When Your Job and Your MS Don’t Mix
Depending on your multiple sclerosis (MS) symptoms, the kind of work you do, and the environment in which you work, you’re bound to run into challenges along the way. Some of these challenges may be related to your symptoms, and others may have more to do with attitudes (yours and other people’s) about your MS. Being on the alert for these challenges will make it a lot easier for you to meet them head-on.
For many kinds of jobs, some combination of good symptom management and reasonable job accommodations from your employer can keep you working for a long time. Approximately 40 percent of people with MS are still employed 20 years after their diagnosis. This means that lots of people are finding ways to work around their symptoms.
Sometimes, however, your particular line of work and your MS simply don’t mix. If your job is a physical one, problems with weakness, balance, or coordination may make it impossible for you to be safe and productive. A construction worker, for example, may have relatively mild symptoms but may still be unable to do the job.
If your work is all in your head, so to speak, then cognitive changes may interfere with your effectiveness as a lawyer or scientist (even though problems with walking may not). In other words, there are some job functions that are so dependent on particular abilities that even the slightest changes in those abilities interfere to a significant degree.
When all is said and done, you know yourself and your situation better than anyone else does. You’re the only one who can decide what works best for you. If you’re pouring every ounce of energy into your job — leaving little or no energy for yourself or your family — continuing to work may not be in anyone’s best interest (yours or your family’s).
MS, FMLA, and short-term disability
If, on the other hand, your work is a major source of personal gratification, take the time to look for gratifying alternatives before leaving the workforce. Before you make any long-term decisions, it’s important to make sure that you’ve made full use of any available short-term leave options. For example:
Find out if your company offers any kind of short-term disability policy that would allow you to leave work for a defined period of time.
Check out the provisions of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) at www.dol.gov/esa/whd/fmla. This act, which was passed in 1993, applies to any employer with 50 or more employees who live within a 75-mile radius of the work locations (and all public or government employers).
The act requires these employers to provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year for qualified individuals who are dealing with a personal or family medical situation. The 12 weeks can be taken at one stretch or in chunks, with no impact on your job or health benefits.
To be eligible for FMLA, you need to
Be working for an employer who’s covered by this law
Have worked with that employer for at least 12 months
Have worked at least 1,250 hours in the past 12 months
Decide what is right for you, your family, and your MS
All in all, achieving balance in your life is important to your overall health and wellness. No decision is right and wrong in this situation. So think carefully about your options and go for the one that feels right for you and your family.
If and when you hit the fork in the road — where you’ve exhausted the possible on-the-job accommodations and you’re unable to function in your current job because of your symptoms — you have two options:
Make use of your talents in other types of employment
Retire on disability and perhaps put your talents to work in some volunteer capacity
Even though making changes in your work life can be difficult and painful, keep in mind that a fork in the road can also provide unexpected opportunities to try something new, explore a hidden talent, or go in a new direction. Take a look at the National MS Society’s publication, A Place in the Workforce, for some eye-opening info about what people with MS can do when they put their minds to it.
Deciding to leave your job is a complex decision that needs to be made carefully and in consultation with the experts, such as your physician, your vocational rehab counselor, your rehab team, and anyone else whose expertise you value.
The members of your healthcare team are your key allies in your employment efforts. For example:
The neurologist and nurse can help you implement optimal symptom management strategies.
Physical and occupational therapists can recommend the tools, mobility aids, and environmental changes you need to be effective in your job.
A vocational rehabilitation counselor can help you identify strategies to stay in your job or sort out your options if you think a change is in order.