Saturday, July 25, 2009

How to talk with bosses changing your job to work with your Migraine disease

I was placed on disability last year for 3 months because my migraines which had been constant at that time for about 6 months had gotten to the point of so bad I couldn't work and had to be hospitalized. My work was very good with me during this time, but I worried about coming back to work and continuing my career path.

I learned from my stay at MHNI that I would not be able to go back to what I used to do. I'm a tax CPA working for a national firm. I worked 80+ hours a week during busy season and around 50 during other parts of the year. I was teaching national training, involved in 2 national tax expert communities and was moving my career along well, meanwhile my health was deteriorating and I was ignoring it. Working as hard as I could when I felt good enough because I knew there would be times I would be unable to work. I was doing the catch up marathon which only brought on more pain.

I hit a wall obviously and was unable to continue as I had - medically unable no matter what my career ambitions were.

I had been doing a lot of work with the national tax office and national teaching on top of taking care of my clients and becoming a specialist in a few areas. I was trying to do it all. My reason was that I wanted to be a technical expert - my ultimate goal for my career was to be working for the national tax office and doing expert technical consulting rather than managing clients and being the typical CPA - I love my clients and working with them - but I had a goal to work at a higher level away from my own clients and helping others with theirs in specific technical areas and being an advisor. As well, I wanted to teach more - I love not only the teaching, but the behind the scenes of it deciding what to teach at what level to our staff and managers and developing the programs.

Now, my health was flat out telling me I couldn't have it all anymore. So, what to do? I had options:
I could apply for a job at a client and work only with one client's issues which would be a lot less stressful as I wouldn't have to "know" everything and could know what was coming day to day. [I didn't want this because I love having something new everyday and continuous learning. I didn't want to do the same thing everyday or every year]
I could take on offer with a company offering to allow me to do international work or a client that wanted to prep me for a CFO position. [These are still options I think about if what I'm doing doesn't work, but the problem with these is they would require I "prove" myself at a new environment, educate on my condition or ignore my condition and overwork until I've proven myself which I don't think my health would have let me]
I could stay where I was and take on less challenging work, reduce the more challenging clients from my workload and reduce my hours and basically put a stop to my career advancement. [Again, not attractive as I enjoy the challenge and am not ready to stop moving up and didn't want to be average - I wanted to be an expert. And I would have to give up the teaching which I love so much so compromising on what I really want could leave me unhappy in the end and re-evaluating later or trying later to move back up by overdoing it again.]
I could go out on my own or with others and start a new business with much less low key work and less technical or challenging clients. [Bad option because I am not a sales person and the stress of that could put me in a world of hurt and I need the comfort of being able to have a health care plan that is at least somewhat affordable. Also, I'm the primary breadwinner so would cause a decrease in income for my family for a number of years or could fail and the stress could hurt my migraines more.]
I could stay on disability - or move to long term disability - it was an option my doctors gave me and told me if I didn't change something would be difinitive for me without my input. [I just hate the idea of it. If I can be capable in some way to be out there working I need to be for my own psyche. And again, I am the primary bread winner.]
I could go to work for a regional or local CPA firm where the issues and clients would be less challenging and therefore less stressful. [I've done this before when I was leaving an even larger firm than I'm at now because of the stress and migraines. I was bored with the work and didn't feel challenged and hated going to work everyday.]
Or I could try to get what I wanted from where I was. Stay on a career path, do more national tax office work and technical consulting and teaching and get rid of the client management and deadlines that always lead to let-down migraines. [How to go about this? How to get what I want?]

Well, being an analytical person - I am a CPA afterall - I went through all these options as I have here and weighed the pros and cons. Then I decided to try to get what I wanted out of my career. Here's where it gets sticky.

1. You can't go into your place of work and ask them to take you off of the client management - the money making place - and have you only do national level - nonbillable work. They won't go for that because it isn't in their best interest.
2. Remember that the company, no matter how much they care for you as a person, has to look to their bottom line and if you are contributing to it or not.
3. Although your boss may feel for you deeply, they can't, especially in this economy, let you do what you want because it makes you feel better. They have to look at what you contribute to the organization.
4. So, I knew I couldn't come at this from an emotional angle. I already knew they cared a lot for me - they raised almost $2,000 for me while I was on disability to help me pay my medical bills and buy food and get by on the lower disability pay. More tears and help me no matter how much they want to help, isn't the business of business.
5. People - who don't fully understand - get tired of the complaining. I've seen it before at work with non-health issues. The constant complainer may be listened to at first, but then is ignored and then is looked down on. So, I couldn't complain.
6. So, I came to the conclusion that I had to sell myself to them, much as I did in my first interview, as how I would add value to the company.
7. I had to be sure to include my limitations and accept them but frame them as benefits to the company - hard to do when you are in a lot of pain and can't see benefits.

So, what did I do. Well, I'll start out by saying that I now am doing everything I wanted in my career with a reduced workload and reduced hours and am seen as a resource to people in my office, national offices, and higher ups. I am shooting for a promotion this year - even though I was on disability last year - and I think I have a good shot at it and a good raise and bonus. So, I think I was successful. Here's what I did.

