It’s no secret that a chronic illness can severely impact your ability to have a normal career, and endometriosis is no exception. Whilst some amazing endo warriors are able to manage extremely active careers such as badassing their way through the military, others are not so lucky. When endometriosis affects your ability just to get out of bed, it is guaranteed to affect your job. It can be extremely disheartening to watch a career you’ve worked hard on disappear down the drain. I have a Masters of Law and I love litigation and the important work I do, but unless my health takes a dramatic turn for the better soon, I’m going to have to bow out and move into a less active role, such as drafting legislation or policy (not my area of interest at all). If it gets worse, I may not be able to work at all, and my seven years at university earning multiple degrees may be rendered worthless, economically speaking. If that happens, I’m going to have to try and turn this blog into a business. Hopefully that explains why I am desperately keen for readers. Tell your friends. Make them feel guilty so they come and read this.
In this post I want to talk about some careers that are definitely easier for people with endo, and some tips and tricks on getting through the harder ones.
The best jobs for a person with endometriosis will be those that:-
- Allow flexible working days;
- Don’t involve heavy physical activity; and
- Come with an understanding boss.
Obviously, the easiest way to achieve all of these things is to have a job that lets you work from home. There are a multitude of jobs that allow you to do that, either self-employed, freelance, or as an employee. Some people blog. Some people write articles for online publications. Some people proof-read or edit, or design websites, or make and sell things on Etsy, Amazon and Ebay. Others pick up jobs through websites like Airtasker, or run Tupperware parties. Some people make a living out of house-sitting.
There are downsides to many of these, though. Whenever you work from home your social interaction tends to be limited, which is always a problem with a disease that automatically limits your ability to socialise anyway. Not dealing with office dramas may be a blessing for a short period, but long term it can really negatively affect your mood.
Many of the jobs listed are not financially stable, either. Working the 9-5 has two major benefits over freelance or self-employment – guaranteed income, and superannuation. Trying to kick-start your own business is incredibly challenging and it often takes a while before you break even financially. Even then, you may make only pocket change, which could be fine if you have a fully-employed partner who can afford to support the family, but isn’t so great if you are the sole bread-winner.
In addition, you need some sort of marketable skill. What if you aren’t a great writer, aren’t tech-savvy enough to build a website or offer online tech support, and don’t have some sort of skill or item that you can easily sell online? Sure, you could turn to Airtasker, but a lot of the jobs on offer are physically demanding (cleaning or helping people move) or poorly paid (or both).
Being employed to do something like parties may provide a little more financial security, but it does require being able to commit to dates and times, carry all your stuff, and there is usually an initial buy-in to get your starter kit. It’s usually great value, but it’s also usually not cheap.
However, the ability to earn money with nothing but a laptop and a comfy sofa would be a great comfort, and not having to worry about the boss pestering you about not being in the office again would take a big load off. Best of all, no one cares if you wear your pjs to work when it’s just you at home.
At the other end of the spectrum we have more traditional 9-5 jobs. They can encompass everything from mobile services like gardening or plumbing, hardcore active jobs like construction or aerial window-washing, on-your-feet-for-hours jobs like medical staff, retail workers or service professionals, or your bog-standard office job.
The more active your job and the worse your endo, the harder you are going to find it, as a general rule.
My job involves a fair amount of sitting on my bottom typing letters, researching, and making phone calls, which is all fine and dandy. It also involves a lot of hurrying to court and, when at court, dashing back and forth filing documents, corralling clients, and trying to find which magistrate I’m supposed to be before. It can get active. The activity is generally ok while it lasts because I am far too stressed and absorbed in what I’m doing to notice the building pain, but when I stop, it hits me like a ton of bricks. That’s not great if I’m sitting at the bar table trying to concentrate on what the other party or the magistrate is saying and the pain comes rolling in. Judicial officers don’t like it when you don’t pay attention.
On the plus side, my job pays relatively well and contributes to my super at an unusually high rate. Leave rates are generous (not that I have any left) and I have the option to ask to go part-time (which I can’t afford and don’t want).
The good thing about an office job where you can sit down is you can generally arm yourself with tea and heatpacks. I honestly don’t know how people with endo in more active jobs do it. You are heroes for coping that well. Nurses and surgeons leave me gobsmacked.
One of the hardest things I find about dealing with an office job is coping with the almost unavoidable notion that you are unreliable. When you have big chunks of time where you simply cannot be at work, that’s an impression that is extremely hard to counteract, because it is partially true. It’s your health that’s unreliable, not you as a person. Unfortunately, the difference is pretty much semantics for your boss and the colleagues that have to pick up your work in your absence. Thankfully an office comes with some workplace guarantees and employment law protections, which I will talk more about in another article, to allow you some sense of job security.
