Finding the perfect job when you’re not perfect

Women hunting for part time work to fit around the family schedule know the feeling all too well: there is no job out there that suits me. The oh-so-rare job ad that pops up in our field never quite describes the perfect fit, with a commute that’s just a little too far or skills that haven’t been used for quite some time. The job hunt is so difficult when you’re not just working around your own needs anymore.

Now add to that a chronic health problem. Maybe it’s a visible disability, like the use of a wheelchair. An easy (for others) to understand problem like an injured back. Or one that people know of but very few actually comprehend the reality of living with, like diabetes. What if you have a mental health problem?

How on earth do you find a job that suits you when you have such a long list of requirements before you can even consider accepting the position?

Job ads are scary. Advertisements for candidates who flourish in fast-paced environments; with a positive disposition, eye for detail, excellent relationship building skills; who are adaptable and dynamic (and don’t forget energetic) – at first glance that job that seems perfect for you in the skills department can leave you questioning your ability to perform in the workplace, let alone ace the interview, simply because of what kind of a person they say they are looking for.

The job hunt
In case you haven’t noticed, all the job ads sound like that. It can be pretty discouraging. You know what though? They’re probably copying it from another job ad they liked. But here’s a tip: if you are really interested in the specifics of the job and think you could do it if given a chance, go for it. I’m sure you’ve worked with people whose personalities haven’t been the ideal fit for the team. You need to prove you have the skills or transferrable skills to fit that position. So have coffee with your referees, update your LinkedIn profile and start practising your selection criteria answers.

Should you apply?
Well, yes! I’m sure you understand that it is illegal for employers to discriminate based on gender, race, impairment or disability (along with a long list of other things according to the Anti-Discrimination Act). And of course, the point of going to interviews is as much for you to find a company you like, as for a company to find a candidate they like. So apply for that job!

Scoping it out
You’re still worried about the ‘nice to have’s aren’t you? Call the contact person in the listing for a chat. Definitely do your prep work: have your up-to-date CV and cover letter ready to go so you can talk about why you are interested in the job. Have a question ready as the reason why you are calling them. For example, you could clarify how you would like to reflect your volunteer work while on maternity leave or the fact that you took some time off due to health concerns. This method is a good chance for you to scope out the company and your potential interviewer and/or manager beforehand, and a good way to be remembered. Update your cover letter with any extra information you may have covered in your conversation and send through your application as soon as you can after the call – improving your chance of at least having your application read.

And if you get a negative response over the phone then you have your answer – you certainly don’t want to work there.

If you get the interview, you probably want to avoid asking about sick leave straight away but there is no reason to hide your concerns. Drop it into conversation in response to those horrible open-ended questions. ‘I learned early on in my previous position as a project manager that stress heightens my anxiety, so I have developed a working method to manage this which actually led to an increase in performance…’ There are also the usual methods of checking on the company by asking around or doing a few searches – we do live in the internet age, after all.

When you start
Who do you tell about your needs? You should definitely be upfront with your manager or the person you report simply to make life easier when requesting time for doctor’s appointments and tests. If your workstation needs adjusting then it is best to get this done straight away to save on any pain further down the track. Yes, it can be annoying to be the new person asking for all these concessions but again, that is why it is best to be upfront about it from the beginning. They are employing you to get the best out of you – and so they need to support you in your needs. You can tell them as much or as little about your condition as you like, but sometimes the best way to do it is to sit down with your manager in your first week with the sole purpose of informing them of your condition. Make some notes that they can keep – email and hard copy – and don’t try to scare them! State it simply:

  • I have (this condition)
  • Which means I have (these) symptoms/limitations/impairments
  • My triggers are (this)
  • If I have an episode, (this) is what you need to do
  • Here is my emergency contact information which I have also provided to HR
  • I need to visit my specialist/GP/therapist (this regularly)
  • My doctor has cleared me to work so please do not worry, this will not affect my capability to do so

You may not need (or want) to go into that much detail. However first aid instructions and emergency contact details are a must. It is also a very good idea to have a shorter, similar chat with those who work around you as they are more likely to have to tend to you in an incident.

If you have a mental health condition you may want to handle this discussion differently. It is advised that you plan the disclosure of your condition to your workplace with your mental health practitioner as they will have advice specific to your situation.

Finding a balance
Balance is definitely achievable, if you are honest with yourself. Rest when you need to. Work as hard as you can. Show initiative. But don’t feel guilty about how you feel you are always asking for concessions. Everyone has needs. You might take more time off than the guy two desks down, but he might work at half the efficiency as you.

However sometimes you have to admit that the pressure of a full time job is too much when you add in commuting, the after-work social expectations and your own responsibilities after work. It’s ok to take a step back and say no to some activities. To be honest with your manager or your team and tell them your health precludes you from taking on an extra responsibilities or projects. You are certainly within your rights to do so. If you have the financial means to do so, reducing your hours to part-time might be the way to go. Can you talk to Human Resources and come up with a plan for relieving some of the pressure?

Considered freelancing?
You don’t have to be a graphic designer or photographer to be a freelancer. Marketing consultants, accountants, makeup artists, seamstresses – whatever they are doing, they’re working for themselves. It’s no secret that freelancing requires a lot of motivation but it could be the answer to your situation. You can work from home, set your own hours, be available for doctors appointments and take time off when you need it. With a delicate balance you can spend the day in bed that you actually need (but wouldn’t ordinarily take when working for a boss) and play catch-up when you are feeling up to it.

If you have the skills you could set up your freelance company almost straight away. As a guideline you should have about 4-6 months’ of savings set aside and expect to live a bit more frugally during the first year. You will need an ABN and it is a good idea to register your business name – even if it is only your personal name – with the ATO. It’s a good idea to register a URL while you’re at it but a simple website can be built for free at plenty of places including WordPress, Blogger and more (do a search).


Sharon M Smith is a mother living with epilepsy, anxiety and depression. She once suffered a partial seizure during a job interview and still got the job. She has found working part-time as a freelance journalist and digital copywriter has given her the flexibility she needs to manage her family, health and career – all with the support of a very hard-working husband.

Photo by Fabian Irsara on Unsplash

This article originally appeared on Womens Agenda in May 2014 and was removed in a recent content clean-out.

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