I have, like most professionals today, a deadline-driven job. I also have, unlike most, unpredictable health events.

There are periods in which I am just like everyone else. I am also very ambitious and achieving, which is what brought me to leadership positions.

My health issue strikes at me when it's least expected. Then I need to spend considerable time tending to it, which usually means immediate treatment and rest. The most intruding symptom of it is sharp chronic pain. Nobody sees it because I always look "normal" and smart - only I endure it.

I have tried working while in pain, but I have been most unproductive when doing so and I have also done many mistakes, omissions. Well, imagine you do something important while worrying about your health... It's double stress.

So the healthiest option for me means that for the company there are days - it could happen once a year, or once a month - in which I suddenly cannot work for a few days, no matter what business meetings, client meetings or deadlines there are, no matter what process needs to be taken care of by a certain deadline (there are some things I cannot delegate).

From an entirely business-rational point of view, I fear I could be considered a risk, and might be ignored for further leadership positions just because of my condition. I sometimes also fear for my current role as I have ended up postponing stuff a few times.

The "good" thing is that this doesn't happen every day. It's just purely unpredictable up to the very last minute - like an earthquake or other natural disaster (well, for me it is).

What can I do to work well with this condition, especially to meet deadlines in processes I cannot delegate?

  • 1
    Well, that's a tough question... Depending on where do you live, the LAW (dredd) forbiddens the company to make any kind of retaliation against such blockages for your growing on the company. They cannot blame you for your health condition. And as so, this cannot be considered a risk when looking for candidates for another positions - be whatever position it is. But as i said, it depends on the country... And sometimes, on what health problem it is.
    – Hugo Rocha
    Commented Dec 24, 2013 at 10:59

5 Answers 5


There are several approaches in your situation and they aren't mutually exclusive. They all boil down to accepting where you at and they require you to know where you want to go.

Accepting where you're at

You know your condition, that's a given. But what does that mean in context with the world?

My favorite metaphor is a treasure map. You know you stand between a certain rock and an oddly shaped cactus. But what does that mean for the map? Are there more places like this or is where you are completely unique?

You suddenly can become sick beyond working capability, but isn't that true for your colleagues, too? Sure, your condition is unique from the inside and please do not take this as belittling it. From the outside though, you're sick at home unable to work. There are a lot of rock-cactus-formations like that on the map.

I recognize that your condition is of chronic nature and you may be on sick leave more often than others but again from the outside that's a difference in frequency and nothing else.

Where you want to go

Do you want to stay in that managerial role? Go even higher up? Maybe rather specialize on something that's unique in the company? Switch to something with lesser deadline pressure? Start consulting in your profession instead?

This section is not meant as advice but, to open your focus up a bit.

What you can do

I'm listing several things here. Pick the ones that you expect to work best in your situation and your company.

be open about it

Talk to your superiors about your condition and what it could mean. Explain that you are perfectly capable of doing your job (they should already know) and that you just may need someone to jump in for a few days, or something else that covers your downtime. That you will make an effort to make taking over where you left off easy, but don't want to push through a pain streak for the reasons you mentioned.

Risk: the company might of course view you as unfit for your role. Being open is something you have to do very carefully.

work with your team

Talk to your team about it. Get them on the same page as you are and maybe you can get them to take over some of your tasks when you're out.

Risk: this comes down to loyalty. How loyal is your team to you? But it can also build loyalty. A team lead that shows they rely on and trust the team, have the team's back and ask team to have theirs, can build the strongest team ever.

find out and point out the true size of the problem

Like I said in the beginning, while your condition is chronic your down times might effectively not be worse than those of others getting sick randomly. If that's the case use this information as a defense if somebody pressures you.

Risk: waiting until somebody puts you on the spot for a chronic disease can be viewed as keeping something from the company that affects your ability to work for them.

How would I know?

I'm currently in a turned around version of your situation. I have to go get treatments regularly where I'm completely out of order and they're planned in advance. But I get deadlines that are random, urgent and on very short notice. And the ones setting the deadlines don't care about my schedule at all.

I got my manager on my side, explaining the situation; got support from my team that for when I'm down they would cover anything that comes up as best they can and what they can't cover, they try to keep calm; and I have some bits and pieces of info on people getting sick and how that affects a company, that show that my situation is no worse than that of others, just in case anybody tried to kick me out (which hasn't happened yet, because the support I get is just awesome).

  • Thank you for your advice CMW. I really like my current job/role/company, so I think my options are few. I guess the most important aspect to work on will be team loyalty. I also cannot work independently/alone/self-employed as I thrive on teamwork and being part of a big organization. I have tried it a few times and it was one of the worst things I ever experienced in my life - after my condition of course. Commented Dec 22, 2013 at 10:47
  • 2
    @BrokenButBold I know how you feel. Working alone didn't work too well for me either, but I hope having these pointers in the question may help future readers. Having a loyal team, can help you through many bad situations, including having to change the company. It's not unheard of that a team lead took a whole team with them when leaving, because they were so loyal to him.
    – CMW
    Commented Dec 22, 2013 at 10:50

Some employers are cool with this. They will arrange to have a way to cover if you're suddenly out of commission for a few days on no notice. It's worth it to have you on the team. Some are not. I don't think a company will change their position on this organically - if you current employer is getting annoyed every time you're out sick, they aren't going to just stop getting annoyed, and if your current employer is ok with it, they will probably continue to be ok with it. But it can't hurt to have an open conversation about it and do all you can to minimize the disruption for them.