That’s my rather ambivalent run-down of types of employment for the chronically ill. They all have pros and cons. Ultimately it’s up to each individual to figure out what fits with their pain level, abilities and lifestyle. The unfortunate reality is that many of us will have to work jobs we can barely manage to be able to make a liveable wage, and others will sacrifice dreams we have worked incredibly hard for because they are literally not physical possibilities any more. Poverty is always lurking in the background, reminding us that we aren’t allowed to give up in a world that largely values people for their productivity.
Coping at work
If your job allows, there are a couple of things I absolutely encourage you to do.
Have a heatpack ready
You may get some side-eye from colleagues (probably male) who think it is scandalous to have any appearance of period pain (they probably call it “lady troubles” or something similar), particularly when they figure out you use your heatpack more than one week per month. Stuff ’em. Let them be scandalised. Most people will hopefully just give you a supportive smile or have the tact to pretend it’s normal to be clutching a wheat bag to your stomach.
Keep painkillers on hand (but not the strong ones)
Always have panadol and/or ibuprofen ready if they offer you any sort of relief at all. I wouldn’t recommend going much strong at work because stronger drugs have a higher likelihood of messing with your thought processes. If I take a tramadol and then try to give legal advice I’m going a long way towards getting sued.
Assess carefully whether to tell your boss/colleagues
Some bosses are great at understanding and can help you much more when they know what is what. Others will use your illness as an excuse to come down hard on you, give you unfair performance reviews, and build a case to fire you. There may be legal remedies but that doesn’t mean it is fun to go through. Get a feel for them. If you think they are trustworthy and will support you, let them know what you are going through and give them a heads up that there will be times when you can’t be as reliable as you would like, and you will do everything you can to make up for that. Otherwise, I would consider keeping the official diagnosis to yourself until you don’t have much of a choice but to reveal it.
If you have some colleagues that you can trust to be supportive, let them know. Having just one person in the workplace you can ask for help on bad days can make all the difference.
I’m blessed with a great group of colleagues and I am extremely open about my endometriosis, the effects on my life, and what I have to go through medically. I’m in a position where my bosses know anyway, and are mostly pretty good about it, so I use the opportunity to raise awareness, educate, and have a good whinge. Some workplaces are not so open and this would not be professional – assess the vibe of your colleagues and workplace before spilling the beans to all and sundry. I should also emphasise – don’t tell your clients/customers/whomever unless you are in a position where you aren’t left with a choice. That’s unlikely to be viewed as professional and generally speaking, you don’t want clients knowing too much about you anyway.
Rest when you can
If an opportunity comes up for you to take a quick lie-down or maybe even do some stretches, take it. Get to bed early, sleep in for as long as you can. If you have a quiet period coming up at work and you have some leave that you can’t use for medical purposes, snatch that opportunity. Being well-rested can help reduce the likelihood of flare-ups.
Rest mentally as well. Literally every doctor, medical article and online guru ever says to avoid stress, but I have yet to encounter a job that doesn’t carry its own unique way of stressing you out anyway. I cannot avoid work-related stress unless I don’t work. I will always have clients in bad situations, rapidly-approaching deadlines, and totally bizarre work emergencies. You can’t get away from that, unless it is your job to review beaches in the Bahamas or something. (If it is, please, hook a girl up.) That’s why you should take the time you can to relax and unwind. Avoid taking work home, or out of the home office. Practice mindfulness and the more indulgent forms of self-care. If you can exercise, get those lovely endorphines flowing. See friends. Hang out with dogs. Do things that make you happy whenever you can.
Invest in a Livia or Painmate
I’ve already discussed portable TENS machines a bit here, and honestly, having a discreet little TENS you can have under your clothes at your desk is just wonderful. I find it so much more effective than painkillers.
Build up your leave
This isn’t advice I like giving. I want to say “take the time your body needs to rest and don’t feel guilty about it.” I want to be able to do it, too. Trouble is, that’s not conducive to holding down a job and bringing in an income, and that is a reality too many of us with chronic illnesses face. On the days where you are in pain but can still make it in, you have to, because you need to save up that leave and that money against the days where you just can’t. It’s awful and I hate it, but that is the way we have to live.
Know when to call it quits
In the end, there is only so much you can force your body through. Listen to yourself. If you literally cannot manage work any more, there is no shame in reducing your hours or leaving the workforce altogether. Your work is not your value as a person. Your productivity is not a measure of your worth.
I know that leaving the workforce is a terrifying idea for many people for financial reasons, and in the future I want to do a post on accessing Centrelink, the NDIS, and other supports for people who cannot or should not work.
Do you have any tips and tricks to get you through the work day? How have you balanced a career with your endometriosis?