Supporting workers with chronic health conditions

Being able to support a worker with chronic health conditions might mean the difference between keeping or losing a valuable worker. This may be more of your staff than you think. While the 2021 Benefits Canada Healthcare Survey found that plan sponsors thought 34 per cent of their staff have chronic health conditions, in reality, 60 per cent of plan members have a chronic condition.

Chronic health conditions include common ailments, such as heart disease, diabetes, severe allergies, mental illness, asthma and arthritis, along with less well-known illnesses that can cause pain or fatigue. The needs of an individual are likely to be unique, but so are the skills and experience that person brings to your company!

Many small- and medium-sized companies lack a formal HR policy, leaving entrepreneurs to figure out how to navigate this terrain on the fly. So how do you make this work?

How chronic conditions affect workers

A January 2021 article in the Harvard Business Review suggests many workers with chronic health conditions may have one or more problems on the job:

· Time conflicts, where the employee needs more time to manage their conditions. For example, an employee may need to take time off to attend medical appointments

· Energy conflicts, where the employee finds it difficult to meet both work needs and personal needs with their energy level

· Managing chronic pain

Researcher Alyssa McGonagle found that burnout was correlated to employees who experienced high levels of time and energy conflicts. Another result? Employees might not put in their best work: “Energy conflict was also related to both withdrawal from work (not putting in one’s best effort) and perceived work ability (perceptions of a person’s ability to continue working in their current job).”

The bottom line, though, is that employees with chronic conditions are individuals who may need different accommodations for their unique needs.

8 ways to support workers

1. Listen carefully and empathetically to what the individual needs to do their job properly, but keep the focus on work. You don’t need to immediately say yes to every request. This will likely be a regular check-in conversation rather than a one-and-done. And stay away from offering health tips or medical advice (unless you’re actually an expert).

2. Consider the possibility for staff to work part-time hours and/or to have a reduced workload with reduced pay, instead of a standard 40-hour work week.

3. Allow work from home if possible, which is one option that has helped 77 per cent of employees with chronic conditions and/or chronic pain miss less work, according to the 2021 Benefits Canada Healthcare Survey. Working from home has been found to be especially beneficial for those with arthritis (93 per cent) or chronic pain (83 per cent).

4. If requested, let workers take additional breaks to take medication or eat.

5. Try to be flexible if an employee asks to come into work earlier or stay later to make up time missed for doctor’s appointments.

6. Ensure workers with chronic illness continue to feel connected to work and coworkers: include them in social events and virtual chats. Particularly if they’re working from home or taking time off, it’s common for workers with chronic illnesses to feel isolated from the flow on the job.

7. Keep your employee’s health information private, unless they ask you to tell other team members. “If a team member needs to take time off, communicate that they’re ‘taking time away to address a personal situation’ rather than diving into the specifics,” says Lauren Janek, who works in the tech industry and has Crohn’s disease and Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS).

8. Act on employee requests for adaptive equipment to make their work life easier, like glare-proof monitors, voice-to-text apps, or chairs with extra padding and adjustable footrests to reduce pain.

Finding a way to accommodate an employee with a chronic health condition can help retain them for longer. Whether you know if your employees need certain accommodations or they haven’t brought up their medical history, talk to all your employees about the services available through their employee benefits, including supports like an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), Short Term Disability, and Extended Health Coverage.


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