Balancing Act: Kicking Career Goals with an Invisible Disability
Jul 15, 2019
Our Senior Account Executive and Social Specialist, Julia Macerola recently spoke with Anna O’Dea about what it’s like to be a career woman with a chronic health condition. Julia discusses her invisible disability, ulcerative colitis, and how working in a flexible workplace accommodates her medical needs. Read the full interview below, originally published on the Agency Iceberg website.
Career wise, I like to move at a fast pace. My career trajectory to date has been very bang, bang, bang. I pretty much went straight out of high school, into studying PR and marketing at uni and then I went straight into a career with Fifty Acres post exams. As someone with a chronic health condition, I know that’s not the best approach because I really should have taken some time out when I need it, but that’s how I am.
I was first diagnosed with my condition in 2014 in my first year of uni. Interestingly it wasn’t bowel issues that led to my diagnosis. I had a bruise on my shin from playing soccer and because ulcerative colitis is an autoimmune disease, my body just inflamed the spot and I grew this huge lump on my leg. It looked like a massive blood blister and it was so painful that I couldn’t walk. That was the point I was sent to hospital. With a chronic health condition like ulcerative colitis, GPs don’t diagnose it straight away, they do all these tests and it took three months before I was booked in for a colonoscopy to see what was going on. I was just deteriorating as time went on, waiting around for a diagnosis. I lost 12kgs in that period, it was quite intense and exhausting. I wasn’t really there at uni in my second semester, I was busy in hospital. I persisted though, I was just sitting there, sick, doing my assignments in my hospital bed. I didn’t defer though, I kept going, I was already halfway through and I wanted to get it out of the way.
At that time my partner and I were based in Sydney, but I found living there stressful, which was not the best thing for my condition. My partner’s family lived in Canberra, so we were planning to move there once I finished my studies. I was searching for Canberra job opportunities online and found Fifty Acres. For me, the most attractive part of it is that they are a digital agency, so if I do have flare ups I can stay at home, I can go to the doctor, and I can still work at the same time.
Even if I’m not in the midst of a flare up, it’s difficult to work in a 9-5 office environment with my condition.There are some days where I need to go to the toilet more often and it’s gross, it doesn’t smell that great. I don’t want to put people in a position where they have to deal with that, let alone put pressure on myself to be productive in that environment.
I think the most professionally challenging aspect of my condition is dealing with the social side of it. Even if people didn’t know about your condition, it looks funny if you are always away from your desk. But at Fifty Acres I don’t have to worry about those things. As bad as it sounds I can work from the bathroom if I feel really terrible. The best part of having a flexible work environment is I can go into hospital to get my medicine infused & I don’t have to take time off work. I can fit work around my schedule and it makes it so much easier for me to balance everything.
The problem with an invisible disability is your symptoms aren’t always visible. So you’ll say you’re sick but people won’t see that or think that you’re sick. With an invisible disability you’re still a functioning human, you still look normal, you still do the things you normally do. It’s not until I get to a really bad stage with a flare up, start to lose weight and become anaemic that people notice something is wrong. So I think people with invisible disabilities go under the radar most of the time unless they open up and talk about it.
If I need to take an hour off in the afternoon to just relax, de-stress or do something to help in my stomach, the Fifty Acres working model accommodates me. I can see how this kind of flexibility could be perceived negatively in other industries with employers thinking ‘this person won’t be that high performing because they need to take that time out sometimes.
Having flexibility actually drives me to want to deliver the best possible work and the best possible outcomes even though I’m not sitting in the office under the eye of a manager. I’ve always considered myself a bit of a high achiever so I always CC’ Jo and the account managers into everything so they can see that I’m doing the work. I keep those lines of communication really clear and open because it’s my reputation in the workplace, I don’t want to be the mute, offline colleague who doesn’t seem to be doing their work.
When I started working at Fifty Acres, I found ‘switching off’ as a remote worker pretty hard to manage. But then I spoke with Jo and Jackie (a senior manager at Fifty Acres) and they basically walked me through ways to physically and mentally switch off. That support was great because it meant I wasn’t stressing over the little things during my downtime.
My advice to other people who have invisible disabilities like mine would be to remain open with your employers about it because you can’t expect them to sense what’s wrong. You need to let them know so you can work together. It’s all about communication and collaboration, essentially. That way everyone is clear, you’re on the same page, and you’ll be more productive so you’re not just drowning in deadlines whilst coping with a health condition as well.
No matter how you’re feeling or what your condition is, it doesn’t stop you from being able to do what you want to do. It does feel like that at times but you can get the medication and you can get the support you need to be able to achieve your goals. It can’t happen unless you are being open and honest with your employer and your colleagues. It can be difficult to talk about it but once you do it really pays off and you get the support you need.
I think many workplaces are on the right path to disability inclusion but I don’t think we’re there yet. One of the key challenges is that there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution when it comes to facilitating the needs of people with disabilities. It’s always a case by case situation. I only have mild to moderate ulcerative colitis, however there are people out there who have much worse conditions or are at a much more serious stage of their condition, so obviously they need more care. My flexible work situation would not necessarily suit someone with a more severe condition.
Although we’re a mixed bunch at Fifty Acres we believe and trust in one another. If someone needs to go somewhere or do something we can pass on tasks to each other or work on it as a team if we need to. We’re really quite transparent and supportive in that sense. One of my colleagues is a bit of a digital nomad and we adjust our meeting times so she can participate. That way everyone is across what is happening and we can resolve any issues. It’s just a really clear transparent way to run an organisation which I think is probably why Fifty Acres is so successful.
I’m still quite junior level compared to everyone else at Fifty Acres, so for the foreseeable future I’ll just be working on my professional development in the industry. I’m in a great place where I work because everyone is so experienced and we’re all so close knit, I learn quite quickly as my colleagues share their experience and skills with me pretty much every day. Outside of work we all follow each other on Instagram or have each other on SnapChat – we’re digital friends!
My advice to employers would be to remain open minded. There are so many instances where people are being diagnosed with chronic health conditions and mental illnesses. When you do provide support to those people you enable them to be productive in the workplace and they don’t feel the pressure to hide themselves behind a screen. If people have the support they need and are able to readily access medical care, that has a roll on effect. If you’re physically healthy, you’re also more likely to be mentally and emotionally healthy and if workplaces really support all those factors of health then your employee is going to be more productive.