ChronicBabe 101
How to craft an incredible life beyond illness

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Rosalind Joffe: Craft Your Ideal Career

Become your own best advocate and craft a unique career

An interview with Jenni Grover and Rosalind Joffe, a career coach who focuses on helping people with chronic illness. Rosalind Joffe, founder and president of ciCoach, is passionate about coaching people and giving them the tools they need to thrive in their work while living with chronic illness. Rosalind draws on her experience living with chronic illnesses for over 30 years, including multiple sclerosis and ulcerative colitis. Her unique career coaching firm is dedicated to helping people with chronic illness develop the skills they need to succeed in their work lives. Find Rosalind at CIcoach.com.

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Rosalind Joffe, founder and president of ciCoach, is passionate about coaching people and giving them the tools they need to thrive in their work while living with chronic illness. Rosalind draws on her experience living with chronic illnesses for over 30 years, including multiple sclerosis and ulcerative colitis. Her unique career coaching firm is dedicated to helping people with chronic illness develop the skills they need to succeed in their work lives.

A recognized and frequently quoted national expert on chronic illness and its impact on career, Rosalind is a seasoned and certified coach, the co-author of Women, Work and Autoimmune Disease: Keep Working, Girlfriend!, publisher of the widely read Working with Chronic Illness blog.

Jenni: Hi ChronicBabes! This is Jenni Grover of ChronicBabe.com and it’s time for another conversation with an amazing expert. We are going to be talking about career issues with chronic illness as part of Lesson 8 and with me today we have Rosalind Joffe.

She’s a good friend, and founder and principal of ciCoach, which is a coaching firm dedicated to helping people with illness. She also blogs; her blog is called Working with Illness and she’s got a really incredible book out called Women, Work and Autoimmune Disease: Keep Working, Girlfriend! I’ve recommended it to so many people; you can buy it from her website or you can go to Amazon.com, and it’s worth every penny. Welcome Rosalind, I‘m so happy to have you here!

Rosalind: Nice to be here, Jenni!

Jenni: Rosalind, so many ChronicBabes have to leave their jobs when they get sick and then they really don’t know how to get back into the workforce, whether they are feeling better again or have come to an acceptance of their illness state. I’m wondering if you have a suggestion for a first step for someone who is looking to get back into work?

Rosalind: You know, that’s such a big question because everyone’s situation is unique to them. And, in fact, I’d say that’s where you should start. Think about not just your illness and your motivation or where you were before, but think really about what your life is about right now. Who depends on you? How is this going to impact you and the people around you?

That’s where I suggest to my clients look first because it helps you to set up a framework for what’s going to make the most sense. It’s often pretty frightening to take that step and to leave unemployment for employment when you’re living with illness, and often what we’re most afraid of is disappointing the people around us if we might not be able to hold on. So I often suggest to people, that’s the first place to look.

Jenni: I love that idea! I know there are so many things that we personally want. It’s not that we want to focus on everybody else before us, but all those factors are a part of the decision making process.

Rosalind: Exactly. It’s not about putting everyone else’s needs first, but it’s recognizing what impacts you.

Jenni: I think one of the biggest challenges is that many of us can’t do the job we used to be able to do, but we’re not sure what we can do now, and sometimes we don’t know what we want to do! In some cases, you’ve been doing the same work for so long and then your whole life changes in so many ways; it’s valuable to take a step back and say what do I want to do with myself now? Do you have a favorite exercise that you have people do to get them to start brainstorming this?

Rosalind: In my workbook, and I think actually in my book too, I have a series of exercises and the first thing is to look at what you used to do and think about it in terms of skills that you’ve got. The best way of doing that is to go job-by-job. Take out an old resume and look at what you did, and look at what you did in that job, so that you’re not stuck in this very narrow view of I was going to medical school or maybe I was a cashier; you’re thinking much more like, these are the things I have done, these are the skills I used and I know how to do.

 

Then the next step might be to look at what I call your needs and wants. You start first with what are your wants? What do you want from a job? And what if you can’t do it on your own? It’s something I often do with a client, but you can brainstorm it with other people. Take a good friend and talk about the jobs out there. What are the kinds of things that matter to you? Include everything from short commute to working at home or maybe you want to make a big move.

