Invisible Illness at Work, with Chronically Capable’s Hannah Olson

At 20, Hannah Olson was diagnosed with chronic Lyme Disease. At 21, she graduated from Boston University and moved to DC for her first job.  At 22, she was forced to leave her job because her employer didn’t understand or accept her chronic condition that forced her to be hooked up to IVs 8 hours a day.  Hannah knew she wasn’t the only one – so she decided to fight back – by forming Chronically Capable.

Transcript

JACKIE FERGUSON:  Please welcome Hannah Olson to Diversity Beyond the Checkbox. Hannah is a speaker, consultant, and the CEO of Chronically Capable, a platform that connects professionals who live with chronic illness to employers who offer remote work and flexible job opportunities. Anna started Chronically Capable when she herself had to leave her dream job after graduating from Boston University to undergo aggressive treatment after being diagnosed with Lyme disease. Hannah, welcome to our show. Thank you for being here.

HANNAH OLSON: Thanks so much for having me, happy to be here.

JACKIE: Let’s start with Chronically Capable. Tell us a little more about the mission of your organization and why this kind of work is necessary and as a network connector.

HANNAH: We are a talent marketplace that’s connecting folks with invisible illnesses and disabilities to opportunities that they statistically have a higher chance of retaining. Our hopes are that through our work, that we’re actually going to be able to change the workplace. Right now, there’s so much to undo in the workplace and so much that, for so long we’ve had this idea that you have to be in an office from nine to five and you have to perform at a certain level and we’ve seen, just this year alone, how much has shifted.

I’m sure we’ll get into that, but you know we’re really working to remove that stigma and to create a workplace where everyone is welcome and that you don’t have to decide between your health and your career. I’m sure we’ll dive deeper into the platform, but it’s obviously so rewarding to be working on this company, as you said, in my own experience and each day that we do this I’m more motivated than ever to really create this change in the workplace.

JACKIE: That’s amazing. Hannah, how many people have invisible illness in the United States? Let’s talk about that a little more.

HANNAH: Right now, there’s currently about 157 million Americans suffering from chronic illnesses. There’s about 123 million working age Americans with at least one chronic illness, and I say at least one because most people are, and I don’t want to say most but many people with, with chronic illness actually have more than one. So, for me for example, have Lyme disease, also have some issues with my heart and my thyroid due to Lyme disease. And so therefore you kind of check a few different boxes, so never see beyond the checkbox, look I already said the word checkbox. But we’re almost a half of our U.S. population right now, which is absurd. And that number is only going to rise due to not only the aging population, but we don’t really know what the long-term effects of coronavirus yet. So, this is something that is only expected to rise as the years come.

JACKIE: Let’s talk about Corona virus a little and how this has shifted the workplace for all of us. I know that there were some concerns with remote work previously and a lot of organizations saying, “No, you’re not going to get as much accomplished.”, but we have disproven that as a whole this year, haven’t we let’s talk about that a little bit, and some of the accommodations that would be required for organizations that are looking to support and employ people that have chronic illnesses.

HANNAH: Yeah, great question and it’s such a timely topic, obviously we’re kind of at this tipping point in our workplace culture right now, and I think the coronavirus has really pushed us there, and unfortunately it has taken COVID-19 really to show us the benefits of non-traditional work solutions. Coronavirus has led so many companies to adopt these truly fundamental technology solutions and we’ve realized that to be productive and employed doesn’t always have to be in an office place.

 

and that it’s possible to increase both accessibility and flexibility and still maintain this high-quality work product. And so, these trends are only presenting new opportunities for working age individuals who are suffering from an illness or disability who have been long left out of the job market. I’m hopeful that this is a time of change. And then to your question really about the accommodations that people have been looking for. One thing alone is remote work. A year ago, we weren’t talking about remote work and illness. It was so taboo to talk about being sick at work, and people have been begging to work remotely for years, especially those with chronic illnesses. A lot of our community is actually very frustrated because suddenly March hits and everyone’s allowed to work remotely, and it’s like this magic wand and every single person can work from home. And that’s something people have been asking for years, and getting denied. So simply the fact of being able to work remotely is a huge shift for our community. Also, just the idea of open communication about illness. As I said, it’s been so taboo to talk about being sick at work, and you don’t want to be that person who has a stomach ache and has to go home early, but now we’re forced to talk about it. And I think that this is only going to help everyone in the long run because at the end of the day, we’re all humans and we have life and, you know, life shows up and, we’re learning to be more accommodating and more accepting across the board. And then I think coronavirus is a huge reason as to why we’re doing that. It’s forcing us to do this.

