Support the chronically ill or lose experienced employees

If companies don’t improve how they manage people with chronic illnesses they’ll lose employee trust, productivity and loyalty – especially as the aging workforce makes such illnesses more common.

Support the chronically ill or lose experienced employees

Between labour shortages and an aging workforce it’s becoming increasingly important for employers to find ways to retain experienced talent and expert employees – even if chronic illnesses limit their ability to offer discretionary effort.

An estimated 17+ million Canadians live with a chronic health condition, and many are working around their illnesses but as these issues become more prevalent employers need to know how to best manage employees with these kinds of diseases.

Institute of Work and Health Senior Scientist Monique Gignac has been studying chronic illness for many years and told HRM that one challenge for employees and employers is not understanding what chronic illness looks like.

“There’s an awareness issue,” she said. “Many chronic illnesses are invisible and episodic. People look the same as yesterday but could be suffering with pain and fatigue.”

She said one of the things she hears from people interviewed about their experiences working while managing an illness such as arthritis was that they didn’t understand the support already available through their employer.

Many managers believe people use chronic illness as an excuse not to work, exaggerating symptoms and unnecessarily refusing to do some tasks. However, Gignac’s research, which was partly funded by the Canadian Arthritis Network, shows people compromise their social and family lives to continue working, even taking on tasks that are detrimental to their health because they fear being unemployed.

“People don’t want to be put on the shelf,” said RBC investment advisor Mary Warwick, who has been living with arthritis and Crohn’s disease for 20 years. “It’s probably one of the biggest uphill battles for employers, is getting people to feel comfortable revealing their weaknesses.”

Warwick was able to use the company’s benefits and HR services to ensure she had the equipment she needed, but for many years did not tell her manager or coworkers, fearing she would lose some of the advantages she got from being viewed as a high potential employee.

What HR can do now:

  1. Communicate
    Many people with chronic illnesses say they aren’t sure what is already available to them because their illness starts years after their onboarding process, Gignac said. Make sure employees know where to get information about the benefits and supports already in place.
  2. Inquire
    Many chronic illnesses can be eased with small changes such as improvements in work space ergonomics, but employees are nervous about making requests because they don’t want to have to “come out” to everyone they work with. Check in regularly with everyone to see if their chair, computer and other tools are still working well for them. This process doesn’t need to be arduous. An automated email checking in will do the trick, and gives employees a way to start a conversation about what they need.
  3. Educate
    Many managers don’t know what chronic illness looks like, especially when it’s “invisible”. If an employee can’t help move heavy boxes or often avoids after work events, it may not be that they’re less engaged. Turning down requests and opportunities that would make their illness flare up is smart for their health, but can have negative consequences at work.
  4. Adapt
    Because chronic illnesses often set in around 40 or 50 years old, many sufferers are reaching management positions and fear disclosing their illness will affect their career opportunities and progression. To keep talent and experience in your organization, it’s vital to ensure you have the right processes and support in place so these senior staff can remain and progress in the company.

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