My Flexible Work Schedule Was Accidentally Accommodating

This is my old headshot. Do I look like a productive employee? [Image description: A head shot of Brianne in a black top in front of a brick wall.]

My first job was accommodating by accident. I didn’t know that I needed accommodations, and my boss didn’t know he was offering them.

Let me back up a little. My name is Brianne, and I spent about 20 years of my life managing an unidentified chronic illness. I had low and inconsistent energy levels as a kid, I was completely knocked out by mono in high school, and I was physically incapable of pulling all nighters during college and grad school. All of this sounds pretty manageable, right? It was. In fact, it was so manageable that I didn’t even realize I was sick.

After grad school I got a job as the first employee at a digital marketing startup. I brought my own laptop to work at a coworking space each day and constantly switched between customer service, basic web development, and design.

At that point in my life, I woke up in pain if I didn’t get at least eight hours of sleep. The lymph nodes in my neck would swell and throb, and it was incredibly uncomfortable to sit with my head unsupported.

The thing about most chairs is that they don’t support your head. And the thing about most jobs is that you are expected to arrive at a certain time no matter how much you slept the night before.

This is how I prefer to work, with my feet up and plenty of neck support nearby. [Image description: Brianne sitting on her couch with her feet on the coffee table and a laptop on her lap.]

But tech is notoriously flexible. So even though I didn’t know that I would benefit from accommodations, I still got them. When I woke up in a lot of pain, I could tell my boss I was working from home and then curl up in bed with my laptop. When the pain in my neck made it too distracting to sit at my desk, I could move to a couch and lie down with my head supported. And of course, the coworking space had unlimited coffee and loose leaf tea that I could drink in giant mugs with organic cream and local honey.

I was doing my job, but I wasn’t always visibly doing it at my desk. Do you see the difference there?

After a few years I’d settled into a good routine. I hadn’t put it all together yet, but I was developing skin and joint problems that flared whenever I didn’t make my body my first priority. I spent every afternoon working from a prone position on the couch.

And then I got a new job. It felt like a big step forward. I would be overseeing the launch of a brand new web publication, shaping the community, and managing the content. And I would be working from a desk at an office each day from nine to five. With a 45-minute commute thrown in each way for good measure.

It took a few months for the excitement to wear off. That’s when I started to realize that something wasn’t quite working. Some mornings it would take me a while to get settled while I waited for my coffee to overpower the pain in my lymph nodes. Most afternoons I was very distracted by the pain in my neck, and I found myself focusing on looking productive, since this office didn’t have anywhere that I could lie down with my laptop.

I had been to plenty of doctors about my vague fatigue and pain symptoms, but none of them had found anything wrong. Since just about everybody else worked sitting at a desk all day, I didn’t know how to ask my employers for something different without looking lazy. I told them during my job interview that I valued flexibility, but when they asked what that meant I didn’t have good language to explain.

After about eight months in that job, my health started to collapse. My brain was getting foggier and I went to bed as soon as I got home each day. I would lose steam rapidly and find it difficult to keep my head up or to follow conversations. I decided to leave the city and take a sabbatical from office life.

When I asked to work remotely, I was surprised that they accepted. I learned very quickly that when I didn’t need to agonize about looking productive, I got much more done much faster. Eventually, I even found out that my vague but worsening symptoms were caused by a host of tick-borne infections.

Sometimes I even work while sitting up! [Image description: Brianne working at her computer at a desk.]

I work for myself now, so I’m free to work how and when I want. But I still don’t know how to handle all this if and when I look for a job with someone else. I have a vague diagnosis and a creeping fear that my employer will think I’m just lazy.

I know that when my brain is firing on all cylinders, I can get more done in five hours than I can get done in a full week when my brain is plodding. But I don’t know how to share that value with an employer.

Here’s what I do know. Flexibility in the workplace helps everyone. As an employer, you don’t need to know the details of an employee’s health in order to sit down and ask them what their ideal work environment looks like. Beyond ADA compliance which sets a very important accessibility baseline, here’s where I would start:

  • What kind of noise level do you prefer? Do you prefer to work with background office noise, music, or complete silence?
  • At what time of day are you most productive? When are you most excited to dive into your work?
  • How are you most comfortable working? When you’re in a state of flow, do you like to pace, stand, sit, lie down?

And some people might not know the answers to those questions, because they’ve never had the opportunity to experiment before. But the good news is that you can set up clear metrics for success so that both of you know when the employee is doing a good job, and you don’t have to use their physical presence at a desk as a proxy for good work.

Read Next: Working With My Mental Illnesses, Not Against Them

Brianne Benness is the host of No End In Sight, a brand new podcast about building a life with chronic illness. She has also returned to the world of customer service/development/design at her new cross stitch pattern company Digital Artisanal.

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