JACKIE: Absolutely Hannah and just to reiterate 123 million working age Americans. So that’s a lot of people that want to be in the workplace that are going to be amazing employees in the workplace, but we’ve not as a whole made these necessary accommodations, and now we see that it was something that we could have done all along. What are some of the misconceptions about invisible illness or chronic illness that people have?

HANNAH: I think it varies because some people have been touched by chronic illness and have a sister or a wife, you know, or a coworker who has a chronic illness, but, the biggest thing that I hear is really this idea that chronic illnesses is blanket term that means you’re sick in a hospital bed. And in reality, that’s not true. So that’s one thing is just the fact that we think about the word chronic and chronic has so much stigma. That’s something that I’m really trying to change with Chronically Capable by shifting the stigma of that word because it’s so negative and it’s so dark. And really, so we think of the word chronic, and we assume chronic illness means you’re just always sick and you’re not able to contribute, and that’s not true. So that’s kind of the first thing. I think another big misconception would be that you miss work a lot, they’re not able to show up and perform at the same level. And then really that, you know, this idea that accommodations are expensive. In reality, these are actually really minimal and fruitful investments and the average cost to accommodate someone’s only about $500 per employee. So, these are really small numbers here that we’re talking, but employers have this idea that, you know, we have to do X, Y, Z, and change our technology and do all of this stuff to accommodate, and in reality, that’s not true. And unfortunately, unlike most disabilities, there isn’t really this standard accommodation list, for the chronically ill community because their needs fluctuate. And so, we have to have the idea that each person is different and you know, we need to really understand that each situation is unique.

JACKIE: Yeah, absolutely. Hannah many companies don’t provide these accommodations for professionals with disabilities for multitude of reasons, either they’re not aware that their organization’s not inclusive, they believe it will be too expensive, which you just talked about It’s about a $500 investment per employee, which is not a significant number at all when you think about what that employee can generate from a productivity standpoint over time, or a lack of education. So, let’s talk about why hiring people with disabilities is good for business and why employers need to be more inclusive.

HANNAH: I love this question. This is my favorite thing to talk about. Disability inclusion is really, it’s an opportunity and it’s not a chore and hiring people with disabilities and illnesses is good for people and in turn, it’s good for companies. And so, the more we have these inclusive and accessible, flexible workplaces and policies, really, this is the key to helping everyone work better. And so, the businesses that actually do foster strong inclusion programs have better access to talent and they can find the right person for the right job. And so, these businesses, they have higher employee retention and in turn, they also have the tools they need to help their employees thrive. And so, I always love to just kind of reiterate the fact that hiring people with disabilities is good for business, but most businesses aren’t. You know, either they don’t know, or they’re not taking advantage of that fact. And so, with Chronically Capable, we’re really trying to bridge that gap.

JACKIE: And, you know, just to note too, this diversity group is the one that any of us can be a part of at any time. And, you know, whether it’s trauma or accident or illness, or even age. For me, as an employee, it’s important to know that I have an inclusive workplace because you just never know what accommodations you’ll need as an employee as time progresses, so I love that. With invisible illness, I know that with some conditions, some days can be great and some days not great. There isn’t a standard accommodation, as you said, and there is some level of randomness in the accommodations necessary from day to day. What advice would you give, Hannah, to organizations to manage the unpredictability of invisible illness?

HANNAH: I think the biggest thing is to ask questions and I say this both to employers and to colleagues. Especially as a colleague, you have this idea like I’m not supposed to ask if this person’s okay or if they need support, and this kind of can snowball and you get into the situation where that person’s not even getting asked. And so, I think it’s important to ask questions and just say how are you doing today? Is there anything I can do to be supportive to you today? And it’s such a simple thing that can go a long way that people just miss or they feel uncomfortable to do. And then another thing that organizations can do is to constantly be educating themselves and learning, this goes beyond just the idea of including people with disabilities, but this is just part of the diversity discussion and the inclusion piece. It’s one thing to hire a diverse workforce, and it’s another thing to include those people. And so constantly being able to educate yourselves as an organization, having lunch and learn sessions, just being on top of this puzzle because you can’t fall short the end of the day. And so, I think it’s important to always be on top of it.

