I think we have to be wary when we work with chronic illness about the stress of work and the stress we are always under due to chronic illness or chronic pain… which can compound quite fast, especially if we are exceeding our limits in order to function at work.

I wrote a post recently on chronic stress and ways to cope with it. Which might be things we would have to be Particularly aware of when working with chronic pain and illness.

Chronic illness: Work burnout

The problem is with working with chronic pain and chronic illness are:

  1. We have much more consistent stress to deal with
  2. It is much more difficult to do the pacing we know we need to do to avoid the Boom and Bust cycles of our illness.
  3. We can exceed our limits easily and end up Pushing Through to get through the day or week… and this always has a cost.
  4. We may have little to no understanding in the workplace causing stress with our employer and co-workers.
  5. We may have little to no accommodation depending on the place.

And, therefore, I believe we are at a much higher risk of burnout and faster as well.

I know I did, more than once. Things got substantially worse and my doctor would put me on a short term leave… then I would go back… and within six months it would start all over. My health mental, physical, and emotional in the environment I worked was always affected negatively. I was always pushing through the pain. And I always crashed and burned eventually. Over time that goes Beyond burnout, but in the beginning, yes it is burnout for sure. A sure sign to me, like a blazing neon sign, that said ‘Hey, you cannot keep doing this’ but I ignored it because I needed to work… and that I would not recommend at all.

So let’s look at the symptoms of burnout (and the main issue with these is that We might not notice them right away because WE ALREADY FEEL THEM) –Psychology today source

Physical and emotionally drained

  • Chronic fatigue- feeling tired all the time, in the beginning, to later utter physical and emotional exhaustion with a sort of dread of the impending workday (And I mean like soul-deep dread and even despair of the looming day)
  • Insomnia- May have trouble falling or staying asleep but as it progresses the insomnia is far more severe and persistent. (This one may be hard to notice since I never slept well anyway. I had pervasive insomnia and high pain which led to little sleep)
  • Physical symptoms- Headaches, stomach and digestive issues, dizziness, chest pains, heart palpitations… (These can add to existing symptoms. OR aggravate your symptoms. My migraines went out of freaking control. Every day. Non-stop. High pain for every one. No Break Ever.)
  • Decreased immune system leads to getting sick more often (Oh yeah. Cough in my general direction and I was sick)
  • Loss of appetite- in the beginning, you may skip meals and later may just not feel hungry at all and lose a lot of weight. (for me also a lot of nausea with this)
  • Anxiety- which starts of mild but can get severe (I started getting morning panic attacks)
  • Depression- Is dangerous. You may at first feel said, worthless, hopeless, trapped, suffocated. But later you may feel life isn’t worth living and suicidal ideation and need help immediately. (This for me got severe. And ended in a suicide attempt. And then later another one)
  • Anger- Argumentative to irritability (like annoyed people would interrupt you from the insane amount of work you couldn’t ever get done)

Sarcastic, cynical, detached

  • Loss of the enjoyment- Like you cannot wait to get out of work and dread going into work. But as time passes, this can start to bleed into other parts of your life. (Work would be something you had to do but you seriously took no joy in it anymore. And when chronically ill I cut things out of my Life in order to have the energy to work so life sucked too)
  • Pessimism- negative thoughts or even just a whole negative world-view about everyone and everything- co-workers and work environment and employer. (Ooh yeah and the dark humour that comes out is sharp)
  • Isolation- no desire to socialize with co-workers and irritation if interrupted (in the end, much later, I didn’t want to associate with the new staff I met. I didn’t feel connected or want to connect at all. Constantly frustrated and annoyed at being interrupted. Just wanted to do my work)
  • Detachment- Feeling disconnected from the environment. Calling in sick more often, stop returning calls or emails, coming in late… (Absenteeism and presenteeism are common with chronic illness and chronic pain but when we get sicker and we do when we are burning out it becomes More so and the guilt that comes with that)

Feeling you lack any progress or accomplishments and begin to feel ineffective

  • Apathy and hopelessness- nothing you do is right. And nothing matters anyway.
  • Increased irritation- This comes from this sense of not being as effective as you were or this sense you are not worth as much and it comes out in irritation that can affect your work relationships
  • Lack of productivity affecting performance- Feels like you never will get it all done or anything done. And the stress Is affective performance which will cause more stress as it is noticed. (This causes more stress because you know your functionality and performance is suffering but you can’t do better anymore)

If like me you have crashed and burned working with chronic illnesses This will all sound rather familiar. We felt all this or most of it in some fashion or another. Before our health really suffered. 

The main difference is our tendency to:

  1. Blame ourselves because we are chronically ill so we cannot function like we used to so clearly it must be Our Fault
  2. The inclination to Push Through because we feel like we must
  3. To blame ourselves for any perceived failure, personally, and not because we physically or mentally cannot do full-time work

Things that can help with burnout in the beginning:

  1. Take the time to reduce stress as I pointed out in the beginning of this post- very important to manage stress when working.
  2. Socialize outside of work peeps
  3. Set boundaries at work so you do not get overwhelmed- take on no ‘extra’ responsibilities.
  4. Take your breaks and lunch- the Full time allotted and destress during them if possible. And you have to eat regularly. Maybe even do a short 10-minute walk on your lunch break.
  5. You have to keep hydrated.
  6. Definitely, do all you can to get a good night’s sleep, which obviously, is a major struggle for a lot of us. It may need some medication assistance or even some herbs (valerian is a good one) Or meditation at night. Or making sure you take the time to wind down at night. Anything you can do to improve the sleep you do get the better.
  7. Between projects do like a relaxing breathing exercise. Even a short one. Deep breath in, hold, and out slowly while relaxing your muscles. Do that a few times to just reset yourself for the next project. Some people do some mild stretching or walk about the office or work area.
  8. Maybe like me, you have a wee bit of Achiever Fever- well, learn to say No to every damn thing that comes your way.
  9. Do not take your work home. And in fact, make an effort to not even think about or talk about work at home. Leave work at work.
  10. Think about the major stressors at work and how to modify them if possible
  11. For us, because of our chronic illness, we may have to consider alternative accommodations… if things persist we may have to consider flex-hours or part-time or short term leave. It all depends on how our health is being affected by working even when we are actively trying to manage stress and symptoms. If we can’t we really, really can’t and our body will tell us so.

And then incorporate any stress coping strategies into your life that work for you.

Some people with chronic illnesses and chronic pain do work. Some of us have no choice but to work. And I know from experience it is damn hard. It is a cake layered with stresses, stigma, and discrimination. I had a damn hard time handling the level of pain I was in and working through it when it wasn’t managed… just mentally and emotionally couldn’t handle it. And I burned out. And then I became severely depressed. And then things got really bad. So I know the downward spiral that can happen. And I sure know a lot about self-blame. So I know from experience how this works. It is faster than you think. And you don’t notice as much as you’d think since all those symptoms are so normal…. just more intense really.

But I know if we have modest treatment for pain and symptoms and comorbid mental illness, and manage our stress the best we can for some of us work is possible. And most of us really, really want to work if it is possible. Possible doesn’t seem to mean easy peasy sandwich cheesy though. I mean, we have to constantly maintain a balance in our health and constantly manage the stresses of work and our body… and we all know our health is not predictable. Mine tanked two years ago when I was trying to manage part-time work and I thought maybe I was sort of getting the hang of it. Then… not so much.

So mostly this is a post to say be alert to the signs of work burnout. Be very wary and alert to it because we are more prone to it with the stresses and mental and emotional stresses we deal with on a constant basis Plus work stresses. Hopefully, our condition is basically managed in some sense of the word. Hopefully, we are managing the stress levels as best we can with what we got. Nevertheless, we still have to be very careful. When things change… and symptoms are not so managed and stress is getting to us we have this insane tendency to ignore that red flag and ‘push through’ but I know from a boatload of experience illness pushes back… Hard.

I really think we have to practice those stress management techniques and add as many as we can into our lives. Just for our wellbeing. Just because. And then if our health is managed on a decent level we may be able to do some kind of work and remain consistent with those strategies while we do. And just make sure you have boundaries at work and do not get overwhelmed with all that ‘extra’ stuff piled onto you.

And work will always be difficult to manage due to chronic illness and chronic pain- because we have symptoms that make it difficult (fatigue, lack of focus and consentration, memory issues, high pain issues, confusion, brain fog… on and on). It is a bloody challenge. So we have to resist multi-tasking at all costs, try to stick to a routine, keep notes, make sure we eat and stay hydrated, destress any way we can at work… anything that helps you with work add it in there, man.

I never had much success with it, to be honest. Too much pain. Not enough pain management. Just didn’t ever work. Burnout was always inches away. But I do know all the things I did to survive until that happened… just wasn’t sufficient. Then the vertigo. So be aware of the signs and listen to them. Some of us cannot work. Some of us can only work casually. Some of us can only work part-time. And some can work full-time. We just have to listen to our bodies on what we can and cannot do. We are all different. And different at different times in our lives. Sometimes we have to know when one isn’t working and when burnout is happening and we need to make work compromises for our health. Like when I went down to part-time… which was necessary for my wellbeing at the time (three days a week, day off between each for recovery was a perfect schedule had my health not tanked for other random reasons). We want to maintain the exact level of work that doesn’t compromise our health and wellbeing and where we can manage the increased stress level. And Know when we are not. And know when we need to make adjustments. And that isn’t always so easy.

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11 thoughts on “Chronic illness: Work burnout

  1. I can relate to so much of this right now. I’m a Teacher, and it is definitely a struggle every single day. I get so stressed I also worry that I’m going to give myself a damn heart attack.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I found balance during university… lost it when I worked full-time… totally and totally burned out. And kept working anyway. It was a bad situation. I think we really have to be aware of these risks before it happens. I think no one tells us how coping with chronic illnesses and pain can affect our stress levels and what to do about it and we are left trying to figure it out ourselves.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I had to retire at 28 due to my pain. That is 25 years ago. A long time, yet I read your post and it felt like last week. It was as though you were writing about me. That was my life back then. I had kept trying to push myself, but by pushing so hard I kept losing something else. I did eventually crash and literally couldn’t have carried on another day. It took such a long time to get ‘myself’ back, but I did. Nobody wants to give in and give up work at that age, but it was the right thing for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is my story as well. I tried, and crashed, and tried and crashed. I just kept doing it to myself over and over and getting worse and worse. Until I had to go on disability at 40. Should have at 30… but doctors and insurance companies don’t listen to you so you just push and push and push. It is a horror of a situation

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Out of the 10 years I worked in corporate while chronically ill, I could only work full time for 3 years. Every other year I worked part time with FMLA (federal and luckily state FMLA). Working part time and resting an hour each day before I picked up my kids was the only way I made it without a burnout the last three years I worked. It was still hard though and I still had a lot of symptoms daily.

    Liked by 1 person

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