So, what are your wants, and then what are your needs? And finally, what are your must-haves? Then after that, I suggest to people, if they’re really stuck on where to go, I have this whole exercise on networking, but networking just to do this brainstorming exercise.

Jenni: Really?

Rosalind: Yes, I developed it years ago when I first started doing this work because most of my clients were in the position, at that point, of mostly looking for new careers in new areas. The problem is, they typically were stuck in their box. So, there’s this whole script and a way to talk to people you know. It’s sort of the first circle in the series of networking steps.

That first circle is talking to people whom you know. Once you have your own list together you can structure the conversation and start brainstorming with other people, get their ideas.

Jenni: Like maybe the qualities they see in you…

Rosalind: Or jobs they have heard of… and what helps is that once you have your own list of the things you can do, that helps. I have some who have been working at a job for 20 years and people have an idea of you as that person, and if you want to help them get out of that idea and help yourself, you have to realize you know what? I can do this, this, and this! It’s taking yourself away from the job description to what are the opportunities?

Jenni: That’s a challenge, and especially in today’s economy—so many people are looking for different kinds of jobs, looking for new jobs, so thinking very creatively is the way to go. You mentioned resumes and that’s a question I hear a lot from people: when we go back into the workforce, and we’re interviewing, how do we explain those gaps on our resume? What’s a good way, or do we even need to?

Rosalind: Really good question. Once again, the thing to remember is, there’s no right answer. I was just talking with a client who has this very diverse background in the law. She finished law school and then went into the ministry and now lives with schleroderma. She stopped working for a couple of years; it is a fairly debilitating illness. It’s obvious when you see her, because she needs a walker. She doesn’t look “normal and healthy.” She decided to be a law professor. In her case, she readily describes the reason she stopped working; she is disclosing illness right off the bat. It really varies.

Most people feel that that’s really going to hurt them and, in fact, it very well can. Especially if what you live with is invisible, there is no way the employer would know. So, how do you explain it then?

That gets down to what’s most comfortable to you. There are people who are just not comfortable with saying what really happened and in addition to their fear, there are people who are not comfortable not saying what’s going on and why they chose to stop working. So, there is no one piece of advice.

Of course there is always the caveat that, yes, the reality is that if someone has to choose between someone who has been sick for four years and someone who hasn’t been sick for four years, they are probably going to choose the one who hasn’t been sick, even though we all know that the healthy person could get sick tomorrow! That’s not how people think.

So, if you’re really struggling with this, think of other ways to describe why you might have stopped working. Clearly mothers with children always have that, that’s an easy thing to say. Other things people can say include “I moved’ or “I took some time off to freelance.” It’s never going to help you that you were out of the workforce, and that’s one of the reasons in my book I say, keep working. It will always hurt you; that is the reality, even if you decide to stop working for a home business.

One of my clients did; she found that she was up against people who hadn’t decided to have a home business, and what happens then is the employers think maybe you will stop working again. So, you will always have to talk about that. Most employers, recruiting managers, and hiring managers are going to ask you. You definitely want to be sure you are prepared with your answer because it is going to come up.

Jenni: And it seems like you suggest it’s really about comfort level.

Rosalind: Yes, and that’s where I do a lot of coaching, because you really have to know what’s going to feel comfortable to you to talk about, and what’s a way you can explain it so that you are not lying because, as another person pointed out, as soon as you fill out an insurance form and you have to list pre-existing conditions—especially if it’s a small company—it could come back and bite you in the ass. There are many factors to think about.

Jenni: Yea, because we don’t want to be dishonest. I think a lot of us would feel terrible if we were dishonest anyway. But you’re right: there are times when we want to maybe leave things a little loose and not get so specific about it.

Rosalind: And when you do, the key is to do it in a way that it doesn’t seem as if you are avoiding.

Jenni: Yes, because I think people can sniff that out.

Rosalind: Absolutely, especially if there is more than one gap period.

Jenni: Right, which there is for a lot of us.

Rosalind: It used to be when I was young, which was about… I’m 60 now.

