Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist who specializes in helping clients deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses.
Emily has a condition that requires some special accommodations. She is able to work at home some days when she is not feeling well and to take off time for appointments as needed. Some days, she may need to come in late if she has trouble getting started.
When these situations arise, her coworkers may need to pick up a few of her tasks. This might include answering her phone, responding to requests from their manager, or going to a meeting for her.
Feeling like a burden
Emily feels bad on those days. It’s not like anyone has expressed frustration with her. Actually, they have all seemed willing to pitch in. She and her coworkers have worked together for years, since before her chronic condition interfered with her ability to work at her full capacity, and her relationships have always been friendly. But still, Emily worries that they may feel inconvenienced, and that she is creating more stress in an already demanding workplace.
“I feel guilty,” Emily said to me. “They’re already working hard enough. And then they have to add more on their plate because of me.”
What about you? Does your chronic condition affect your ability to perform at your peak, and require that your coworkers pick up the slack? If so, maybe your situation is similar to Emily’s and you have coworkers who are more than willing to step in. Or, on the other hand, some of your coworkers may not be so happy to help out, and may make their displeasure obvious.
Here’s my perspective:
Remember: you didn’t choose this. In a perfect world, you would be reporting for work each and every day and doing the best job possible. But the world isn’t perfect. You are still doing the best job possible, but your chronic condition can throw some curveballs your way. This was not something you chose, that’s for sure. You might want to remind yourself of this on those days when you are struggling with guilt and self-criticism.
Be careful about labeling yourself. Speaking of self-criticism, watch out for those negative labels that can pop up when you are thinking about coworkers cranking out the work when you can’t be there to help them. What are your favorite words when you want to get down on yourself? Weak? Slacker Loser? I’ve heard them all from my clients when they are in self-critical mode. Give yourself credit for doing the best you can. And I repeat: You didn’t choose this.
Don’t try to be a mind reader. When you’re concerned about what other people are thinking, it’s only human nature for your mind to go to town on imagining all kinds of possibilities. Most likely, your mind gravitates toward the worst scenario. Leaving you feeling like your coworkers, or at least some of them, have had it with you and the extra work you send their way. But remember, you’re not qualified to read minds. Your coworkers could just as easily be concerned about you and willing to help out. And you have no control over what they think. All the more reason to not make assumptions that will only make you unhappy.
Instead, assume goodwill. People are basically well intentioned at heart. Just like you are. So focus on the belief in the essential goodness of your coworkers. Even the complainers and eye-rollers, regardless of how they may appear. Maintaining this focus will help you feel less guilty and more grateful.
If you do sense a problem, address it directly. Sure, not everybody is on board with helping out a coworker in need. You may have coworkers who are already at their limit in terms of what they can give to the job, or who are basically unhappy in their role or with your organization. If you sense that a coworker has an issue with any limitations or accommodations you need, you might ask them to sit down and have a talk. Start by letting them know how much you appreciate the extra support they give. Offer to answer any questions about why you can’t always handle all of your job responsibilities. Keep the communication open.
See where you can give an extra hand. Are there days when you’re feeling your best, and either have some downtime or feel up to going the extra mile? This might be a time to reach out to some of your coworkers—or your boss—and offer to give them a hand. This is like putting a little extra goodwill in the bank, for later use as needed. As the saying goes, pay it forward.
You, your chronic condition, and your coworkers. Sure, you can’t always be on your A game. But you’re doing the best you can. Teamwork means helping each other out to get the job done.
Are your coworkers supportive about your health needs and limits? Comment below to share your experiences and suggestions.