1. Took all of my short term disability that my doctors told me to take - I did not try to go back to work sooner to show them I was ready to rock & roll. I used the time to hone my skills at yoga, stress reduction, noticing and becoming familiar with triggers and very importantly, learning how to say no. (Very difficult for a woman, I must say). Take the time off. Don't jump back in too soon.
2. Realized I couldn't do it alone and got a great therapist to help me role play how I would frame then and continue to frame my abilities and limitations. Role playing talking to my superiors was monumentally helpful because the first few times I broke down and reverted to the pain and coming at the situation from the emotional side - pleading for help. It took a lot of practice to learn to use humor and other tools when talking to my superiors. A lot of role playing. Do it - often and continuously because you will continue to need it. Whether or not you do it with friends or a specialist, Role play it out.
3. I wrote a sort of resume - more a job description of the job I wanted. I used a lot of detail, broke it down to many items and included how each item benefited the company. Breaking it down to many items looks like a lot that you are able to do, even though you are reducing your overall workload and stress. Extremely important to write down the benefits the company gets from your performing said activities because it's written down and helps you stay on that focus rather than reverting back to the emotional.
4. I set an appointment with not only my direct superiors but also with the president of the company - who I was familiar with - I wouldn't recommend if you don't know or have a relationship with the person. But, I made it very formal and on my terms. So, I wasn't having conversations with different people at different times and talking about how I'm doing or adding personal conversations - which can lead back to an emotional rather than what I had to aim for - the business' advantage of my new responsibilities. I took charge of framing the conversation, where it was, everyone at the table, a set agenda, business like and formal. I knew they would want to ask how I was doing and I couldn't let that derail me from my mission - to sell them on my new job responsibilities. So, you frame the conversation and agenda and place of meeting.
5. I went point by point down my pre-set agenda and written job description (resume) and pointed out what I wanted in a statement and then elaborated more than what was written on how the company would benefit financially and what value I was going to add by changing what I was doing. (Note it may help to ask others in the office that are friendly to you how they think the company would benefit - get some help on this one. I did from former colleagues, other CPAs that are friends, friends in other industries even, and from my husband and family). And again, I practiced my presentation over and over to strip it of emotion.
6. If my condition was brought up I was honest about how it would effect my life and why the new job description would allow my condition to interfere a lot less. For example, working from home so I could take breaks and keep on task. How taking away the deadlines would allow me to accomplish things more easily in a timely manner because the pressure wouldn't be there. How I had learned to say no if too many things came on my plate at once and how to manage my schedule. That I had taken classes or such on how to better manage my schedule. That I was seeing a therapist to help me through my condition and how to work with it so things didn't get out of hand before I could manage them. That I would remain honest with them and keep them updated on my condition and how I was handling things and we could adjust as necessary my job duties.
7. I pointed out that I was going to be offering the firm a service that was needed. That many managers, including my former self, needed someone that didn't have their own clients so were available to help when situations came up. That many in the firm have expressed the need for someone that was a specialist consultant. That I would be able to work on billable projects that currently are sitting on other manager's desks because they can't get to them with all the other things they need to do. That the national tax office had many projects that they were willing to pay individual offices for the time of people to handle those projects. That the firm in its mission statement wants to be a business advisor and how when everyone is overwhelmed we miss that often and I could fill that role. How the firm's goal was to get all offices on a single platform but no one had time to work on templates, models, etc. so I would be working toward the firm's goals. How in our office, many expressed a need for someone to be a go to person for setting up and keeping updated templates, how to guides and help younger staff by teaching more lunch n learns on specific topics but no one currently had the time and so when they were done, they were always rushed, but I could fill that needed space. That the national tax office needed more instructors and people developing webinars and trainings but no one had time and that since trainings took place mostly in our city, the cost of having others travel would be reduced, while the national office would pay my local office for my time on those projects.

A lot of this is specific to my situation, but I hope you can take something from it and use in your situation. I would love to help you role play or review your "resume/new job duties" requests.

A short list of the above to remember is
1. Take the time off your doctors tell you to for disability. Don't jump back in too soon. Use the time to put yourself together and your plan and decide what you want.
2. Get help. And role play a lot.
3. Write it out - exactly what you will be doing in many items and the benefits to the company to help you stay focused and keep off the emotional plea.
4. Take charge of framing the conversation, the agenda and place of meeting. Try to keep it formal and have all parties at the same table. You set the stage don't let them. Be assertive.
5. Practice the conversation before hand a lot. Learn to stick to the agenda you wrote. Practice keeping distractions at bay and how to deal with them when they come up.
6. Be honest about your limitations. Do not try to oversell yourself. You are good enough as you are. Introduce how you are going to handle those limitations.
7. Point out specifically how you will meet a need of the company that currently is not being met in your current workload. Give them a business reason to say yes to your request.

I hope this helps and again, am here to help others if they need help writing up something, practicing, or venting.

All the best wishes - This Too Shall Pass


  1. Elizabeth,

    I have been affected with migraines as well, and not to the greatest extent that you have. I live in Scottsdale and worked in sales. I met with a family physician who actually took the time to listen to me and he understands migraines very well. He showed me clinical research of nutraceuticals and started taking the product called Trigemin. The headaches has decreased in intensity and i was also deficient in vitamin d, which is strange since i live in the sunny side of the country. I can only suggest that this combination has actually made me gain some control of the never ending migraine cycle. Hope this helps. Some education about prevention is on the blog

  2. I also am Vit D deficient and didn't help with all the steroids last year they gave me in the hospital. Had a bone density scan and it showed I'd lost a lot so now am on high doses of Vit D and last blood test showed was improving.

    Haven't tried Trigemin but my acupuncturist has me on these herbs he mixes for me which seem to be helping some.

    Thanks for the comment.