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Have you or anyone you know about managed to grow in their career (good performance, promotion, reaching senior management, etc) despite having a chronic illness - and if yes, what kind of arrangements have they made to help them in the process?

I recently discovered that I have developed a condition (hypertension) that puts me at risk of damaging pretty much any part of my body, getting headaches, strokes, seizures and other organ damage. And the worst part is that I am still in my 20s and early in my career, so I would appreciate all advice on how to survive and also make a living in my profession.

My doctor told me that what will reduce my risk of deteriorating is removing all stress and moving more, doing more exercise. I am seriously confused and worried that this will be difficult for me given that I am a business/digital worker. So far I made it to junior/mid-level like management, but I fear that more responsibility could mean more stress.

This is why I would appreciate any advice, references and "success stories" from those who have experience with this kind of situation and those who might know others in this situation.

Thank you in advance

  • I’m not sure whether it’s plausible for your situation but you might want to look into using a standing desk, or even a treadmill desk, to keep moving during the day even if you’re just working at a computer. – bdesham Mar 2 '14 at 13:47
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Yes, I think you can get ahead with a serious health condition that is chronic. A whole ton of my family (30% or more) are Type II diabetics and most have managed happy and successful lives and careers while accommodating their illness. Those that have failed have failed for what I could easily call "other reasons" that are not germane to this conversation.

Things that I've seen work well...

1 - Know the most reasonable accommodations that you can make and ask for while staying on top of any regular treatment requirements.

The "antipattern" would be ignoring medical advice to push for that crazy extra thing. Find a reasonable pace, know what your body needs to stay as healthy as possible and don't violate it's limits. And know what reasonable things you could ask for.

For example - with a diabetic, eating regularly in moderation and taking insulin related medication is the key. The goal is to keep the body on an even keel with no radical shocks to the system (which is good advice for pretty much everyone). A really simple accomodation is access to refrigeration where food and medication can be stashed and a private place to administer the medication. This isn't much more than a decent workplace provides to just about anyone. Doing the little things means that big things don't have to be handled.

Things I've seen them do to address their situation:

  • Have the tools they need to be successful - the going to work stuff includes medication, fresh fruit, high fiber carbs, and there's some candy stashed at their desk. This takes care of the two riskiest situations - too much insulin, or too little, and the high fiber and fruit has more staying power, so it lets them get as much flexibility in their work day as possible.
  • No holds barred on breaking out the food. Chomping into an apple, or taking a break to heat up lunch and bring it to the extra-long meeting is something they don't hesitate to do. Much better to get the what you need when you need it than to suffer in the long run for not having it.
  • Make the time to get help and maintain health - doctor's appointments, workout times - make health something that you take as seriously as your work. Argue with anyone that being healthy is what ALLOWS you to make your work a priority - not the other way around.
  • Keep the discussion about health needs short and focused. My family doesn't broadcast their diabetic status - they just deal with it. "Just let me get some food, and I'll be right there", or "I'll be late to your meeting, I'm booked back to back and I need a quick break" - is much easier than a long discussion on exactly what the health condition is. I've noticed that many people who are newly diagnosed feel very self-conscious and have a need to justify to others things that would really be healthy for everyone.

Caveat - in most cases, if there was a severe risk, they have notified a trusted colleague on the details and the emergency plan. For example, if a diabetic seems drunk or is behaving seriously oddly, it's likely that blood sugar is out of whack. It can be high OR low, so don't just attack them with some sugar - ask and help them get the thing they need to regain balance. They also wear medical ID bracelets or necklaces.

The goal is generally preventative maintenance - keep the pace on an even keel - both in work needs and health needs and you'll be more successful because you aren't in constant emergency recovery mode.

This is actually much harder than it sounds - maintaining and developing good habits and looking for the small things that enable them is much harder than taking radical action periodically and irregularly.

2 - Reduce Stress Factors

Notice I don't say "manage stress" - I have yet to figure out what to do with stress once I've gotten some of it. Certainly there's healthy ways to blow off some stress - working out, spending time with loved ones, doing something stress relieving... but better yet is to reduce the stress factors at work so that work is simply less stress inducing. Things like:

  • Know your priorities - what is really more important than the other stuff?
  • Know your deadlines and what the expectations are - the more you leave vagueness, the more likely nasty surprises will arise.
  • Know when to ask for help - especially as a manager - know who you can ask for what and when it's best to rely on your team.
  • Be clear about your capabilities

This doesn't mean reduce what you do because you have a medical condition - a company will continue make judgements about promotions based on how much value they get from each person, so doing less does not make for a great pattern for getting ahead.

But it's my thesis that if you are more clear, and more aware of the specific goals and how to attain them, and how to leverage the team around you to get those goals accomplished than you WILL be a better and more productive manager than most, and while doing fewer hours at work than some.

Another one, however, that takes a few minutes to describe, and a lifetime to master. It's definitely an art.

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Your question boils down to something very simple. "I am in state X, I feel that a good career requires me to be Y. How can I solve this?".

Does a career require excellent fitness and high resistance to stress? This is largely based on how you define 'a good career'. This guy (http://crave.cnet.co.uk/gadgets/touch-bionics-i-limb-prosthesis-is-controlled-by-an-iphone-app-50010921/) is missing a hand, and used this to drive his prosthetics limb company towards success. Another guy wrote music notation software with his feet (http://musink.net/about/mystory.aspx), because he was unable to use his hands.

A traditional career in business management does require a high resistance to stress. You will probably not be able to work 80-hour weeks in strategy consulting. However, is that really a good gauge of 'success' ? The author of Calvin and Hobbes is pretty successful, yet he drew this inspiring comic: http://zenpencils.com/comic/128-bill-watterson-a-cartoonists-advice/

Can I adapt to become more stress resistant? Are there any workarounds for my disease? You should search for solutions in two categories. One is to adjust the workplace and environment to you, the other is to adjust yourself.

In the first category: Get a standing desk, with a treadmill if required. Try to work from home as much as possible. Accept you will sometimes be less productive. Include time buffers when you commit to deadlines.

Some situations will require you to adapt. When you go to a client, you will have to represent your company in a strong way, and not be lenient in negotiations. You can try to limit yourself to only one such meeting per day. Try to use stress reductions techniques to get through this.

I would suggest to be open to your employer. You will find that he/she will be understanding.

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