05/28/2013 08:58 am ET Updated Jul 28, 2013

Navigating Work Stress From the ER, Bed and Beyond


This week offered a true clash in the work-life merge. A loud bang raced like a sonic boom through my body long after the initial impact. On assignment in an SUV working on a television news story, another SUV slammed us from behind. It began a period of true reflection and contemplation as I was placed on a back board and into the back of an ambulance and off to the emergency room.

All things considered, I'm doing well. But sudden riptides in the work-life merge can thrust one out into a sea of workplace uncertainty in no time. It's hard to focus, and work stress increases. Your mind messes with you and has you thinking, "What am I missing? What should I be doing? How do I stay ahead of the competition? Will my job miss me?" The situation creates a new kind of stress on top of worrying about an already-increasing workload.

As an entrepreneur and freelance journalist facing a sudden health care mishap, I felt like scrambled eggs for a few days. Watery and not knowing which way was up. But health must come first along with mental clarity and a sense of being grounded. Now in the healing process, and as an advocate for managing work stress in a conscious way, I wanted to share a few lessons that I learned. First, work-life flexibility and acceptance are the greatest keys moving forward when sudden acute health care issues arise.

Radical Acceptance in the Moment

I was surrendering to what Buddhist nun Pema Chodron has referred to as radical acceptance, which she has said "offers us an invitation to embrace ourselves with all our pain, fear and anxieties, and to step lightly yet firmly on the path of understanding."

The first lesson: My work-life scenario had to change and I had to adopt an even more flexible working model for the short term.

7 Keys for the Work-Life Merge When Navigating Illness

As an independent contractor as well as an employee, my flexibility changes from week to week. Here are some ground rules that might apply, but everyone's situation is different depending on your employment status.

Key #1: At all costs, health comes first. Even if it means dipping deeper into the bank account for a short period of time or asking for outside help.
Key #2: Keep stress levels to a minimum and get plenty of sleep. Stress deters the healing process.
Key #3: Financial stability. As an independent contractor, cash flow might slow down, and you may have to take on less strenuous freelance work for the short term.
Key #4: Maintain business relationships. Check in with major clients to be sure everything is up to snuff. If you can't get it done, delegate. Do you have a cache of colleagues you can call upon to help out short term?
Key #5: Transparency, technology and communication. First, decide which technology devices are the most accessible to communicate with. Then decide who needs to be in "the know." Close friends and family should know what's happening and important clients or your workplace might need to be informed to a degree.
Key #6: Understand your health care options, insurance coverage and workers compensation rules if applicable. Read the fine print in the doctor's office, ask questions and get a second opinion when appropriate. Getting the wrong medication, having an unnecessary procedure, or not knowing the consequences of a health care choice eats into recovery time.
Key #7: Inquire about your workplace guidelines regarding illness. Every workplace is different. Read up on the Family Leave Act and ask your Human Resources department about your options. Companies generally have differing policies for full-time employees, part-timers or independent contractors. What are the consequences of taking a leave of absence or time off without pay? If your management is receptive, ask about potential flexible working arrangements. Most of all, be honest about what you can and cannot do.

A Conscious Approach to Recovery

I think the most important key to recovery is to find some serenity in the healing process. Sometimes we're brought to our knees in tragedy, but how we endure that journey can either speed up our recovery or render it more daunting.

At its core, health care issues force change. Unwanted change takes us out of our comfort zone and makes us vulnerable to our own self-critical thinking and the judgment of others. Such challenges may erode our patience and ego, but inevitably, conquering them leads to growth.

What do you do when you get so sick that work takes a backseat? Please share your wisdom!

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