JACKIE: Absolutely. And Hannah, can you tell us a little bit more about Lyme disease and your personal journey with invisible illness?

HANNAH: Yeah. So, I graduated from college back in 2017. About a week after my graduation, I got a PICC line put in my arm, which is essentially a permanent IV. So, it extends from your arm to above your heart. I was hooked up about six to eight hours a day, depending on the week. And in my case in particular, I had gone through heavy doses of antibiotic treatments for about two years. Ultimately it wasn’t working. And so, the PICC line was kind of the last option for me to get well. I moved down to DC, got this amazing job, have a PICC line in my arm, and suddenly I’m in an office and I have a boss who’s not okay with that, and didn’t want me to have a PICC line and didn’t want clients to see it, and I quickly was in this place of having to decide between my health and my career. At this point in time, I’m 22 years old, I’m new to a city and I’m still sick, and I’m also trying to impress my boss and move up in the workplace. For me, I really reached this tipping point of why do I have to decide between the two and why should someone ever have to do that? And so, I personally started to in my free time go online and I read in all of these different support groups. I really hated support groups at the time, but I went in them and I kind of stocked them and saw what people were talking about. And I kept seeing that same sentiment of I want to work, I’m able to work, but physically the demands of a traditional nine to five just can’t coexist with my treatment, and I saw that about a hundred times. I had this weird folder on my computer, where I took hundreds of screenshots of people saying this, and I realized you’re not alone. And that’s when I really saw the depth of chronic illness in the United States. And I quickly realized that this was something I needed to change. I was someone who didn’t like talking about illness. I never talked about Lyme disease beyond my close circle. And then suddenly it was my life and my career, and I’m going on podcasts, going on the news and talking about my illness suddenly in front of everyone, which is a really weird experience because it was something invisible for so long and then it was visible to the world. I’ve had quite the personal battle of this whole experience. But at the end of the day, I think this has given me some strength. You know, I’m really grateful for this disease. I think it’s given me so much and taught me so much, and given me the opportunity to be a part of things that I don’t think I ever would have. And so, at 24 years old right now, to be able to be like, Hey, look what I’m doing now. It’s amazing thinking back a few years ago when I was so sick and, and barely hanging on.

JAVKIE: Wow, at 24 you’ve accomplished so much. That is really, really incredible. What makes you want to, or what made you want to step out and lead this, instead of managing it yourself in the box that so many of us who are marginalized will place ourselves in. What made you want to step out, Hannah, at such a young age and do this work.

HANNAH: So online, you’ll see a lot about chronically ill folks becoming entrepreneurs, you have to create your own solution and you have to pave your own path because the traditional workplace wasn’t inclusive and it wasn’t allowing us to survive. I was someone I never thought I was going to be an entrepreneur or a founder. I still kind of can’t believe that, but I ended up joining this small tech startup in DC and I told them about my illness and told them about my experience. And while in that office, I realized now’s the time if you’re going to do this. You have to do it now. And so, I pitched the idea to my boss and flash forward six months later, my boss is my co-founder. I felt like if I didn’t do this, no one else would, and I didn’t have a future at work if it weren’t for something like Chronically Capable.

JACKIE: That’s such an amazing story. And Hannah, let’s talk a little more about Chronically Capable. Can you tell us about some of your clients and what exactly does this platform do? How do we engage with the platform?

HANNAH: So, we launched this in February of 2020, which was arguably the worst time you could launch a recruiting platform, given that March unemployment skyrocketed and hiring was pretty much halted across the board. But then, as we discussed, throughout the months and with coronavirus, we really saw this spike in business. We currently have about 45 employer partners on the platform. This can range from small tech startups, all the way to some of the large San Francisco giants like a WhatsApp and Postmates, Wikimedia. We really do have a true range of employers. The community has grown to about 28,000 job seekers as of today. It grows by several thousand a month. And so that’s only going to rise. We’ve got a huge community now, and I think that the motivation is there and it’s happening now, this is the time for Chronically Capable. So, that’s really exciting. The ways that you can engage with us, you’re able to sign up through our website. I’m happy to drop the website URL right now. It’s www.capable.work. And we are a job platform and marketplace so you’re able to post job positions, get access to different insights and analytics. You’re able to have resources dedicated to or specific to people with chronic illnesses and disabilities. It’s a wonderful platform. We have such a highly qualified talent pool, it’s amazing. About 65% of our community actually has 10 plus years of work experience, so this is a very highly qualified talent pool that’s just untapped.

