Running a Business While Managing a Chronic Disease

Living with a chronic disease or illness doesn’t have to stop you from running your own business. In fact, dealing with constant health concerns can prepare you for the ups and downs of business ownership. 

“There are a lot of analogies between chronic disease and entrepreneurship,” says Bill Balderaz, the president and founder of data analytics company Futurety. “Both tend to have either really, really good days or really, really bad days and few in-between days. Both require a lot of faith. Both require a lot of experimenting and risk.” 

Balderaz is HLA-B27 positive, which has caused ankylosing spondylitis, uveitis and rheumatoid arthritis. He has also started three successful businesses since 2006. At times, managing his health has made running a business difficult. But it has never made him want to quit. “Just because something is hard doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try,” he says. “It means you should try harder.” 

Struggling with a chronic condition doesn’t have to stop you from starting your own business either. Business.com spoke with five entrepreneurs who live with the daily challenges of chronic illness to get their best advice on how to manage your time, care for yourself and still create a thriving business.

Listen to your body

Running a business is mentally and physically taxing, and the risk of wearing yourself out is ever present even if you’re in perfect health. If you’re managing a chronic condition, though, listening to your body and paying attention to your symptoms becomes a vital part of being able to continue working.

“If you neglect your health in the long term for a short-term business need, you may find that you’ve created bigger long-term problems for yourself,” warns Kyle Brost. 

The CEO of research firm Spark Policy Institute, Brost has suffered from an autoimmune disorder for 15 years. To stay healthy, he pays careful attention to what both his business and his body need on a given day and adjusts his workload when he can, rather than pushing himself unnecessarily. “I try to be in tune with how I’m feeling and can notice when things may be headed downhill. When this happens, I take the necessary steps to prevent it from getting worse.” 

Laura Prestwich, an illustrator who runs the digital art store MakerDoerMama, recommends keeping a journal of symptoms in order to predict when you may need to scale back or avoid triggers that cause your health problems to flare up. “My whole focus right now is trying to learn cues that will help me head off some of the worst symptoms,” she says. “I have become a lot better about listening to my body because of it.” 

Manage stress levels

High levels of stress can often make chronic health problems worse. Paying attention to your stress, both at home and at work, is necessary to remain active and productive in your business. 

“Keep stress to a minimal level,” recommends Robyn Young, the founder of boutique branding agency Robyn Young & Co. Young was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s disease five years ago and experiences chronic pain and poor adrenal function as a result. But by delegating where she can and simplifying both her work and home routines, Young keeps her stress levels low and stays on top of her business’s day-to-day needs. 

Young has also found that running her own business improves, rather than elevates, her daily stress. “Not all days are easy … but for the most part, I’ve found that being able to control my schedule has worked in my favor.”  

Build a team that understands

Every business owner needs a support team. That team includes your colleagues, employees, as well as family and friends, who can provide practical and mental support as you navigate the challenges of business ownership. 

This team becomes even more important when you have a chronic illness. There will be days when you need additional emotional support, help at home or someone to call on when you’re struggling to deliver what a client is expecting. Whether or not you have employees, surround yourself with a team that understands the challenges you face. 

“When I started to be honest with others and ask for support, it humbled me to realize how many people had their own struggles and were glad to offer support,” says Brost. “Once you start to be honest with others, it will free you up to manage your illness appropriately. Until you do that, you will push yourself in impossible ways.” 

There is a balance to strike, however, between being honest with your team and involving them too deeply in your health struggles. Especially in professional relationships, it’s important to be honest without making your employees and colleagues think you can’t handle the work. 

“I tend to be transparent but err on the side of sharing less. I address it all in a very matter-of-fact manner and sometimes even with humor or irreverence,” says Balderaz. His condition has led to multiple surgeries, temporary loss of sight in one eye and occasionally needing to wear a sling or cast. He hasn’t hidden these physical challenges from colleagues or clients. Instead, to keep his business running smoothly, he lets people know what’s going on and asks for help when he needs it. But he doesn’t dwell on the details or seek out sympathy. 

“Be candid with your team and clients,” Balderaz advises. “Let them know what you are facing and how they can support [you]. Then move on.”

Let yourself be flexible

Having a chronic illness or autoimmune disorder means that your health can interfere with work at unexpected times. Symptom flare-ups, sudden doctor visits or lingering fatigue can all prevent you from doing the work you thought you would be able to. When this happens, embrace some flexibility. 

“When I get tired, I step away from the computer and relax in another room or outside for about 15 minutes to a half hour. I’m usually able to jump back in again after that break,” says Karen O’Brien, the owner of virtual legal assistance and notary service KanDo Organization LLC. 

O’Brien suffers from arthritis and fibromyalgia, both of which cause severe chronic pain. She says that trying to “be superwoman” and not taking breaks leaves her worn out and unable to work. But when she lets herself work flexibly, she gets more done. “I try to pace myself when I’m feeling good,” says O’Brien. “I know if I push, I’ll take longer to recuperate.” 

Prestwich recommends creating systems for your business so that the essentials can get done no matter what. Having these in place, she says, helps her take care of both her business and her health on days when she has a flare-up or feels exhausted. “You don’t have to think too hard or reinvent the wheel,” she explains. “Just follow the process.” 

“Your time and your health are as precious a resource as they come, and [they] should be treated with the same regard as your capital, materials [and] relationships,” says Young. “You’re going to naturally test your limits, but be sure that you know them as well and ask for help where you can.”

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