In the Workplace: Cultural Expectations and Norms
A variety of workplace environments exist. Organizations and industries usually have existing expectations about what is “normal” in a particular environment and measures for meeting these expectations. Even with those companies that have manuals and written guidelines dictating the climate of the workplace, the culture of these companies may still have unwritten and unspoken assumptions that are not discovered until one becomes more familiar with the organization.
Those work expectations that are overt (or obvious) might include details such as arriving on time, having no overtime pay, locking the building no later than a certain time (such as 5:30 pm), having no one on the floor alone, and similar mandates. Rigid work environments can make requests for accommodations more complicated, discouraging requests to deviate from these norms. Some work settings are even more rigid, and despite existing labor laws, workers are implicitly discouraged from taking breaks or leaving work for lunch. Conversely, some work environments are more relaxed and allow employees more freedom with their schedules and daily routines.
The sections to follow address the different workplace environments. Details are also provided on making a proactive change, if appropriate.
Expectations Based on Able-Bodied Capabilities
“Normal” is a cultural aspiration. This becomes challenging if MS symptoms alter “normal” functioning. Normalcy is valued and encourages following rules, not standing out, and not deviating from the status quo.
However, in spite of policy changes, workplace settings are often “ableist.” Ableism is the notion that most people are able-bodied, so public and private spaces are set up without considering the variety of needs that people living with various levels of function and abilities may have. Being able-bodied is considered the norm. Hence, the responsibility is on the individual who is deviating from the norm, to request changes within work environments.
The adjustments requested by the employee force the burden onto that individual, necessitating that he or she be identified as someone who is not a part of the system – an outlier. This is regardless of the fact that a significant number of people are impacted by disability at some point in their lives.
According to statistics reported in 2010 by the United States Census Bureau:
- 19 percent of the population is disabled, with more than half reporting “severe” disability
- 41 percent of these disabled people, ages 21 to 64, were employed
- Roughly 30.6 million people have difficulty using stairs and use an assistive device, such as a cane, crutches, walker, or wheelchair
Assessing the Climate of Specific Workplace Norms
Telecommuting, video and phone conferences, as well as flexible hours, can all help to decrease commuting time and increase productivity. Flexible schedules can enable people to work around fatigue and other symptoms, allowing for breaks or different start and end times. Using vacation time, sick time, personal time off, and family leave can also help to keep a healthy balance and prevent over-exhaustion, burnout, or an MS pseudoexacerbation (a temporary worsening of MS symptoms, often caused by an unrelated illness, stress, or a rise in temperature).
Employees with physical limitations need to consider the accessibility of the office buildings. For instance, different entrances may exist that are more accessible, and a different office space that is better suited and currently underutilized could possibly be made available.
Workspace comfort is another issue that needs assessment. Factors to consider include: the appropriateness of the seating, computer, and desk area; the size and privacy of the office or cubicle; how much noise comes into that office; and whether or not the office has windows – if so, would over-heating or direct sunlight be an issue?
An employee may want to request an “ergonomic/work-station assessment” of his or her workspace as a first step. This is when the employer has a workspace reviewed for comfort and safety to protect workers’ health and to avoid worker injuries on the job. OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, regulates safety in the workplace and can be a helpful resource if you have questions about your safety at work that are not being answered by your employer.
The location of restrooms is another consideration. In some instances, these may be located outside of office suites, requiring a longer walk. Making a request and moving closer to a restroom can decrease distress – particularly if mobility and issues with bladder or bowel function are concerns. The same is true for being close to an exit, especially in case of an emergency.
In some settings, the Human Resources Department is an asset and a helpful place to make inquiries about resources and accessibility. Employees may observe the experiences of other co-workers to assess whether or not a consultation with Human Resources is a risk or a safe option when making plans for the future in a certain position.
Workplaces vary in terms of how Human Resources is managed. Your observations, employee manuals, and the assessment of the rigidity or flexibility of your own workplace will give you a sense of how risky it is to reveal you are living with a disability. Employees in some work environments feel comfortable seeking resources within their workplace, while others feel their livelihood could be threatened with any personal disclosure of information about their health status.
Depending on the structure of your position and the climate of your workplace, asking for help may be discouraged or misinterpreted. Sometimes starting the conversation with your neurologist, mental health provider, occupational therapist, or physical therapist can be helpful in clarifying your needs and your degree of confidence.
Making a Proactive Change When Needed
Some people enjoy their career and/or derive some type of personal satisfaction from the work they do, while others do not. If you belong to this latter group of individuals who neither enjoy nor derive satisfaction from your job, you may benefit from pursuing a new career that inspires you. Making changes driven by passion rather than fear can be empowering.
If appropriate, this could be a time to re-evaluate your current job and be proactive about what direction you take in the future. With honest reflection, people can identify changes in their capacity to perform certain assigned tasks. Some changes in function may indicate the necessity for changing a position within one’s current work environment or possibly moving out of a particular industry.
Leaving a job voluntarily can be frightening. However, with support, resources, and planning, it can also be exciting. The following are two examples of some real-life proactive changes made by two individuals with MS:
- A scientist with young children was expending so much energy at work that he found he was deteriorating physically. After taking an early retirement, he downsized his home, relocated to be closer to other family members who could provide support, and practiced better wellness strategies, such as eating a healthy diet and participating in physical therapy. As a result, he became more involved in his children’s daily activities, lost weight, and improved his walking ability.
- A “Type-A” (less-relaxed) saleswoman was unable to keep up with the daily demands of her job. Unfortunately, she was not fully aware of how her body was being impacted by MS and disregarded the onset of new MS symptoms. Because she (and her doctor) had no record of her symptoms, she was ineligible for disability insurance once she was no longer able to perform well at her job. As a result, she was forced to reinvent herself and found a new career in real estate – where she could create her own hours and address her personal health needs.