JACKIE: That is fantastic. Hannah, what is your long-term goal with Chronically Capable and what challenges are you facing currently with coronavirus with just the general understanding and education of organizations. Let’s talk about that a little.

HANNAH: It’s a weird time to be a person right now, and I think I sometimes have to pinch myself and be like, “Hey, have a moment of gratitude because look at what you’ve done during the pandemic.” But our biggest challenges right now always kind of come back to just funding and growing our businesses on the platform. I’ve been a one-person sales team for a while, so that’s been very challenging. However, we just closed our first pre-seed fund-raise. So, starting in January, I’m going to have some teammates, which is great, which is really exciting to grow our team. So that’s probably the biggest challenge, because we don’t want to end up in that chicken and egg situation of having too many job seekers and not enough jobs. And so, I’m constantly kind of dealing with that. In terms of what’s next in the future, we just launched something really cool that I’m very excited about. It’s a kind of Glassdoor-like component of our website, where you’re actually able to rate companies based on variety of accessibility questions, accommodation offerings, representation and leadership. Our goal is to really bring true transparency to the workplace through this. I’m really excited about that new feature. In terms of kind of long-term, our goal is that in the next five years that we’ll be able to eliminate the vast, vast unemployment gap between these non-disabled and disabled Americans. Our hopes are really that through our ambitions, that we’re able to work with cities and States and governments to be able to slash these employment rates. I think Chronically Capable, while it’s a tech company at its core, we’re trying to create change. And so personally I hope that we can work with our government to create laws around this and to actually make this something that isn’t a goal it’s a mandate, and we can really create true equality in the workplace.

JACKIE: And just again with the requests of working from home and being able to work remote and that not being accommodated, and then here we get this pandemic and all of a sudden, we’re all working from home. It’s working well, right? People are still getting their work, accomplished, making money. And it’s so important to be forward thinking about how we can be more inclusive, so I love that. Hannah, tell us one of your favorite success stories with a Chronically Capable member.

HANNAH: So, a few months ago, I actually did a Facebook live with Congressman Joe Kennedy, which was really cool cause I’m a huge Kennedy fan in the first place. After that Facebook live. I had an outreach on the website from an employer who said I saw the Facebook live and I actually run a company that supports people with chronic diseases and I’d like to post the job, and two days later says I have hundreds of applicants for this job, I cannot choose who I want to pick. So, I ended up actually hiring two people for this one job. One of those people just reached out to us the other day on Instagram and just thanked us and was like, “I love my job, I love my boss. This is so great, thank you.” And it’s those moments that I really start to feel the impact because I get lost in my day to day with talking to employers and talking to investors and doing podcasts, and so I don’t really get to see as much of the impact piece. And so, messages like those just really make me excited about how many other people are having that same success through the platform. There’s another live job on, on there now. So, if you’re looking for a job and listening to this, I encourage you to check out Mayv. They’re an awesome employer.

JACKIE: Thank you for sharing that that. It’s so awesome when we know that we’re making a real difference in people’s lives and, and the differences can be small at first, but ultimately, you’re making a major change, and I think that is so fantastic. Hannah. What do you like to do when you’re not working?

HANNAH: I love to hang out with my friends and my family. I feel very sucked into my work from nine to six or however many hours I’m sitting at my desk, so I think after I’m after work, I’m not really much of an exerciser, so I’m more so really love to just be with my friends. I love going to restaurants. I love going to bars. I love being out. It’s very hard during quarantine, but I’ve picked up some new hobbies. I just finished rollerblading right before this podcast, so that’s a new quarantine hobby. I also have learned to sou vide, or I’ve really learned to cook during quarantine and love sou vide I don’t know if you have one of those, but it’s best purchase of the year.

