There is a little-considered experience that can affect our careers and how we think about careers. It's not something people tend to talk about often. It's almost taboo.
Careers after illness.
But it needs to be talked about, because significant illness or a chronic diagnosis can change everything.
Illness tends to affect a person very personally, and the impact it has on an individual is often unique to them. Perhaps you have been through cancer treatment, or suffered a heart attack, or been in an accident, or been diagnosed with a chronic or mental illness, or maybe you've been the carer for a loved one. Whatever your experience, you may find that your sense of self has changed. Trying to fit back into the professional role you had before may be really challenging, and it's important to take a beat and consider the broader picture.
Many of the resources available online that address returning to work after such an experience focus on getting through the interview, on what to disclose and what not to disclose, on what your new limitations may be... but very few of them address how such an experience can change you, and what impact that change has on what you want to do professionally as you return to the workforce.
There seems to be a shadow cast across people in this situation. How can you hide your challenges? How can you put others at ease around you? What does your employer have to do under Australian legislation to accommodate your needs? How do you revisit your lifestyle from before? How can you squeeze back into the square hole you used to fit in naturally, even though you now feel like a round peg?
There's very little out there that says, "It's OK to feel different now. It's okay to want different things, for different things to be important to you." So let me say it to you now: "It's OK for this experience to have changed you."
You don't have to be the same person you were before, if you feel differently now.
Take the time to consider what's really important to you and what your physical, mental and emotional work needs are now. Some people want to throw themselves straight into work and "get back to normal", but others' values have changed. For some, their needs have changed.
The experience of diagnosis, treatment and recovery can be a roller-coaster. While the idea of returning to work can be comforting as it brings a sense of normalcy back to your life, it can also be confronting to discover that perhaps you can't do what you used to do, that you no longer enjoy what you used to enjoy, or even that your perspective has changed and maybe your previous work just doesn't seem as important to you anymore.
Our work is tied closely to our identity, our sense of who we really are. What we do often defines how we think of ourselves in general. This is one of the reasons why the loss of a job can be so very difficult to go through emotionally. Finding yourself unable to return to your life before diagnosis can feel like a part of you didn't survive it, and you may find yourself going through a grieving process for what you feel you have lost. This is OK. Let yourself go through the process. But if you are able to, don't go through it alone.
You don't have to be the person you were - many people can't be. I live with a chronic diagnosis and had to go through this process myself. It can be intensely personal, confronting, and at times, lonely, but it also forced me to step back and reframe my work life. This new perspective created opportunities and fresh ideas and sent me down a pathway that has been as rewarding as it is sometimes challenging.
But this didn't happen until I came to terms with my chronic diagnosis, really understood what I could and couldn't do, and rebuilt my sense of self as I see myself now.
It's not always easy. But we owe it to ourselves to see who we are beyond what society believes we owe others, and to own what is important to us now.
We are more than just diversity hires. We are just as valuable as everyone else.
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