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Healthy Living
May 26, 2023

Working With an Autoimmune Disease — How to Work While Managing Your Health

Learn how to balance work and health while living with an autoimmune disease. Discover practical tips to prioritizing your well-being while working.
Medically Reviewed
Written by
Paige Milatz
Medically Reviewed by
Dr. Danielle Desroche

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Whether you’re a part-time employee, a full-time worker, an entrepreneur, a contributor to a family business, or in the middle of a career change, a large portion of your daily life is probably devoted to your job. Regardless of the type of job or career you currently hold, the common theme is this: Being part of the workforce takes time and energy. So when you’re not only working, but working with an autoimmune disease, the pressures of the workplace can feel even greater.

Being diagnosed with autoimmune disease is without a doubt life-changing, and it may seem initially challenging to figure out what role a job or profession has in your autoimmune journey. With a little creativity and grit, and a thorough understanding of your workplace rights, you may find that working with an autoimmune disease is achievable and beneficial to your overall well being. This article will inspire and empower you to develop a healthy relationship with work so you can achieve your optimal level of health without having to give up your career goals.

woman sitting at a table with her laptop and notepad while drinking water

The Modern Workplace

Over 200 years ago, it was common for workers to be clocking in 70 or more hours per week. In the ensuing centuries, the workweek has become relatively stable at 5 days a week with around 40 hours in that period. Remote work has also become increasingly common, and is trending towards being a permanent shift in the post-pandemic era. So where does working with an autoimmune disease fit into this landscape? (Source, Source)

Because there are nearly 100 autoimmune diseases and they affect each individual differently, it’s important to note there’s not a “one-size-fits-all” approach for holding a job while managing your symptoms. Here are a few possible scenarios, paired with some helpful ideas that showcase how to successfully navigate the workplace with an autoimmune disease.

  • You’ve been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease for some time, and though your common symptoms are chronic and present, you’re still able to function as you did before with your current work-related duties and tasks. According to the American Disabilities Act (ADA), you are not required to disclose your health condition, especially when you require no special accommodations. (Source)
  • You’re being hired at a new company and are in need of an ergonomic work set-up to help manage pain due to rheumatoid arthritis. Though you are not required to disclose your specific diagnosis, giving general information about your condition may be necessary for your employer to accommodate your needs. (Source)
  • Your plaque psoriasis is flaring up and preventing you from working. If your employer offers short-term disability insurance (and you’ve signed up for this benefit), you can work with your human resources (HR) department to ensure your eligibility and use this benefit until your health improves. Each disability plan is different, so it’s important to understand your company’s policies. (Source)
  • You’re dealing with debilitating fatigue, joint pain, and skin rashes and need to take an extended leave of absence from your job to tend to healing your systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) symptoms. Under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), if your employer is covered and you are an eligible employee, you can take up to 12 workweeks of unpaid leave in a 12 month period. (Source)

You may encounter many potential situations while working with an autoimmune disease, and this list is in no way comprehensive. Understanding your insurance benefits, talking with a trusted HR employee at your place of employment, and knowing your basic rights under the ADA will help you navigate your job with wisdom and grace. A great resource for more in-depth research is The Job Accommodation Network, which offers free, expert, and confidential guidance to people with work accommodation and disability questions.

a side view of a computer monitor, keyboard, and mouse

What’s a Disability, Anyway?

After receiving an autoimmune diagnosis, it may be difficult to reconcile yourself with the fact that you now have a chronic health condition. You are so much more than what your medical record says, but the label of your condition may make you feel more vulnerable. The ADA is one source of protection from discrimination in the workplace and has a broad list of conditions that are covered under the umbrella of disability, which is defined as “an impairment that substantially limits a major life activity.” (Source)

Though there may be new terms to reckon with, lifestyle changes to enact, and different foods to enhance your healing, your life — both at work and at home — doesn’t have to be defined by your diagnosis.

In the next sections, we’ll discuss some creative adjustments you can make at work to tend to your well being at the office, and carry the conversation deeper to talk about the important connection between working and your autoimmune health.

a woman sitting at a home office desk petting a dog

Working Creatively

There are many exciting possibilities when it comes to making your health a priority, even on the job. Brainstorming is an easy way to cultivate fresh ideas that support your wellbeing while on the clock.

