Sick of Being “Sick” in the Workplace

Tonight, I literally cried over spilt milk.

It’s something I try to avoid, since when you’re sick, unfortunate shit happens metaphorically 100 times a day. But tonight, as I was taking a heated up eggnog from Starbucks out of the microwave, I started to burn my hand, and in an effort to not drop it altogether, I held onto it longer than I should have and ended up releasing my grip far enough away from the floor that it left a festive-smelling mess all over my carpet.

Even though I can be pretty closed off and tough when I’m hit with life’s trials, I had hit a breaking point after the reality of my life really came to an ugly head this week, and the only thing I could even fathom doing in the moment, as my dog licked up the disaster like he had just won the jackpot, was sob mindlessly in my kitchen over a relatively benign event.

This is a pretty familiar reaction for me. I tend to push through much worse things because I’m used to it, and then something far less traumatic will occur and it just sends me right over the edge. You’d think someone came into my apartment and chopped the tops off of my Christmas trees (yes, trees plural, because I love decorating so much that when I was faced with 2 trees I liked in Michaels last year, I decided to take them both home and I’ve loved on them ever since.)

This week was also a set of high highs and low lows. My brother got married last weekend, and seeing so much of my family and some childhood friends at one time really brought out a side of me that had been dormant for a while. I live alone in NYC, which is normally OK because people have a tendency of bugging the shit out of me. But when you don’t interact with those that you care about, and most importantly, care about you, it’s easy to forget how great you are.

I’d like to think that I am confident in myself and what I have to offer other people, but the low that really ripped me out of wedding weekend mode was another occurence of workplace discrimination. It’s something I’ve talked about from time to time in my writing and also on my IG account (@chronicmotivation), and I wish I could say that having experienced it in the past makes each time easier, but it just doesn’t.

When you wake up every day in pain, exhausted, unable to walk well or move fast enough for a shower to be feasible before your commute, it can be really difficult to hang onto a job. For better or for worse, I’ve done this for a really long time, nearly 13 years of that time being committed to my career working in hospital operations management. I like to tell my followers that working can be really healing for the chronically ill, because when you live in a society that puts the value of a person mostly on how much money they make or have, it can be pretty easy to feel worthless when you aren’t physically able to punch a 9-5 clock.

And when you ARE well enough to consider something full-time, I tend to think that it has to be a job that you are overly passionate about, because it has to be enough for you to push through the physcal discomfort and the political bullshit that comes along with being a sick person in the workplace .

Calling it Bullshit is being kind.

I have never felt entitled. I have never put my hand out for something I haven’t earned, and I have never used my illness as a card to advance or to overlook work that I haven’t gotten done. And all of that has worked out pretty well for my employers, because I don’t use a quarter of FMLA time that I’m approved for, I take so much pride in helping other sick patients that I never call-out sick, and even when I am under the weather, I make sure that my job gets done, regardless.

So when I come back from having a great time in Boston and am motivated and excited about my life, and on day one I’m hit with learning that a position that I’ve earned 10 times over was handed to a less experienced, less educated coworker, the feeling of defeat is real. I have worked at my current hospital for 6 years, and this particular coworker was hired after me and has now been promoted twice, which is twice as many times as me.

When I asked a previous manager why I was passed over the first time, I was told that I had to “be there to do the job.” I of course followed up with questioning what I hadn’t sufficiently completed as an employee, which resulted in crickets, because I’ve never not done my work. He also told me to leave the institution I work for because I would never be promoted. Again, I was not offered a reason why. Since the manager who gave me that “advice” had already resigned and was on his way out, I figured I’d give my job the benefit of the doubt and I kept plugging along.

And then more weird stuff happened.

I had expressed interest in a project management job that my current manager previously posessed, and he told me that the position was already filled. Oddly enough, 2 years later, a new person was hired into the department, and during her orientation, one of the directors announced that it had been a lengthy search to fill… you guessed it… my manager’s old role.

About a year and a half ago, someone on my team resigned. HR had just come out with a new recruitment policy that required managers to share all open positions with their staff before posting it publicly, so the process would be transparent and fair. My manager sent an email asking us if we were interested in the position as it was, and none of us were, since it would have been a lateral move. A week later, I learned that he tapped my coworker on the shoulder, told him if he took it they’d make it worth his while, and he gained a new title, and with the promotion, a raise.

When I asked my manager why I was not considered, he told me that my coworker was due for a raise, that I made more money than him, and that he didn’t understand why I was upset because he felt he had been “accomodating” with my illness.

