What is the impact of stories on people with a chronic illness? Can positive stories of fellow patients help and motivate people with the same condition? These were the central questions of a new study published in PlosOne.
The study builds on the notion that people are born storytellers. From a young age, we experience stories within our culture, our family and friends, and – increasingly – on online blogs and websites. But we also create them: part of our identity is the story of who we are and who we want to become in the future, which we continuously change and re-write. We make sense of difficult life events through stories and one such event is having a chronic illness or disability. The stories we create to understand our illness or disability are called ‘illness narratives’ and they help us navigate the various challenges we encounter in life due to our condition.
Illness narratives are often shared across patient societies, personal networks and the media. Additionally, friends and family often tell you stories about people they know with the same condition. But little is known about the influence of these stories. This study investigated the influence of these shared illness narratives on patient’s working lives. Through an experiment, the impact of reading a positive work story versus negative work story on patients’ sustainable employability was investigated. Having a high score on sustainable employability means that you have a long-term focus on work, which stimulates pro-active career behavior and healthy choices allowing you to have a good work-life balance.
People with Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) read a story of someone with the same condition. The stories were written from a first-person perspective by an author with IBD. They were of equal length, but they ended differently. One story was hopeful: the main character had struggled a lot, but had managed to find a meaningful job, had a good work-life balance and was happy. In the other story, the main character did not manage to find a job and was quite sad about this.
The most important conclusion of the study is that positive stories can inspire people with the same condition, but only when they experience a personal connection with the storyteller or main character. In all cases, the positive story made readers experience more positive emotions, but in order to actually help people to develop higher sustainable employability and a more proactive work focus, people had to be able to recognize something in the main character or have similar work aspirations.
This can be helpful for HR professionals, occupational physicians and therapists, who advise people with disabilities and chronic diseases, but also for the general public. When you have a chronic illness or disability people almost automatically tell you stories about other people they know who have the same condition. It is good for people to realise that these stories matter: they influence the people who hear them.
When you have a chronic illness or disability it means that inspiring stories of people with a similar condition can help you navigate your own work aspirations, activating you to look for new possibilities in your own life. When you read a story about someone with a disability that inspires you, it may be useful to not only enjoy the positive emotions it brings you – but to actively reflect on what it is that you find inspiring. What part of the story is something that you can relate to? Is it the working conditions of the main character, his or her mindset, the sense of meaningfulness that the storyteller experiences, is it travelling or fun activities that the job makes possible or is it having access to tools, which can help exceed barriers?
This way you can think how you, in your unique circumstances, can use this to your advantage in your own working life. It makes you more aware of what you want and what you need and of new possibilities to achieve this. Dare to dream – and the stories’ of others can inspire you to find new ways to accomplish these dreams, to achieve more than you had previously imagined possible. This way your own life story can change in a positive direction.