I have been thinking a lot about managing physical and mental impairments recently. Not the permanent ones, but the ones that may come on suddenly and impede what we consider to be our “normal” functioning ability. The subject is on my mind for two reasons. First, because in the past few years we have heard of so many more instances of workers facing mental health or substance abuse issues, or newly diagnosed as adults with conditions like ADHD for which they are being prescribed medications or other treatment. Second, because I have been facing down my own physical and mental health issue – a chronic medical condition that at its most severe can produce hours-long, paralyzing vertigo attacks and hearing loss.
In my case, prior to the pandemic I thought I had my condition largely under control through a combination of diet and medication. Then I took the weight of the world on my shoulders as we heard the progressively more bleak stories of the impact of COVID-19, my vertigo attacks returned, and they became more frequent, less predictable and more debilitating. I lost 50 percent of my hearing in one ear, and the status quo clearly was not sustainable. I took the rare step of opting for surgery five weeks ago, a minor surgery with great odds of stopping the vertigo attacks (and thereby stemming the hearing loss).
I had anticipated a weekend for my recovery from surgery, and allowed a cushion of two additional days when I was scheduled to be out for religious observance. I had a roster of ongoing matters and deliverables, but no worries about working through all of them immediately following the holiday. I didn’t even set an out-of-office message, figuring I could return any necessary calls or emails as soon as the anesthesia wore off.
The surgery went as planned. The recovery did not. My weekend was spent sedated in the hospital, trying to make the world stop spinning. I rested at home over the holiday and then tried to resume my work in short intervals, from my recovery bed. My colleagues covered for me on some matters, and some I pushed off or worked through at less than my regular pace. I built in downtime between my meetings so I could just rest, give my eyes a break, and regain my strength for my next meeting or project. I had a running list of all my deliverables and gradually made my way through completing them.
By week four, the list had been reduced to just a few ongoing matters. But while I had seen gradual, albeit painfully slow, improvement in my first three weeks, I began to backslide. I was stretching out six hours of productive work over a 10 to 12 hour daily window, and by 8 pm, a milder version of the old vertigo was returning, leaving me helpless to do anything for 45 minute intervals and so exhausted thereafter that I had to call it quits for the night. By the weekend, the vertigo was back with a major roar, sudden, fierce and completely debilitating attacks that had me violently ill and confined to my bed. Clearly something had to change.
This past Monday, I confronted my own situation. I called out the areas in which I was not delivering at my expected level – the blog articles I had not even brought myself to start writing, the training materials I had only half-developed, the investigation I’d had to decline taking on for a new client and the one that was in danger of stalling – and I took some sage advice from a respected teacher. I put myself on medical leave (you can do that when you own the business). I emailed clients to request to push out some deadlines, I set out-of-office messages on my phone and email, I went for a walk outside, and then I went to bed. I saw my doctor the next day, who has put me on a new medication that is so far keeping the vertigo away. I am continuing to walk outside each day, I am accepting the care of my family and friends, and until now I had almost entirely retired my laptop and work emails.
And it is working. I feel slowed by the medication, but freed of the oppressive weight of the vertigo I was perpetually fighting off. I am not entirely steady on my feet, but my walks on flat terrain help to clear my head. And ideas and inspiration to write, the lifeblood of my professional existence, are flowing once again.
Perhaps this is too much disclosure of personal information. Perhaps I have spent just a few too many hours listening to Moth hour story podcasts on National Public Radio this past month when the vertigo left me unable to absorb any form of visual engagement. But I share all this because, while I hope my particular ordeal is unique, I am afraid that the themes of wanting to continue to deliver at work, not wanting to admit the scope of the problem, not wanting to accept too much help, and not giving in to “defeat” are more universal and more prevalent in our workplaces than we may recognize.
For those of you in circumstances like mine, I see you and I empathize. But I also want to educate because going it alone is not your only option. If you are suffering from a serious medical condition, it may qualify as a “disability” under federal law and even more likely so under the law in states like New York, Connecticut, New Jersey and others. What that means is that you are entitled to help to enable you to perform the essential functions of your job. In New York City they call it a “cooperative dialogue” process and I like the friendliness of that phrasing.
You will likely be asked for documentation from your health care provider, but most employers I work with genuinely want to help and support you. Certainly the work needs to get done, but particularly if yours is just a short-term debilitating condition, and particularly if you are part of a larger organization, it may be possible to temporarily shift certain projects or responsibilities to colleagues who can help cover. Sometimes deadlines are more aspirational than essential, and they can be shifted for compelling circumstances. And sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself and everyone around you is to just step away for a little bit, take a leave of absence and allow your body and mind the time and space to heal.
Marvel characters aside, none of us are superheroes. All of us, at some point, face circumstances usually not of our choosing that interfere with the career trajectory, performance standards and aspirations that we set for ourselves. If you are like me, the hardest step in that situation is recognizing our own limitations – to ourselves, and to those we work with. But health issues do not typically resolve themselves just by pretending they do not exist, and the caliber of work we can deliver under trying circumstances often does not meet our own lofty standards. Make the call, and if you need it, ask for the help.
By Tracey I. Levy