Wednesday, December 2, 2015

{Crohn's Awareness} :: IBD and Work

This summer, I had the huge blessing of being able to step away from working full time. It was a decision that we didn't make flippantly, and something I prayed about for a couple of years. Both with my Crohn's and our struggle to grow our family, Mike and I made the decision that it was time for me to take a step back and focus on my health. There was so much more that went into the decision, but that's the gist of it.

I realize that not everyone has this opportunity, and I try every day not to take this season for granted. My sweet husband has made huge sacrifices so that I could reduce my hours, and I am forever thankful for all he does to take care of me. 

That being said, there is a reality for a lot of people where holding down a full time job is nearly impossible when symptoms are unmanageable. Surgeries and severe flare ups can eat away at PTO, and some people are forced to quit their jobs. Unfortunately, I cannot speak to that side of Crohn's because I have not personally walked that road. But today I would like to address how I was able to manage my symptoms and work full time. 

If you are able to manage your symptoms, it is possible to have a good work/life balance, even with Crohn's. It may not be as simple or easy as it is for the healthy population, but it can be manageable. There were many days when I had a "bad Crohn's day." If I had stayed home every time I didn't feel well, I would have never been at work. So there is a reality of living with Crohn's where you will be at work when you are sick. It stinks, and I hated it. But I learned how to deal with my new reality. 

Learn Your Symptoms
At the beginning, as I was learning my symptoms and how to manage them, I didn't know what I could handle and what I couldn't. But as time passed, I learned my body, and was able to know what helped and what didn't in managing my pain and/or discomfort.

I would rate my pain/discomfort in order to make the best decision about going to work or staying home. Depending on the severity of my symptoms {and what they were that day}, I assessed whether or not I could manage my symptoms at work. I worked a desk job, but was constantly up and moving about the office. Depending on my schedule for the day, I could assess how I could manage my symptoms. Did I need to be close to the bathroom, and how often? Could sipping peppermint tea and keeping a heating pad at my desk be enough to help my symptoms that day? Would I be able to work quietly at my desk, or would I need to be constantly interacting with customers, and could I do that based on how I felt that day?

Over time, I learned when the pain or discomfort was too much to manage at work and when I could power through it. Peppermint tea and my heating pad became my best friends. If it was 50/50, I always tried to go to work. I always reasoned that if I just couldn't make it that day, I could go home. But 9 times out of 10, I was able to power through the whole day. I may have been exhausted by the end of the day, but I made it. I also had to be sure I wasn't pushing myself too hard, which was a constant battle. But I also discovered a strength and endurance I didn't know I had.

Work Can be a Good Distraction
When I was first diagnosed, I felt like IBD consumed my life: what I ate, how I worked, what I could do. And in some ways, that was part of coming to grips with my new "normal." But over time, I learned a new routine, and I was able to adjust my old life to accommodate IBD. That's not always fun, and I often had to say no to things that I didn't have to before. But I also found that getting back to as much of my old routine as possible was good for me. It helped me focus on other things besides my IBD. IBD changes your life, but it doesn't have to be your life. 

Work was often a good distraction. If I could focus on a task at work, I often could work through the pain. Staying connected with co-workers, focusing on tasks, doing something you love...these are all good things that help keep you sane as you manage life with IBD. 

Talk with Your Boss and/or Co-Workers
This is key. Let your boss know how you are feeling. He/she doesn't need the rundown of all your symptoms, but keeping him/her up to date on your health can be really helpful. If your boss knows what to expect regarding your health, it won't be as frustrating when you have to miss work. You may even be able to discuss options to work from home {not an option I had in my particular position, but something that was still discussed}. And if you are working hard to manage your symptoms and still trying to do well at work, your boss will definitely take notice.

I would also encourage you to talk with your co-workers. Again, not everyone in the office needs to know the intimate details of your bowel issues. But if you let in a few, trusted people, you may find help from those around you on your bad days. They may be able to pick up some of the slack for you, and it won't be as frustrating for them if they know the reason why. 

I had a great boss and wonderful co-workers who made managing at work so much easier. I understand that not everyone has that. And it's not always easy to just find a new job. But if you find yourself in an unhealthy and stressful work environment, I would encourage you to consider a change. Stress can cause or aggravate flare ups, so ultimately you have to make a decision that is best for your overall health. 

Talk with HR
I also spoke with my HR department about my health. Part of that was to learn what assistance I could receive in the workplace {private bathrooms, could I have a heating pad plugged in under my desk, etc}. You could discuss modified work accommodations, such as flexible hours, working from home, moving closer to the bathroom, etc. You won't know until you ask.

In my situation, talking with HR actually helped in some changes to our company health benefits. When they learned how much I was paying for my medication and that there were no generic options for biologics {they did not ask; it came up in casual, non-work related conversation with the executive in charge of HR}, I was asked to prepare an informational worksheet on biologic medication. Before, any medication that had to be self-injected was automatically not covered {Humira is a self-injected medication, and there are no generics}. The insurance company had generics listed, but wasn't aware that those generics were never actually prescribed for Crohn's disease. By the next policy year, my biologic was partially covered, and prescription medication co-pays applied to our deductible. 

Not everyone can affect policy changes; most employers can't be concerned with every single individual health need. But in my situation, several employees faced the same issue, and I was the final straw that caused our HR department to make a change. In this case, talking with HR benefited employees company-wide.

Your Health Comes First
At the end of the day, your health needs to come first. You might have to slow down at work, work fewer hours, or make a change. I realize that's easier said than done, especially when you are doing everything you can to provide for your family and/or make ends meet. But you won't be able to work at all if you don't manage your symptoms and keep yourself healthy. So be sure you are also taking care of yourself outside of work. Don't run yourself ragged; I had to drastically reduce my activities aside from work so that I could have the energy I needed to go to work. It wasn't fun, and I felt like an old lady going to bed at 8:30pm every night. But it's what my body needed to stay healthy. It's what I needed to do to keep my job.

In some cases, it may be necessary to take a step back. If you have the support and opportunity to do so, don't be ashamed of that. Your health is important, and you shouldn't be embarrassed for having to do what is necessary to get yourself healthy. Work hard when you can, and take care of your body when you can't. 

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