Should I Keep Working If I Have MS?

Even though multiple sclerosis (MS) may affect your employment situation at some point along the way — depending on the types of symptoms you have and the kind of work you do —quitting work doesn’t have to be part of your treatment plan. Apart from the obvious — that working brings in a paycheck — you can find lots of other reasons why staying in the workforce may be in your best interest. For example, consider the following:

  • Building financial security is a good thing. The longer you remain in the workforce, the more money you can save and the higher your benefits are likely to be if you do need to take disability retirement someday.

  • Fringe benefits are valuable. The fringe benefits provided by your job — such as health insurance — may be among your most valuable assets.

  • Your work is a key part of your identity. People often define themselves, at least in part, by the kind of work they do. When you leave the workforce, you may be giving up a big chunk of your identity — not to mention an important source of self-esteem and self-confidence.

  • Feeling productive is important. Most folks like to feel as if they’re contributing — to their families, to their communities, and to society as a whole. In fact, one of the biggest issues for people who become severely disabled, by MS or any other condition, is how to continue to feel valuable to the world around them. So leaving the workforce early because of MS can short-circuit those feelings of productivity.

  • Self-sufficiency feels good. Feeling self-sufficient is a big part of feeling like a competent grown-up. Feeling dependent — and not in control of your own financial resources and choices — can be a real bummer. So, while the idea of being able to rely on disability benefits or other people can be comforting when you’re in the throes of a relapse, you may find that it isn’t so comfortable over the long haul.

  • Being a role model for others feels good, too. When you find ways to meet challenges in the workplace (or anyplace else for that matter), you become a role model for others — your kids, other people with disabilities, and anyone else who’s paying attention. And that’s something to feel really good about.

Despite the advantages to staying on the job, many people with MS do leave work. Even though lots of different factors are to blame, an underlying theme is a lack of information about available options. Here are a few of the most common reasons why people end up leaving the workforce:

  • Their symptoms are making it difficult for them to function at work. More folks leave the workforce because of fatigue and cognitive issues than any other symptoms. Others may leave because they’re experiencing embarrassing problems — with their bladder or bowel, for example.

    What isn’t clear is how many of these individuals are unaware of the treatment strategies and on-the-job accommodations that could help them remain comfortably on the job. They may quit before learning about the resources that are available to help them, only to discover that they feel much better in a few weeks or months but have no job to go back to.

  • Their well-meaning families, friends, and health professionals may be encouraging them to get away from all the stress. If this sounds like your situation, just remember that the relationship between stress and MS is murky at best, and unemployment isn’t such a hot antidote to stress.

  • They’re just too uncomfortable about their diagnosis to disclose it to anyone else. Because some amount of disclosure is required to request work accommodations, these folks never get to see how modifications in their work environment or schedule could help them do their job.

  • Their symptoms are causing problems with driving and transportation. Without information about possible car modifications, community carpooling programs, or community transportation options, they leave work because they think they can’t get there. Call the National MS Society (800) FIGHT-MS (800-344-4867) to be referred to a qualified occupational therapist (OT) in your area.

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