Start by asking yourself:

  • What part of my daily routine at work takes the most energy?
  • In what situations do I feel my immune response and symptoms the strongest?
  • When do I feel my best at work?
  • Where could I schedule a micro-break to restore my mental and physical energy throughout the day?
  • What does a successful day at work look like for me?

Answering these questions and making a list of small changes that have the potential to inject your workday with more mindful, healthy habits could have a profound impact on your energy and symptom management. Even a shift as small as adjusting your chair height or computer screen level could promote healthier posture and blood flow, leading you to feel less fatigued by the end of the day.

One study that looks at fatigue management for people with multiple sclerosis (MS) states that mindfulness-based activities as well as ergonomic equipment are 2 non-pharmacological treatment strategies that can help alleviate fatigue, one of the most debilitating aspects of MS. These options are both easily implemented in a work setting with potentially powerful results. (Source)

And the creativity doesn’t have to stop there! Are there coworkers you could start a lunchtime walking group with? A quiet, unused space for you and other employees to retreat for a moment of solitude? The chance to create a physical activity or stress management challenge among team members? Even asking for your loved ones’ input may bring up new perspectives you hadn’t previously considered. Bringing your full self to your job and setting a positive example of work–life balance will benefit you and the culture of your workplace.

an open laptop with a blank screen balancing on a stack of books

The Vital Connection Between Work and Your Holistic Wellness

Some days, when symptoms are particularly present and just getting your day started feels like a monumental task, working could feel like the very last thing you want to do. How can you move past these day-to-day challenges, while balancing the acts of caring for your health and staying on the course of your desired career path?

In these moments, it’s vital to consider the bigger picture, the overarching vision for the potential impact of a job, especially for women. Often we think of wellness in terms of what we’re feeding our bodies or how much exercise or sleep we’re getting, but financial wellness is a critical dimension to consider — a piece of the pie that should not be ignored.

Working also gives many people a sense of purpose. When your professional environment provides you with highly-engaging projects, people you enjoy collaborating with, and a cause that is personally meaningful to you, work can be one element that adds purpose into life. Studies show that adults who have a sense of purpose are more likely to partake in preventative health care services, and maintain better fitness later in life. (Source, Source)

Also consider how being part of a supportive team and devoting your brainpower to work-related tasks could give you a much-needed reprieve from thinking about your symptoms and struggles as you engage in your role at work. Sometimes, stepping away from our common thought patterns about ourselves and our health can give us the space to reapproach these topics with a more helpful perspective.

Having a motivating purpose in life and contributing to a larger mission in meaningful ways are relevant examples of why working with an autoimmune disease may benefit your overall quality of life and wellness. Your career is not limited by your diagnosis, and your career goals and dreams can be realized through persistence, creativity, and a passionate spirit that never falters in self-belief.  

two people sitting down across from each other at a small table

The Bottom Line on Working With an Autoimmune Disease

As this article has made clear, it’s possible to work a job while also managing your autoimmune symptoms. Your career path and care plan will look unique to you, but remember that you are never alone. WellTheory is here to provide support through personalized autoimmune care to help you find ways to best manage your symptoms.

Work requires time and energy, and with that time and energy output you are pretty much guaranteed to acquire some level of stress. There are many ways to destress in the moment that require no equipment and little space. This article on reducing the chronic-stress hormone cortisol is a great place to start.

And a friendly reminder that you know your body best! No one else is working the hours that you are or experiencing your autoimmune condition. If there’s an inkling or an instinct that’s nudging you to slow down or work toward a certain idea, one that you think would improve your health and worklife, give this feeling some serious thought. You may even consider bringing your creative ideas to your next health care appointment to discuss alternative strategies with a health care professional and receive additional feedback or support. There is no one right way to work while managing an autoimmune disease— only what works best for you.

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Give yourself the time and space to find out what your ideal routine looks like to support your autoimmunity. Over 75 days, you’ll incorporate new routines focused on diet, sleep, movement, stress management, and lifestyle to make steady, sustainable progress towards reducing your symptoms.”
Ellen Rudolph
WellTheory Founder & CEO