Jenni: Two years ago…

Rosalind: Yea, last year! (laughter) In the 80’s is when this happened to me. I had jumped around a lot and, in fact, I had jumped around because of illness. But it turns out, (and I never thought about saying it specifically), but each job was a different kind of job. In those days, that was a red flag; people wanted to know why I moved so much from job to job, because it wasn’t typical. These days it’s very typical to move.

Jenni: Yea, it’s crazy now. It’s more typical now. Someone who’s graduating college right now may have 30 jobs in a lifetime! I’ve heard these really excessive numbers. I have a younger sister who’s had easily three times as many jobs as I have ever had. I’ve been self-employed for 13 years and it’s really good.

Rosalind: Yea, then you don’t have to worry about losing your job.

Jenni: Yea, that’s right! I just have to worry about finding the next client!

Rosalind: Exactly, it’s a different worry.

Jenni: It’s a different worry!

My resume now looks super steady and mellow, compared to people just five years younger than me. I hear what you are saying and with the way things go, those of us who have those gaps and have moved around a lot, we can almost use that to our advantage

Rosalind: Or at least make it seem as though that’s the reason. Most importantly, be prepared. Don’t ever walk into a job interview unprepared. You should always be very prepared; that’s one of the things you should be thinking about. I have had people call me who were not prepared and they were so upset, and I’m thinking, what were they thinking? But they just weren’t. They didn’t expect that question to come up.

Jenni: Well, it’s good we’re talking about it then, for anyone who is listening. One of the things we think about when it comes to is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In the past, at the last job I had before I was self-employed, I asked for a couple of accommodations and it was sometimes challenging to get them because people looked at me and they just couldn’t see that I needed certain things, but I needed them.

Can we talk about some typical accommodations, or some we may not think of as things we can get if we need them, and things that may not come to mind immediately?

Rosalind: Well, I can. In my experience, most people know what they want as far as an accommodation. I have a real thing about that word because accommodate—what I like to call it is a workaround.

Jenni: I like that word better too.

Rosalind: Accommodate is someone doing you a favor. What I say is, you want a workaround. That’s a word everyone uses in all kinds of ways. Let’s see you create the workaround for the situation; that’s how I term it. So, it’s going to vary.

What I write about all the time is that first and foremost, the top workaround I’ve seen people need is flexibility, like flexibility in schedule. Here’s where it gets tricky. My suggestion is, if you are interviewing for a job, if you’re looking for a job, and you know you have certain differences here—like you are worth nothing in the morning, your brain doesn’t work and you’re going to have to work longer days, or you’re never sure when it’s going to hit you so you’re going to need to work at home some days or whatever it is—figure that part out.

That’s the process I go through with people is figuring out, what are their needs? Your best bet, of course, is try to find a job, an industry, a career, that’s going to offer you that—so that you don’t have to ask for something that they are not already doing.

Now, going back to the ADA: There have been revisions and it supposedly includes people with chronic illness, but not every illness is recognized as a real illness, like fibromyalgia. Although the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has said it is, it’s still not among most people, you know, the average person out there.

The other part about the ADA is that it only applies to organizations at a certain level, certain size, and furthermore, it’s still written for the employer, so when you ask for something it has to be something that is not going to hurt the employer, which makes sense. I mean, in the long run, if you are going to ask the employer for something that’s really not going to be in their best interest or going to be harmful to them or the way they get work done, it’s not going to be a very good fit and, especially these days, they are not going to have to look very hard for a way to let you go.

The first thing is to look for a place where they are already doing those kinds of things, the flexibility or whatever it is that you need—and a job you can really see will work for you in terms of what your needs might be. Some people need to be near a bathroom, but if you are going to be out working in the fields all day, that’s not going to work.

I have one client who had been working in a garden center, but she needed air conditioning and they didn’t air condition the garden center. Well, they weren’t going to start air conditioning for her, they weren’t going to put it in. So, you have to think long and hard about what’s the fit? And certainly before you ever invoke the ADA, most employers, definitely of a certain size—especially if they have anyone who is a human resources specialist—hey are fully aware and afraid of the ADA. It also makes them more uptight about you.

So, your best bet is to approach this as gingerly as possible, from the point of view that this is what I need and also, you want to document everything in case you ever do need to go back on disability. Any words around “what you do” you want to have documented.

