Working with Fibromyalgia Group of Multiethnic Diverse People with Different Jobs
By: Gayle Backstrom

Preparing to Work with Fibromyalgia

You must know yourself first. Because Fibromyalgia affects everyone differently, only you can determine the overall impact it has on you physically, mentally, and emotionally. Take the time to do a self-evaluation. Does your pain and fatigue make it difficult to carry out the activities of your job? Do you experience headaches, irritable bowel syndrome, sensitivity to various smells, or other symptoms that might interfere with your ability to work? Do you have problems standing, walking or sitting for extended periods of time?

Does your job require you to perform repetitive motions such as working on a computer, answering the telephone or working on an assembly line? Besides the difficulty of coping with pain and fatigue, individuals with FM also often have cognitive problems such as memory loss, difficulty focusing on a task, or a tendency to transpose letters and numbers. In addition, many times depression and anxiety accompany a chronic illness making it even harder to do a job well. Once you know what your limitations are, you must take a hard look at your finances and your personal goals.

It may seem difficult to even think about personal goals when you can barely drag yourself to work every day or you come home only to collapse on the couch in front of the TV. However, without goals you are likely to fall into the rut of struggling just to get by. You must decide what you want and need, set your goals and then determine the best way to achieve them. If you have never set any goals, now is a good time to do so. While working and financial goals are very important, be sure you think about personal and family goals as well. Living and working with any chronic illness becomes easier if you remember the four P’s: Planning, Prioritizing, Pacing and Playing.

Planning with FM

Because you must live with the realities of limited energy and pain, it is important to plan energy-efficient ways to handle both your work at home and your work on the job. Planning ahead may be as simple as cooking enough food on the weekend for several meals and keeping it in the freezer, ready to pull out and pop into the microwave. On the other hand, planning may be as complex as developing new skills for your job.


Concentrate on what has to be done: personal care, food on a regular basis and keeping the cat box clean. When I am feeling better or have my project completed, then I will do what housework I physically can. I also pay someone to come in periodically and give my house a good cleaning. If l must choose between writing-which I enjoy, and which is a vital part of who I am – and housecleaning, writing wins every time. For me writing is also how I earn money, therefore it is my top priority. You must decide what is most important to you. Then you can conserve more energy for your top priorities and let other things go or find easier ways to handle them.


Pacing is just as important as planning and prioritizing because you must use your limited energy wisely. It is important that you try to be realistic about how you work, whether it is at home or on a job. By eating regular nutritional meals and taking periodic breaks, including a nap if necessary, you will increase your ability to produce.


It is playing that is most often overlooked. You must work and take care of your family and household. Playing is something you would like to do, but often regard as unnecessary. You probably think of play as a luxury. However, playing will revitalize you. It will refresh you so you can go back to work with a recharged mind and body. You may not be physically able to do the same fun activities you once enjoyed, but you can find new ways of playing. It may be reading a book or taking a leisurely walk through your neighborhood. Play does not have to cost much or require a lot of time or energy. It just has to be fun to you.

Keeping Your Job

How do you manage to keep a job when you have FM? Can you get some type of accommodation to help you on the job? Much will depend upon your current working relationship and job history. If you have been at a particular job for several years and have consistently performed well, it is possible your boss and others in the company will work with you. They may be willing to make adjustments – such as more flexible hours – as long as you work the required number of hours or complete the expected amount of work.

There are a number of job accommodations that can be made for people with fibromyalgia. Some cost very little, but help a lot (i.e., a headset if you must use the telephone.) You must take the initiative to find ways to make your job easier. The reality is, many supervisors concentrate only on the bottom line. If you are not able to produce, you will not have a job.

Finding a New Job

There are many ways of finding a new source of income. If you have a chronic illness, nontraditional work might be just what you need. The adage of “find a need and meet it” is still true. Make a list of your interests that might translate into a job. Many times, a hobby can be turned into a means of income if it is approached in a business-like manner. For example, I made maps of historical forts on leather and framed them with weathered barn wood. I also took photographs of local historical sights and made greeting cards that I sold in a booth at an antique store. Whether you are interested in traditional or non-traditional work, do not sit and wait for a job to show up. You are much more likely to succeed if you aggressively pursue work. And be sure to network by letting your friends and family know you are looking.

Legal Issues

Many people with FM do have a disability, but not all. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a disability as: a) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such individual; b) a record of such an impairment; or c) being regarded as having such an impairment. The major life activities include, but are not limited to seeing, learning, hearing, breathing, walking, working, and caring for oneself.

When pain and fatigue interfere substantially with these life activities, you may be considered to have a disability. It is at this point that you must decide whether or not to inform the people you work with about your FM. Hidden or invisible illnesses often present a real problem because of the perception that you look fine. If you choose to speak up about your FM, be as positive as possible and be prepared to offer suggestions of reasonable ways to make it easier for you to do your job.

You are not required to inform your employer of your FM as long as it does not interfere with the safety of you and your co-workers. Be careful about the effects some medications can have on your ability to drive or operate machinery. Legally, companies are required to provide “reasonable accommodations” for you if you meet the criteria of being disabled. This law applies to companies with 15 or more employees and the requested accommodation must not place an “undue hardship” upon the company. Details about what can be considered “reasonable accommodations” and “undue hardships” can be found on the Americans with Disabilities Act’s web site.

The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) provides assistance in finding accommodations to enable those with disabilities to work. JAN is a free consulting service that provides information about job accommodations, the ADA, and the employability of people with disabilities. It is a service of the Department of Disability Employment within the U.S. Department of Labor. It is possible to continue working when you have fibromyalgia and I recommend it if you are able-even if it is only part time. Do not let yourself be defined by your fibromyalgia because it is just one facet of who you are. And remember… employers appreciate employees who have a cheerful, positive attitude.