Chronically PhD #1 – what to do when you get ill

This is a new tiny series about doing a PhD with a chronic illness.

Everyone will get at least a bit ill a some point during their PhD, even if it’s just a week of flu. It’s different when you have a chronic illness, because it will happen more often, and probably take longer to recover from, so it’s good to have some tricks up your sleeve for coping with work & ill-health. Most people with a chronic illness are pretty expert in managing their illness and their life, and all of those tricks also apply to PhDing. Here are some of mine for the more acute / short-term illness blips:

In advance:

Have a buffer zone

I always try and give myself a buffer around a deadline, so that I can have a few days out if I need and still work at my normal pace to get everything done. It definitely helps to feel less stress when I do need time off because I know I have the time. But, as a more anxious person, it does mean I can get anxious about work/deadlines earlier than I need to, which is unhelpful to me and the people around me. But still, wherever possible get a buffer!

nopeWhen you get ill:

Give yourself a break

Give yourself permission to take time off. This sounds stupid but so many people don’t let themselves, guilt-free, have a sick day doing nothing ‘productive’. Working when you’re too ill is only going to make you feel worse, produce poor work, and make your recovery longer. If you struggle to give yourself permission, have a friend who knows you be the person who ‘tells you off’ and makes you stay home (with Netflix and not Mendeley).

Remember you don’t have to work at the office

If you’re feeling too grotty for a full day, but are able to work for a couple of hours, work from home. If you go into the office, you have to get dressed, travel in, and be somewhat functional & upright, which will reduce the amount of ‘wellness time’ you have. Stay in your pyjamas, in your bed / on the sofa, and keep those spoons for the work, not the stuff around the work. (But obviously take the full day off with no work if that’s what you need).

Make a ‘must must’ list

If you’re feeling stressed about the work you’re missing or the buffer getting shorter, make a ‘must must list’. Basically:

  1. Write a to do list for whatever it is that you’re working on
  2. Work out which things absolutely must happen this week. ‘Must must’ only!
  3. Work out which of those ‘must must’ happen today
  4. Absolutely ignore everything else on the list. They’re urgent, but not for today

Usually, I find my must must list is shorter than my anxious brain is telling me. Sometimes, I have urgent things to do but none of them are musts for today, so I can much more happily let myself recover.

This usually works in the short-term, but it’s also how I coped with much more severe illness and general life tasks like showering. Showering not a must must today? Then let yourself not and save those spoons to have a non-microwave dinner.

If you do your must must list and it’s honestly only must musts but there’s more than you can manage, it’s time to start letting other people know…

Let other people know

You don’t have to disclose anything you don’t want to, but it can be helpful if at least one of your supervisors are aware you have a chronic condition (you don’t have to say what it is, just how it affects you, like needing flexible working). If you’re starting to lose / go beyond your buffer and you’re worried, tell them. This isn’t just a chronically ill person thing, people get the flu all the time. Don’t make your stress worse by stewing in it alone while your supervisors are unaware until it’s too late. They might be able to move a deadline, advise you on what to do if they can’t, etc. It’s literally their job to support you through your PhD, but they can’t do that unless they know what support you need (and they’ve definitely had students who’ve had illness/childcare/life get in the way of a deadline before).

Have you got any tips for what to do when you actually get ill?

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