Can I Keep Working with Fibromyalgia or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome?

A Tough Decision

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Question: Can I Keep Working with Fibromyalgia or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome?

I've been having a ton of health problems for about the last year, and after tests to eliminate a whole bunch of things, my doctor is now saying I might have fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome. It's gotten hard to get through a day of work, and by the end of the week, I'm in really rough shape. Then I have a couple of days to mostly recover, and I'm back to killing myself again.

This all has me wondering – can I keep working if I have one of these conditions? Or will I have to quit and go on disability or something?

Answer:

The problems you're having with work are similar to what a lot of us with fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome go through. Monday isn't bad, but by Wednesday you're dying for the weekend, and when the weekend comes you can't do much but try to rest up for Monday.

The answer to your question – "Can I keep working?" – is a complicated one, and it really depends on your unique situation.

Symptoms & Severity

Some of the major factors that influence whether you can work include:

  • What symptoms you have,
  • How severe they are,
  • How your job impacts your symptoms,
  • And how your symptoms impact your job performance.

When I first developed fibromyalgia, for example, I was working as a TV news producer. It was an intensely stressful job in a noisy, chaotic environment.

The more stress I was under, the more pain I was in. Pain led to fibro fog (short-term memory impairment, word loss, inability to multitask, etc.) The noise and chaos made me anxious and, combined with the stress, pushed me to panic attacks. The job I used to love became a nightmare scenario.

As hard as I tried to prevent it, my job performance gradually declined as my illness became more severe.

I realized I had to leave. If I hadn't, I'm certain my boss eventually would have found some non-health-related reason to fire me. While that seems like a lousy thing to do to someone, I see that he'd have needed to do it for the sake of the company and my co-workers – I missed too many days, and I couldn't do the job well enough when I was there.

If I'd still been at an earlier job, though, it may have been a different story. When I was a reporter for a small newspaper that only published twice a month, I worked in a nice, quiet room. I rarely felt any deadline pressure. Perhaps if I'd stayed there instead of going back to a TV job, my symptoms wouldn't have become so severe. As long as the fibro fog didn't get too bad, I may have been able to keep working.

Staying on the Job

The good news is that many people with fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome -- millions of them, in fact -- do continue to hold a job. However, sometimes it takes some changes.

Most employers are legally obligated to make reasonable accommodations so that you can work in spite of your health problems.

That could mean something simple like an ergonomic keyboard, or a stool so you can sit instead of standing. It could also be giving you written instructions to compensate for memory problems, or modifying your hours.

Some people with fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome have to switch to a different job. In my case, I was able to find work as a freelance writer, which allowed me to work from home, set my own hours, and determine my own workload. Other people have moved from a physical job to a desk job, or to part-time instead of full-time.

If you come to the conclusion that you do have to quit working because of your condition, you may be able to qualify for disability insurance through your job. Be sure to ask your supervisor or human resources department about it. You may also be eligible for Social Security Disability through the government.

Whether to continue working is a big decision, and in the end, you're the only one who can make that decision for you.

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