Question for all of you reading this: when was the last time you heard of employees only getting accomodations if they agreed to forego any and all interest in professional growth? When was the last time you heard about a sick person who decided to be sick, or who wanted to have to ask for accomodations? And finally, to my knowledge, workplace accomodations are not something that are to be given out of the kindness of a manager’s heart – they are legally required as long as the request is reasonable.

Just to be clear, because this is about to get worse: I have never asked for an accomodation. Not once. In fact, since I’ve been employed, my illness has ignorantly been overlooked on several occasions, including one of the most egregious decisions my manager made 2 years ago to move me out of my operations role because because they needed a project manager. Posting that position would have cost them at least a 6 figure salary, but I guess since they didn’t think I was “due for a raise” like my male, able-bodied coworker (…), I was TOLD I would be leaving behind the job I was hired for, and apparently, leaving behind the career path I had worked 10 years to develop. As such, I was moved to a different building and have been required to travel back and forth to various sites without any attempt to acknowledge the fact that as a physically disabled person, I now have an added expense paying for Ubers throughout the middle of the day just to accomplish the needs of my new position.

When it comes to my medical appointments, I will flex my work schedule or use my lunch break to run out so I never owe time, and I get my infusions on Saturdays to reduce my recovery time during the workweek. Additionally, all of the time that I DO take for infusion recoveries is time that I pay for. No one is doing me any favors by “allowing” me to use my sick and vacation time to pay for time off that has nothing to do with rest or relaxation, and they are certainly not doing me any favors when my paycheck is docked after I run out of the time I’ve used for those monthly treatments.

Which really begs the question: what EXACTLY is the accomodation? Would they try to write me up for the whopping 3 days a month I take off for Remicade (even though I’m violently ill for a week….)? On top of it being extremely difficult since I do have FMLA certification protecting me from that situation, it sounds pretty fucking grimy for a manager to take credit for threatening anything of the sort given the circumstance.

The moral of the story is that my illness and my work ethic are not mutually exclusive, and for a conversation about my career-path to have anything to do with my manager’s perceived support ,when I’ve done everything by the book, is wildly inappropriate.

It was at that moment that I realized an idea that I’ve referenced before, and is heartbreaking to say the least. Basically, if you are a great employee with no physical ailment and your presence at work is standard, you will be rewarded with a raise and a promotion. But if you are a great employee with an illness, even if you manage it in a way that has no negative impact on your work product, your reward is that your manager will continue to provide you the accomodating that you REQUIRE to function (and as I stated above, the accomodation that I don’t receive).

If you are a sick person in the workplace, regardless of how hard you work, you will never be starting at the same place as a non-sick coworker. The way I’ve experienced it, hard work is viewed as what’s “owed” for being a burden in a truly antiquated system. So even though I have done the same or more work than my peers, I look different, and I have different needs (which my job routinely fails to meet…), and so I am not considered for a non sick-person’s reward. I am just expected to be grateful to be allowed to work at all.

Fast forward to this past week. One of my coworkers resigned a month ago – she was in a higher role than me, also undeservedly, because she was hired a year after me, and with less experience and education (and before her probationary period was up…), she was moved into her role 3 years ago without it being posted. When I told my current manager about how terrible that was for me to endure, he told me that since it was before his time as my manager, there was nothing he could do but assure me that I would always be supported by him moving foward.

So when my coworker resigned and my mananger never mentioned it to me and the rest of our team, I had a bad feeling that history was about to repeat itself.

A few weeks went by, and I went away for a long weekend, and when I came back, I heard from a coworker that the position had been handed to the person I mentioned earlier – the same guy (ahem….) who was promoted last year into a job that was created just for him. So here I am again – being slighted for a job that I’ve worked desperately hard to move into, and with no real insight as to why.

When I had my weekly meeting with my manager on Friday, I told him I wanted to be considered for my coworker’s vacancy, since surely there was no way that what I had heard was true. He never announced the vacancy, and he never posted the position. And this time, he didn’t even send out the internal email required by Human Resources. When I told him of my interest, he started shifting nervously in his seat and told me he would be moving my coworker into the spot.

He told me we could talk about it on Monday since he had a meeting to go to, which I told him I felt necessary, since I am more senior and more educated than the person he gave the job to. I also reminded him that he didn’t communicate anything about the vacancy, and that I am very interested in learning what his reasons would be for disregarding hospital policy.

He mentioned again that I made more money than my peers (which I’m sure is barely true, and also, extremely tacky to hear). Also, what do my negotiation skills upon hire have to do with someone else’s inability to fight for the salary they want? And since that statement has been said several times now, does that just mean that I will never get a raise or promotion because they don’t want to pay me any more money? If that’s the case, what exactly am I working towards, anyway?