Jenni: Yes, I advocate mega-documentation! I don’t know that everyone does, but I think it’s the way to go.

We talked about a couple different examples of jobs where people may have been doing one thing and they end up doing something else, and I think that these days, especially now, a lot of people get told that they need to give up on their dream job. They might have been doing something and then they got sick and they can’t do it anymore, and now they just need to give up on ever being able to do something that they are super-passionate about and settle for whatever they can take.

I think that’s crap, I feel really strongly about that. Can you tell me what you think about that?

Rosalind: Well, let me ask you, what makes you say that you think it’s crap?

Jenni: Well, I think the idea that people should give up on a dream, give up on doing something they are really passionate about—I think saying that outright is an energy killer. It’s really negative.

My dream, when I was younger, was to be an investigative reporter and travel the world, cover these big stories. Now, do I know that is a lifestyle that my body can’t maintain? Yes. Yhat was my dream job, but I didn’t give up on the dream of doing something that I love and am passionate about and that helps people, which were the ultimate goals of that work.

So, now I’ve figured out a way to take those writing skills and do something I’m passionate about and that helps people. I still get to travel some when I do speaking engagements and I do it on my terms, so it’s like I get to achieve those goals and get that great feeling of satisfaction that I feel I also would have had from being a worldwide investigative reporter.

But I feel like I didn’t give up on my dream; my dream just looks a little different. Instead of thinking about it as a job title, I tried to change how I thought of it as what I wanted to get from that type of work and get that somewhere else.

Rosalind: Jenni, you just basically said what I would have said.

Jenni: Did I answer my own question?

Rosalind: You did! And what you might not realize is that what you just talked about was not being resigned, that’s the word I often use. Resignation is not acceptance.

Accepting what is, is what we have to do. But often that transforms into resignation. I’m resigned to this, and with that is a defeatist attitude, a victim’s attitude, powerlessness.

Acceptance, certainly in the Buddhist sense, is becoming much more of a term we are hearing these days. And acceptance, I propose, is much more about coming to terms with, being at peace with what is, and from that place you can then say this is what gave me joy in the past, I can’t do that anymore, maybe I can’t run a mile or swim six miles a day, or maybe I can’t stand and sling hamburgers all day or maybe I can’t be in the courtroom like I used to, but what did I get that was joyful from that? What skills did I bring? What did it do for me? And then think about OK, I’m looking at who I am now, what other opportunities are there?

So then, as you said very well, it isn’t about thinking about the job title. As I said to my kids, it didn’t matter what college they went to in the end, if they were going to be happy—they would be happy wherever they went because we have the ability to find what’s good. Some people are better at that than others, but knowing what makes you happy, knowing what fulfills you and being able to accept life limitations, helps you realize that yea, a dream job, that’s what it was, it was a dream not necessarily a reality. And often as we think about the past, it can look either better than it was or worse, so what we need to do is look to the future without fear and just think in terms of what makes me happy?

Jenni: I love it, I couldn’t agree with you more. I think acceptance is such a major key. In fact, our first lesson with ChronicBabe 101 is about acceptance; it’s a starting point for everything. So hopefully, if folks have been following along and doing this in a very linear way—next up is Lesson 9—and hopefully by now folks have been really working on acceptance and thinking about it and integrating it in their everyday lives.

I think that makes such a difference when we are thinking about work. It’s something, like you said, that’s not resignation, not a feeling of defeat or victimhood, but being at peace with what we have now and what to do now. I know for me, at the time when I reached that ability, it was a life changer. Well, Rosalind, as always, I love talking with you.

Rosalind: As I do you.

Jenni: Thank you! I feel everybody listening kind of got a free coaching session out of this…

Rosalind: I hope so! Like you, I feel very passionate about all of this and that’s the key, just figure it out for yourself and make it your journey.

Jenni: So powerful. Well, thank you again. We’ve been listening to Rosalind Joffe of ciCoach. I really recommend that folks check out her site and check out her book, Women, Work and Autoimmune disease: Keep Working Girlfriend! You can get it from her website or from Amazon. Really amazing resources all around and as always, you’re full of great suggestions for everyone, so thank you so much Rosalind, for spending time with us today.

Rosalind: My pleasure, Jenni!

Jennifer E Grover