How to deal with chronic disease in the workplace

With chronic disease Australia’s biggest killer, HR managers can take a lead role in creating holistic workplaces for employees with chronic illness.

Chronic disease can leader to lower productivity and place a huge strain on overall health of employees in a workplace, as one in five Australians suffer from some form of chronic illness.

The Australian Institute of Health and Wellness says chronic diseases are the leading cause of illness disability and death in Australia, accounting for 90 % of all deaths in 2011.

With the prevalence of chronic illness on the rise in Australia, HR managers need to consider the wellbeing of their employees and implement strategies to better manage employees.

HR Business Partner at Employment Innovations Alexia Charalambous speaks to HC Online about best practice strategies to put in place for employees with chronic conditions.

“It’s very important for employers to realise anything that affects someone’s personal life can also affect their work life,” Ms Charalambous says.

She says chronic illnesses such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and Crohn’s Disease can contribute to health-related expenses for employers and employees and lead to decreased productivity due to absenteeism.

While there is a wealth of information available on workplace strategies to manage chronic illness, Ms Charalambous says the HR manager needs firstly to assess the culture of the organisation.

“Although programs and initiatives are crucial, workplaces need firstly to set fundamentals in place and a positive company culture is very important to ensuring these initiatives are successful,” she says.

“HR managers can do a cultural assessment of their workplace to ensure a supportive workplace,” she says.

She says ideally, the office should be a place protecting the safety and well-being of employees while providing them with opportunities for better long-term health.

Positive initiatives include having a broader wellness policy in place, supportive team leaders who are educated on holistic approaches to managing chronic disease, and appointing a “workplace champion” who staff can go to for additional support.

“HR managers can also look at up-skilling managers and staff on initiatives and obligations approaches to caring for chronic illness, such as graduated return to work process,” Ms Charalambous says.

She says employers should consider whether employees can fulfil the requirements of their role by working from home on days when they are too unwell to be at work, in a bid to reduce absenteeism.

While employees are not required to disclose chronic disease during the recruitment process, having a workplace culture where people feel safe to disclose chronic conditions without fear of discrimination is crucial.

Lucienne Gleeson, an Associate with PCC Lawyers, says there are many mechanisms that employers can consider putting in place to be supportive of an employee with a chronic disease which may also keep the employee in their employment. These include:
  • Start a conversation-Many employers miss this opportunity because they assume an employee does not want to discuss this private health issues with them. Whilst an employee cannot be forced to disclose their illness or to discuss it with you many people will be open to such a conversation when it is conducted in a supportive manner.
  • Medical certificates- When an employee is suffering from a chronic illness they may require varying periods of leave from work. One option that might be suitable to offer some employees getting an overarching medical certificate from their treating doctor stating what their illness is and how often they might be unwell to attend work so they do not need to get a separate medical certificate for every day of leave.
  • Research the chronic disease- There are a lot of reputable resources publicly available on the internet that you can use to better understand and inform yourself about a chronic disease.
  • Flexible work arrangements, leave or redeployment- When an employee is diagnosed with a chronic illness and is undergoing treatment this can mean they are required to attend multiple medical appointments and may be unfit to attend work post-treatment. Consider whether flexible work arrangements, paid or unpaid leave or redeployment options are available and discuss these with the employee.

Notable legislation protecting workers with a disability or health condition from workplace discrimination and harassment include the Victorian Equal Opportunity Act 1995 and the Commonwealth Disability Discrimination Act 1992. The Fair Work Act also provides some additional protections for employees and prospective employees who are subject to adverse action in the workplace because of their physical or mental disability.

However, if an employee is simply unable to complete their duties due to their poor health condition, HR may need to consider terminating their employment.

“If an employee’s chronic disease creates a situation where they may unfortunately not be able to carry out their role in the longer term an employer may be justified in ending their employment,” Ms Gleeson says.

However, she says no such decision can be made without sufficient medical information and full consideration of adjustments that could be made so they can carry out the role.

“This information can be collated from the employee’s doctor, but often will require an independent medical assessment to be arranged. If there is insufficient information or the requirement of discrimination laws are not complied with, employees could have a cause of action to pursue,” she says.
Employers need to exercise caution when sending employees to an independent medical assessment and ensure such a direction is lawful and reasonable. For example in TWU Australia v Cement Australia Pty Ltd it [2015] FWC 158 it was held that sending a segment of employees for a Physical Risk Review where various tests and measurements were taken to try to limit the risk of musculoskeletal injury, a chronic disease, was not lawful or reasonable.

“Generally, if an employee has a chronic disease that could place their own or another employee’s or person’s health and safety at risk then an employer will be justified in sending them for a medical assessment,” Ms Gleeson says.

Ms Charalambous says many businesses have realized the benefits of health promotion and offer workplace health programs and employee assistance programs to their employees, in a bid to curb the cost of rising health care.

“It’s important to work out what’s best for the organization and make an assessment of what’s going on with your staff,” she says.

She says ideally, the office should be a place protecting the safety and well-being of employees while providing them with opportunities for better long-term health.

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