He said something under his breath about “fit”, which is also interesting since they had no problem throwing me into covering my coworker’s maternity leave for three months without warning. I was told on a Friday that she’d be leaving in 2 weeks, and when she had her baby on Monday, I was just expected to jump in and do the job. And lucky for them, I did… and I did it well.

So how is it that my performance evaluation, which I just received 2 weeks ago, was mostly highlighting my ability to manage 30 staff and 20 doctors in our busiest medical specialty (breast cancer) for 3 months with no hand-off or preparation? How is it that I get the most obnoxious projects and tasks to cover because I am the only one who can figure it out, but when an opportunity comes along to do just that, I am not the right “fit?”

I have held my tongue for a really long time because a) I’d like to think that hard work transcends workplace bias and b) I really need my job. But to be so blatantly disregarded when I know what I bring to the table, it destroyed me to my core. I applied for a bunch of jobs (obviously outside of my company), and I’ve thrown myself even more into the side projects I’ve been working on for the past few months, because if I’m being honest, I know that it’ll be no time for a new job to start treating me like shit like all of the rest of them have before.

This is an issue that needs to get the proper attention. In speaking with disability lawyers a few years ago, I learned that much of what’s happened to me during my career has been blatant discrimination, but it would be very difficult to prove. I would need to have any of the things said in writing or on a recording, and the fucked up part is that managers know when they are doing something wrong and are very careful not to document these decisions formally. And if I or anyone tried to pursue legal action on the basis of the experiences I’ve shared in this post, it would become public record. So if I won, maybe I’d get a year’s worth of a salary (but probably not) which would result in me needing to work again soon, and if I lost, I’d never get a job again anyway, because who is going to be interested in a candidate who has sued her employer?

It kind of reminds me of a conversation my mom and I had a few years ago. She’s almost exactly 30 years older than me, and she had gone back to school for her master’s degree. She had run into a weird scenario where even though she had been a nurse for 30 years and had more than enough knowledge in her field, hospitals started changing their requirements and young girls right out of college were getting jobs with zero experience because they were probably less expensive to hire. My mom didn’t want to give up, so she decided to go to graduate school, and when she wasn’t getting any job, I told her it was probably ageism. She naively stated that it couldn’t be ageism, because ageism is illegal. But I explained to her that no one was going to cite her age as the reason for not moving forward – I could simply dislike what someone was wearing to an interview or be a raging racist and decide to pass, and I could give Human Resources the reason that the person didn’t interview well or “wouldn’t be a good fit.”

There is no way to prove that foul play exists as long as a manager makes sure to use another excuse instead.

And that’s my problem. When it comes to employers not supporting my advancement, they’ll likely say that someone else was a better fit – when what they are really saying is “we don’t want to promote the sick girl.”

Well, enough is enough. Something needs to be said, and more importantly, something needs to be done. I encourage my social media community to work hard, and to push through their pain, and to try to find a job because of the benefits it can bring to emotional (and then sometimes, physical) health. And so many of my followers have sent me the kindest messges over the years, thanking me for helping them consider that path, or for reading their resumes, or editing cover letters, conducting mock interviews, and asking a million questions so they can find out what their passion is. Because of my prompting, a whole population of people have decided to go back to school and graduate, and others have applied for and been hired for jobs – and not just jobs for a paycheck – jobs that they care about and brings them joy.

But it’s all a scam. Unless you happen to find an employer who ACTUALLY cares about your well being and understands that a lot of the workplace “norms” are outdated and pointless, you will be busting your ass for nothing. You will hopefully receive fullfillment and satisfaction like I have for the years I’ve put in, but it’s a long hard fall when you realize that that’s where it stops. You will be training peers to be your superior, and you will be assigned all of the things that no one else wants to do. Because you should just feel lucky to be an employed sick person in general, you are not to have a voice about mistreatment in by the employer.

So with that, I will be meeting with my manager this week (or will I…?) and I have very little expectations about that conversation amounting to anything more than a diologue saturated with discrimination.

I will also be forging ahead with my life plans not relating to this job, and I can’t wait for the day where I’m on the Ellen show talking about whatever creative work made me a billionaire, happy to discuss that I made it there despite the unfair restrictions I faced as someone who is chronically ill in the workplace.

Have you or anyone else you know been discriminated against by an employer or during a job interview? How have you handled it? Feel free to leave your comments below.

All my best,

xoB

 

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