodations. You DO NEED a doctor to write a letter to HR or your supervisor stating what you are being treated for. I don't have one diagnosis and when it comes to my stomach stuff they don't really know what is wrong with me. In fact my doctor characterizes it as idiopathic chronic constipation. Idiopathic means "I don't know why" but this girl is constipated. And this is one of the best people in the field treating me.

Off topic, I would talk to a integrative or functional medical doctor to see if there are food allergies, or other dietary changes, supplements you can take to improve your health, possibly solve the problem, but definitely improve your quality of life. I have done that and things are a bit better, but nothing crazy just yet.

I bet you have something similar to me. I am in great pain some days, and at some times. I prefer to use my own bathroom when things are crazy. The pain comes in sharp and hard, very debilitating, but when it abates I can do computer work. The up in the air part is when it will happen and how quickly i will need a bathroom when I need to.

I have the accommodations granted by the Equal opportunity office. I can come in as late as 1030AM if i am having trouble. Otherwise I work hard to get to the office on time for 9AM. I don't feel great most days, but i push myself through. Since I have started seeing the integrative/functional medical doctor I have been doing better and my ability to get to work has improved. I am not out as often. Things still are not great. I doubt they ever will be like normal people experience life, but who and what is normal anyway.
posted by Jewel98 at 8:12 PM on November 14, 2014

You may be giving him too much information. Your boss has his own problems to deal with on top of work stuff. Set some time aside for a meeting. Tell him, briefly and with little detail, that your health causing problems right now and you need for them to shorten the hiring process. Assure him that you are committed to the job and want to give your best effort but, you see where your health is making it impossible to do 2 people's jobs and you would like to bring it down to a one person job. Use your interview personality. Sell yourself as a person who can do a one person job better than anyone else in the world. And then keep yourself to yourself. Don't show weakness at work. If you have to take off, take off for a full day or three days. They don't want a minute by minute play, they have other things to deal with. If you haven't already, write out the task sheet for you and for the new hire. Include shared tasks. Your boss may not even know all that you are doing.
posted by myselfasme at 4:39 AM on November 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Side question: are you getting at least 30g of fiber a day? I had chronic stomach pain for two years before I figured this out with the help of a gastroenterologist. I went from feeling like crap to spectacular in a day.
posted by PSB at 3:06 PM on November 15, 2014

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