JACKIE: That is awesome. And Hannah, what’s the best advice that you give to people who are living with invisible illness?

HANNAH: When you’re dealing with a long-term illness, it’s easy to get caught up in the illness and the illness becomes your life. And for so long, that was the case for me. I was almost trapped in my situation, it was all I talked about, it was all I thought about and I lost sight of who I was beyond my illness. I think when I talked to other people in the community, I try to encourage folks to find something that they’re passionate about. In my case. It’s a little weird because there’s overlap in what I do and with my illness. But I think having something that motivates you in the morning and can get you up and get you out really is so important when you’re dealing with something for so long. And I think it’s also important to know that you’re not alone. When I figured out that there was that many millions of Americans out there dealing with the same struggles as I was, it made it feel a little less isolating, and then it made it feel a lot less isolating as I dove into this job. I think it’s important to remember that because it can be such an isolating thing to deal with, especially during a pandemic when we’re home and quarantined.

JACKIE: And, you know, one of the reasons why I always like to ask the question, what do you do outside of work is because so many times with invisible illness, that’s the thing that you lead with. And you don’t have to, there’s so much more to all of us than the diversity pieces that define us as individuals, so thank you for sharing that. One of my favorite things to ask is, tell us something about you that not a lot of people know

HANNAH: Two fun facts. You want fun facts or is that okay? One is that I can yodel, which is so random, and I learned it when I was younger.

JACKIE: And we’re gonna stop right now and I want to hear some of that.

HANNAH: No, not happening. I’ve never done that. My mom used to make me do it in the yard when I was growing up.

JACKIE: Oh, my goodness.

HANNAH: I can Yodel. The other thing is I’m addicted to chicken nuggets. You would think that I run a company that is focused on health and wellness, that I would practice what I preach, but I have a serious, serious chicken nugget problem. And I’ve got to cut out the nuggets.

JACKIE: And whose chicken nuggets reign supreme?

HANNAH: So, for a long time, I thought it was Wendy’s. But now I moved to Texas and I had Jack in the Box, which no one likes. Everyone’s like, “why do you go to Jack in the box?” best chicken nuggets. I will stand by their chicken nuggets and curly fries till the grave. I have to remember I’m still 24. Like sometimes I get so caught up in business discussions that it’s easy to forget. You’re 24, live a little, yodel and eat some nuggets, it’s ok.

JACKIE: I love that, thank you for sharing that. And then Hannah, as we begin to wrap up, what do you want to leave our listeners with today? What do people need to take with them away from this conversation?

HANNAH: I want to reiterate what I said before is that hiring people with illnesses and disabilities is good for business. This is not a chore; this is a huge opportunity to reach an untapped pool of talent and to create a more inclusive workplace for everyone in your organization. And so, I just want to reiterate that because I think that’s the number one question I get is why when I hire people who are differently abled, and I think it’s important to remember that there are business gains, I know. And beyond that, there’s human gains. I’d like to leave us with that. And the future of work is inclusive.

JACKIE: Absolutely. Hannah, thank you so much for taking some time with us today. Please let our listeners know again, how they can reach you and get connected with Chronically Capable.

HANNAH: Our website is www.capable.work. Weird website, I know, but the other one’s longer. And then our email is hello@wearecapable.org. We also have chat on the website. If you are an employer and interested in and speaking with me, you’re able to book a demo with me on our website. I take all of our demo calls, so you will get to meet me. And yes, we’d love to have you. We’ve got thousands and thousands of job seekers looking for roles, so there’s no shortage of opportunity there.

JACKIE: Awesome. Hannah, thank you so much. I really enjoyed having you on the show.

HANNAH: Thanks so much.

Full Episode Transcript

Diversity Beyond the Checkbox is presented by The Diversity Movement and hosted by Jackie Ferguson. For more information including the latest webinars and other DEI content, head over to TheDiversityMovement.com. Podcast production by Earfluence.

Earfluence
Podcast Production
About the Author
We believe in sharing amazing stories, providing knowledge to the world, and celebrating diverse voices. Through podcasting, our clients are amplifying their expertise, expanding their networks, building a content engine, and growing their influence. If you're interested in podcasting, we'd love to hear from you! Schedule your free 15 minute podcast consult today.