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Managing your career with ill health and disability

If you find yourself at a career crossroads due to a change in your health, you are not alone. The RCN recognises that many of our members will acquire impairments in the course of their working lives. 

Health problems and/or disability should not deter employment nor mean you have to give up your career in healthcare. On the contrary, many healthcare professionals are able to continue working with adjustments, or change direction to find a job where they can work at their best.

Although it's impossible not to think about the implications that changes to your health will have, it's important to allow time to think positively about the valuable skills and experience you can offer. Your insight into life as a patient or being disabled can add a new dimension to your understanding as a care giver, including increased resilience, resourcefulness and empathy.

Your rights 

Many people are unaware that their health condition could fall within the legal definition of a disability as per the Equality Act 2010. It's a good idea to try and establish this as early on as possible. If you are deemed to have a disability, your employer has a legal obligation to make all reasonable efforts to implement adjustments or remove barriers that prevent you from working. This obligation also applies during recruitment. For more information about the Equality Act and disability rights during recruitment and employment, see the RCN's online advice on disability discrimination

Reasonable adjustments

Reasonable adjustments are adaptations to environments, attitudes and routine that allow people with impairments to live life as independently as possible. You will already work with people who have agreed reasonable adjustments with their employer, and you can do the same. Adjustments are rarely expensive and aren’t necessarily just good for you; they can benefit the whole workforce and its customers, so anticipating and removing barriers ensures a better environment and service for all. 

Our guide “Reasonable adjustments: a guide for members affected by disability in the workplace” is designed to help you use a number of tools to improve your experience if you need a reasonable adjustment in the workplace. It aims to provide you with tips and techniques to empower you to get the resources and adjustments you need to perform at your best at work. 

If you have having problems negotiating reasonable adjustments, you should be put in contact with your local RCN representative. They will check your employer is acting fairly/reasonably and work with them to ensure the best possible outcome for you.

If adjustments cannot be made, consider if it would be possible or realistic to find a similar role with a different employer. Budgets, service demands, resources and staffing obviously vary across different companies. Where one employer may not be able to justify a reduction in hours, another employer who has a larger workforce might happily offer part-time hours or a job share. Or perhaps one employer couldn't justify less travelling during work whereas another employer has the resources to allow employees to work from home.

If you need to start applying for jobs, or planning your career around your health, you can book an appointment with one of the RCN's careers advisers who can support you to take the next step.

Join Peer Support

To join Peer Support, simply complete a consent form and send to:

Reasonable adjustments

The peer support service guide for members affected by disability in the workplace 

  • What are adjustments?
  • How do you ask for them?
  • What happens if they fail?
  • How do you tell your colleagues?

Changing direction  

Sometimes, for one reason or another, reasonable adjustments are not possible in your current line of work. In this instance, you might find yourself in a position where you have to rethink your career and consider moving to a different type of role or sector altogether. 

Although this may seem daunting, try to think positively; this could be an opportunity to try something new that will better suit you, your lifestyle and your health. Remember that you are not the problem; the potential absence of suitable adjustments is. 

It might help to ask yourself the following questions: 

  • What jobs would be suitable for me and my health? 
  • What jobs interest me? 
  • Is there demand for that job near me / where I'm willing to work? 
  • What skills / experience / qualifications do I already have to do that job?  
  • What skills or experience could I adapt / transfer to do that job (see our advice on transferable skills)  
  • What new skills / experience / qualifications will I need to acquire to do that job? 

Roles within healthcare are varied, consisting of so much more than just giving ward based / hands on care. The Health Careers website and the NHS career planner can be good places to start if you're looking for ideas and further information about where you could go next.

Possibilities are endless, but examples of jobs within healthcare that might be more suitable for nurses or support workers affected by ill health include: 

Activities coordinator Administrative / clerical
Agency / Bank / Locum worker 
Call handler  / Emergency dispatch assistant
Clinic based nurse / HCA 
Clinical informatics Clinical nurse specialist
Commissioning           Complimentary therapies 
Counselling / Social work 
Disability assessor
Expert witness
Family planning / Sexual health
Governance Health promotion
Health advisory services (face to face or telephone)
Journalism / Writing
Management / leadership Medical / Pharmaceutical sales
Nutrition / Dietitian Occupational health
Practice nurse / AP / HCA
Practice educator / Practice facilitator Project management            
Quality assurance / Risk management           Research
School nursing
Teaching / Education
Travel nursing
Triage (face to face or via telephone
Self-employed work

For further inspiration and information, join professional forums and networks, or attend conferences, events or your next local RCN branch meeting. This way you can gain knowledge in new areas whilst engaging with other healthcare professionals or employers at the same time. If you're out of work, this is especially important as it means you'll feel involved and stay abreast of initiatives, issues or news within healthcare.

Social media (for example LinkedIn, twitter, Facebook, etc.) can be a great way to network and branch out to employers and peers alike. 

It could also be the right time to research volunteering opportunities or doing some activism work within the RCN. Both allow you to acquire new skills and access free training in most cases, which could potentially open up even more doors for you.

Such opportunities are also likely to let you work flexibly at your own pace and time. It could be an ideal transition if you’re nervous about getting back into work, looking to boost your confidence, or trying to combat feelings of isolation. At the very least, it will look great on your CV. 

Blocks and Bridges

Try this exercise to help you reflect on how you might be able to overcome obstacles in your career 

Want to talk to a careers adviser about this?

Call RCN Direct on  0345 772 6100 and press option 3 to book an appointment

Support available  

Careers Support  

If you want to talk to someone about your options, get advice on what steps to take next or how to improve your employability, you can book an appointment with the RCN's Careers Service. It's always helpful if you have done some research first about where you might want to go. 

Peer to peer support  

You can join the RCN's Peer Support group to speak to and get advice from other members affected by ill health and/or disability who can understand what you're going through.  Alternatively you may feel you want to offer support to those who have just been diagnosed or are finding it hard coming to terms with their circumstances. It's free and easy to join. 

Emotional support   

Most healthcare professionals are far better at looking after other people than they are themselves, and freely admit the transition from care giver to patient is a difficult one. It's important that you have sufficient emotional support to come to terms with any changes in your health; just as you would want for your patients.  The RCN's counselling service offers members free, confidential counselling. You can also visit the Healthy workplace, Healthy you resources. 

Financial support   

If you are concerned about the financial implications of being out of work / having to reduce your hours / moving to a lower paid job, then the RCN's Lamplight Support Service can help. Their team of advisers can check you are getting the financial support you're entitled to, and give you advice on how to budget.  Not all benefits are means tested, so even if you have savings or are comfortably meeting your outgoings, there might still be benefits that you can claim.

Peer support

Join this group to give and receive support on health and disability issues.


Get support with personal or work related issues such as stress, depression or relationship breakdown.


Advice and support for those experiencing circumstances that impact on their