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How to support employees who have chronic illness

As the world works to emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, the workplace has become focused on wellness and accommodation in ways that were too often absent before. Dealing with employees’ potential acute or ongoing illness has been part of the post-pandemic planning for quite some time now–but with the discussion of healthcare and personal medical struggles more open than ever, companies need to find ways to support employees with longer-term medical issues as well.

According to the CDC, 60% of American adults are living with some form of chronic disease (like diabetes, heart disease, chronic musculoskeletal pain, or cancer)–and 40% of American adults have more than one chronic health issue. This is a crisis in healthcare, but it’s also a workforce crisis as well. These adults are us, our families, our colleagues.

Chronic pain and illness are also a significant cost for employers, costing up to $216 billion annually in lost time and productivity. Finding ways to support employees with chronic pain or illness is not only the empathetic choice but also the productive path forward for employers and employees alike.

Be open to listening to employees with chronic illness

Too often, chronic pain or illness is a silent problem in the workplace, because people feel like they’re admitting weakness, or that they’ll lose their position if they don’t “tough it out” and act like nothing’s wrong. They often worry that they’ll be seen as slackers, or incompetent, if they can’t match others’ energy and output. To start being a more proactive support system for your workers with chronic illness, start by de-stigmatizing it at the organizational level.

You can help ease this without putting people on the spot–and remember, not all chronic illnesses are apparent to casual observation. General surveys (especially with anonymized feedback) can help you learn more about what struggles your own team might be facing, and what might help them be more productive.

Challenge your assumptions of what’s “normal”

One of the most important things to emphasize when talking to your employees about chronic illness is that you understand that “normal” is relative. For an employee living with chronic health issues, a “norm” of having back-to-back-to-back meetings all day or being on-call after hours can be detrimental to their health. It’s important to acknowledge that limits may exist, and work on setting productivity and performance goals accordingly.

Being accommodating of chronic illness doesn’t mean eliminating standards, but rather revisiting them. Are you prioritizing and praising employees who create and maintain a culture of all-nighters, or work 70-hour weeks? Are alternative ways to meet performance goals embraced? Are you celebrating achievements and contributions that aren’t necessarily tied to grueling hours and exhausting effort? Making sure all contributions are valued can help you create a culture that’s more supportive of people who have medical limitations.

Consider how you can be more flexible

Flexible work arrangements have become vastly more common since the onset of the pandemic–and as more companies look to reshape what “work” looks like moving forward, flexibility is a tool that can be used to make the workplace more hospitable to those with chronic conditions. Offering more work-from-home options can help employees, allowing them to be productive without the stresses of a commute or being physically present in the office. Flextime can also help employees be more productive when they’re able, rather than miss time because they’re in pain or ill.

And at work, what is your physical space like? Are the chairs, desks, and equipment designed ergonomically to prevent stress and support the bodies who use them? Do things need to be lifted from the floor for ease of use, or reached on shelves? Are there quiet areas where employees who need a fatigue-induced break can rest? Physical labor that might seem incidental or minor to some might be excruciating for others, so a little mindfulness goes a long way.

When it comes to supporting employees with chronic health issues, the benefits can be felt throughout your organization. Empathy, adaptability, and visibility are crucial. Many of the hidden costs of chronic pain and illness–to everyone involved–are often preventable, with careful planning and proactive support.

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