Something like, on returning from a no-notice multi-day absence and first saying how reassuring it was to know they were ok with you taking the time off: "I was concerned about how xyz would get taken care of with me away. Was it postponed, or who dealt with it?" Then, on getting an answer, "Is there something I could be doing regularly that would make things easier when I get called away like this?" After having as long a conversation as need be about how to make things best for the company, you could then wrap up with again expressing your appreciation for their support around your working conditions.

A good percentage of the people I know who work for themselves do so because their lives won't fit into 9-5 and other people's timelines. You might be one such person. You can hire staff who will always be there, and do your part when and as you can. This requires being very good, of course, but chances are if you're good enough to be accepted in a 9-5 world while struggling with chronic pain, you're very good. So if an employer isn't willing to set this situation up for you, you might be able to set it up for yourself.


So, my general litmus test as a manager is for any employee, I want to be able to ask:

  • What does the business and the team need this person to do and in what time frame?
  • What is a fair share of work for this person at this level/in this role?

And this varies a LOT by the company and the role. In one company or role, the deadlines may be very soft and a slip of a couple days is fine so long as it doesn't happen frequently. In another company or role, the slip of a deadline could cost the company a huge amount of money in either lost profits, or penalties. Those kind of impacts have a direct correlation to the seriousness of the problem when an employee blows a deadline - even for a health related reason.

By the same token, a manager has to look at what's a fair division of work at a given pay grade and/or role within the company. It's unfair to allow one person to do less work and give them the same promotions/raises if they aren't putting the same value into the company.

So... working between these vectors, I'd look for opportunities this way...

1 - Don't blow deadlines - if you know the condition is unpredictable, stay farther ahead of your deadlines than a normal person would. Make sure you have a buffer that let's you be ill and still succeed at work. That can even include client meetings - where a client sees you as great and very responsive 95% of the time, it probably isn't a huge deal if you miss a deadline, particularly if they get a very clear, very well-worded mail and apology as soon as you know you will be out.

2 - Work with your boss to mitigate missed deadlines - If missing a deadline isn't a drop-dead failure, find a way that you can help make up for missed time if you are the cause of missing the deadline. It may mean that instead of doing the standard 100 hours of work, you end up taking on an extra 10 or 20 hours to help dig out of the hole that was created by your absence - but means you are picking up the slack when you can and continuing to contribute.

3 - Work with your boss to blend life and work in creative ways - For example, if you could take pain meds and lie down in a quiet, dark room and be fine in 4 hours, is there a room you could use for that in the office? Could they create one? Similar compensations are often made for nursing mothers, people who need drug treatments that can't be administered easily in a bathroom, or other situations.

4 - Work towards roles with more flexible schedule demands. - not everyone can do every role. If the way towards promotions is a very full plate of deadlines and scheduled meetings that absolutely cannot be missed, then this may not be the right role for you. Research other options or other companies.

Quite a few of these tips involve disclosing your condition to the boss. This is where I delicately move around the "it depends, get a lawyer" issue - in the US, there's a lot of health conditions that are protected by law, and with the help of a doctor's diagnosis and some legal consultation, you can ask for accommodations that allow you to succeed at work so long as what you ask for is reasonable for the business that employs you. Mileage varies remarkably here - and it is a legal and cultural thing whether or not you want to admit to a given health condition in a given country.


Work with your employer to construct a more resilient structure.

As an example, you could have an assistant position in your team for someone who will be able to step in when you are unwell; assuming you are still able to talk to them about the current status of a project, to explain details etc, then handover is still very possible.

In any team there will be people looking to step up the ladder, so there should be willing candidates for such a role. They may become competition for you, but there is no silver bullet here.

In an ideal world I would suggest becoming a 2-person company with someone else, and being taken on together by an employer. That way you could train them to be able to step in, and come to some arrangement on pay and training with them privately. Unusual arrangements like this, however, are usually hard to sell to employers.

By approaching your employer to seek to address the issue constructively, you should be able to come to a workable arrangement. If you do not, then events may decide things for you.


I believe a manager is most successful when they have made themselves redundant. At least at the tactical/operational level. I would suggest you work on creating a system and environment that empowers and enables your staff to do their job more efficiently, remove common roadblocks, automate where possible, make things less person-dependent. This will not remove your from the scene or make you lose your job. Rather, you will start to get recognised as a "transformation specialist" and may be courted for similar positions. Best of luck.

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