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Best Practices in HR

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Robyn Whalen
  June 1, 2019

Illness in the Workplace: How to Support Chronically Ill Workers

Whether you realize it or not, there’s likely at least one employee struggling with chronic health issues in your workplace.

In fact, 133 million Americans deal with the challenges of chronic health conditions each year.

Sadly, it’s also the leading cause of disability and death in America.

Chronic illness often comes with pain, which can limit a person’s ability to work. By keeping this in mind, along with a prearranged plan, employers can support staff with compassion and flexibility.

Below, we share insight on how to best support chronically ill workers.

How to Handle Chronic Disease in the Workplace

Chronic diseases are often incurable and ongoing health conditions like cancer, asthma, and diabetes. These illnesses or conditions can limit a person’s quality of life and lifespan, especially when left undiagnosed or untreated.

Illness and work rights go hand in hand. There’s no denying employers have to keep up with ways to properly managing employees with chronic illness.

Here are some dos and don’t of working with employees who have chronic illnesses or diseases:

Do

  • Have a preparation plan in place, especially if the employee may have a condition that needs immediate supervision like a seizure.
  • Make sure fellow coworkers in the area know what the plan is if a serious health issue arises with an ill coworker.
  • Be compassionate. It can be difficult for employees to open up about personal health struggles.
  • Understand that chronic illnesses account for a large amount of health spending. Since 2000, employer-sponsored family coverage has spiked by 87%.
  • Look at how to adjust the work environment to avoid certain health issues (i.e. proper desk ergonomics, stretching before starting work, etc.)

Don’t  

  • Be condescending. While there’s always someone pushing the envelope, try to understand most employees with chronic conditions truly are ill.
  • Share personal details of an employee’s illness that have been shared in confidence with you.
  • Ask job applicants about the existence, nature, or severity of a disability. You may ask about their ability to perform specific job functions.
  • Assume that because someone is at work that they are well enough to work. If flexible work schedules are an option, try it out. Employees with chronic illness will especially appreciate flexibility for bad health days, unexpected doctor appointments, etc.

Here’s a helpful worksheet on how to support employees, especially if they suddenly are diagnosed with an illness or disability.

Offer Proper Support to Employees With Chronic Illness

There’s a number of ways to help out your employees who might already be feeling guilty about sharing their private health matters.

As soon as an employee shares health concerns that may interfere with work, address accommodations. It shows employees that leadership cares and won’t push their health to the side as a bothersome task to handle.

  • Review workplace practices and address issues that could result in problems for the employee (i.e. lifting heavy items without support, sitting too long, etc.)
  • Make changes to a person’s job role or work environment like offering a flexible working schedule for when they aren’t feeling well.
  • Create a supportive environment. Offer additional training to managers on handling employee health concerns.
  • Promote health initiatives regularly. Biometric screenings are a great way to check on the overall wellness of your staff.
  • Develop an Employee Resource Group. This will allow staffers to address ongoing work-related issues that could result in long-term health concerns.

Chronic Disease Impacts the Work Setting

By 2025, chronic diseases will impact around 164 million Americans – which is nearly half of the U.S. population. For employees who are already dealing with a chronic disease, offering compassion, understanding, and reinforcing healthy habits is a useful way to show support.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), research shows workplace health initiatives may reduce sick leave absenteeism by 27% and health-care costs for companies by 26%.

With that in mind, it’s important to note that protecting workers’ health by offering preventative measures can be helpful. Chronic health concerns like type 2 diabetes, for example, can be prevented with a healthy diet and regular exercise.

Above all, providing a supportive atmosphere makes it easier for employees and employers to create a plan for worst-case health scenarios that could impact work.

When employers offer an open door policy for sharing health issues, it can eliminate the risk of learning about serious health conditions only when an emergency arises.

How do you support employees with chronic health issues? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below!