Working as a Nurse with Chronic Illness | Knowledge is Power


This article outlines the job choices and accommodations available to nurses living with chronic illness.

Specializes in ICU, Rehab, Public Health, Maternal-child health. Has 6 years experience.

How do you manage working with a chronic illness?

Working as a Nurse with Chronic Illness | Knowledge is Power

Working as a nurse is a challenging job. Whether working 12-hour shifts at the bedside or an 8-hour shift in an office setting, it is demanding. Add to it managing a chronic illness, and you may think it’s time to leave the nursing profession!

But before you call it quits completely- evaluate your options! Believe it or not, there are many things you can do to make it more manageable, and equitable, for you!

Job Choice

First thing first- consider your job choice! What things bring you joy? If you are starting your workday in a place you despise, you aren’t setting yourself up for success with pain. Research has shown that negativity, including negative emotions, increases the body's sensitivity1 to pain. Not something you want when living with chronic pain! 

If you aren’t enjoying your current job or dreading the 12-hour shifts of a hospital job, don’t worry! Nursing is not confined to the walls of the hospital- there are more options.

Consider working in an office setting such as a Case Manager, Clinical Documentation Specialist, or Utilization Review. 

Next thing is to consider hours. Will you work full-time or part-time?


According to the Job Accommodation Network2, chronic pain is the most costly health problem in America. So, it’s likely full-time work is a necessity for you. It comes with wonderful benefits- such as medical insurance, paid time off, and well...a paycheck! If you’re needing to keep your full-time hours- don’t fret, there are still options for you.

If you’re already working full-time, before changing jobs consider what other options are available to you. Could you change your hours? Locations? Work remotely?

Consider applying for FMLA3 or your state’s equivalent. You’ll have up to 12 weeks’ leave available for medical reasons. It may come as a surprise to you that you can use this all at once, or intermittently. The benefit to this option is that you keep all the benefits available to you as a full-time employee, AND get time off to rest or go to doctor’s appointments. Some employers require you to use all vacation and sick leave when taking FMLA before being approved for leave without pay, so be aware of your specific employer’s policy.


If you’re working full time and can no longer maintain your schedule, ask for part-time work! If you don’t ask, you’ll never know! It won’t be optimal for your employer to decrease your hours, however, if that’s what is necessary for keeping you there, they may opt for that rather than lose you altogether!

Do note that depending on the hours worked as a part-time employee, you may not be eligible for FMLA, as it requires 1,250 hours4 of work in the last 12 months. This may not be necessary anymore, considering you’ve dropped hours. But still good to know!

Remote Work

Whether you are working part-time or full-time, consider working remotely. Ask around to see if remote work is an option for your current role, even considering a partially remote option. Given the COVID-19 pandemic, there are many opportunities for this.

ADA Accommodations

Regardless of your job choice and hours, you’ll still be eligible for an ADA accommodation. Signed into law in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)5  provides employees the right to request reasonable accommodations from their employer. This allows for permanent changes to your job and workplace, enabling you to perform your job in a way that is more equitable to your peers who perform the same job without chronic pain. 

As for specific accommodations, did you know that ADA accommodations are available for individuals with chronic pain? They’re not limited to wheelchair ramps, but include job sharing, job restructuring, remote work, and reduced hours. For example, if turning patients is part of your job, an ADA accommodation such as modified duties can remove this duty from your responsibility.

It can be easy to think, “I don’t have a disability, so why would I ask for these?”. The point is not to label yourself, but to equip yourself with tools to perform at your best, keep you employed, and keep you healthy. It is known that higher levels of emotional stress6 correspond with higher levels of pain. If you don’t regularly care for yourself and your chronic pain, your job will not be a sustainable career choice for you. At the end of the day, chronic pain is listed as a supported condition under the ADA. For more information about whether you qualify or not, visit their site7.


1,6Pain and Emotion: A Biopsychosocial Review of Recent Research

2Accommodation and Compliance: Chronic Pain

3Family and Medical Leave Act

4FMLA Frequently Asked Questions: Eligibility

5Job Accommodation Network: Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 2008

7Job Accommodation Network: A to Z of Disabilities and Accommodations

Morganne is a Registered Nurse of 6 years with experience in Surgical ICU, Rehabilitation, Maternal Child Health, and Communicable Disease. She served in Zambia for 2 years as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Currently, she works in Public Health on the Oregon Coast.

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