Ways of Supporting Chronically Ill Employees in the Workplace

6 Apr 2022

There are many hats that one working individual needs to wear on a day-to-day basis. Some of which are the following: husband/wife, partner, mother/father, sister/brother, neighbor, citizen, friend, coworker, feminist, animal lover, etc. Throw a chronic disease on top of them and you will realize that people struggling with chronic illness have a truly difficult time managing their daily life.

At Medrec:M we deeply care about every chronically ill individual and this is the reason why we strive to enable you to live a healthy and full life. We collaborate with chronically ill co-workers on day to day basis, this gave us the confidence to share with you some of our good practices that you can also implement in your organization.

In this article, we want to share with you some of the problems chronically ill people face in their workplace and how you can contribute to creating a safer and more inclusive work environment.

What does it mean to have a chronic illness?

Chronic illness can last from several months (gestational diabetes) to a lifetime (type 2 diabetes). They can be also seasonal (depression) or inherited by birth (type 1 diabetes). Most of the time it isn’t noticeable at a first glance that someone is having a chronic disease and you can’t tell that they battle with it every single day (heart disease, oral disease, chronic kidney disease).

Chronic means that medical treatment is an ongoing process where the patient needs to adjust their life around the illness. This also equals certain limitations (inability of lifting heavy objects for people with arthritis), repetitive activities (checking your blood sugar levels and injecting insulin for diabetics), or other demands of the illness and the therapy that comes with it.

Excluding the usual routine tasks that every healthy or ill individual needs to take care of (shower, eat, dress, groom, etc.), there is a whole different world called “the workplace” where other tasks are expected to be completed. By having in mind that a co-worker/employee is living with a chronic disease, you might think twice before engaging them in company activity.

How managers can support employees with chronic illnesses?

There is no doubt that part of a manager’s duties is to support employees on their job and to contribute to a better working environment where everybody can feel included. Here are some main points that every leader should cover:

1. Normalize talking about problems and sharing struggles at the workplace – first and foremost, we need to understand that we are all humans with human problems. Some of us just happen to be chronically ill. Build a company culture where everybody will feel ok when sharing the reason why they can’t stay till the end of the meeting or why there are 3 types of sweeteners in the kitchen.

2. The problem with disclosing the information to everybody – distributing delicate information such as announcing that a co-worker has cancer involves picking the right wording to frame the situation. Coordination between the employee, HR team, and direct manager has to be established for handling the announcement in the most comfortable way possible. Be sure to include words of appreciation and encouragement.

3. Develop positive attitudes towards employees with chronic illnesses – looking through the positive side has to be a priority when delivering bad news. Don’t you think so? The world could be a much happier place when we have a positive attitude towards rather unpleasant situations. So be kind and infect others with your kindness.

4. Coworkers’ lack of knowledge and resources to support them – here is the point where we need to mention the assistance of the HR department. Getting to know each other as individual team members is crucial for better personal connection. By giving the chance of a chronically ill coworker to address his condition with his own words in front of the company in an official and structured manner, you broaden the knowledge base and also the emotional intelligence of everybody.

5. Find out what needs to be accommodated for their comfort – going back to the basics: starting from the beginning when a manager first knows about the chronic illness of an employee, basic privacy such as extra home office days or a special type of chair/desk has to be provided.

6. Develop a safe language around the situation – words hurt the most, so it is essential to establish safe phrases around the topic. Ask questions about whether or not some word is comfortable to say to the other interlocutor.

7. Collaboration between NPOs and companies for support and information – another step in the right direction is asking for help from external 3rd parties’ sources such as non-governate organizations. These are the places where you can find actionable information and apply it right away to your organizational culture.

8. Diversity and inclusion (D&I) – equitable employers promote D&I with internal policies and programs to support their employees in all areas of the workplace. HRs have to also take care of employee retention by making sure that everyone (no matter if ill or not) feels equally involved in the company.

Co-worker’s contribution to the inclusive work environment

People always have assumptions about chronically ill co-workers. Commonly, a thing is accepted as true or as certain to happen, without any proof. Don’t be prejudiced. Act with an understanding of the situation somebody is in right now and be kind.

Many have the reluctance to collaborate with chronically ill people. By telling somebody that you are constantly sick, most of the time they feel compassion and do not bother to give you extra tasks or responsibilities. While feeling sorry is completely normal, underestimating the abilities of a co-worker has to be the thing that needs to be reversed.

Chronically ill workers have their weaknesses that come with the condition, but they also have a ton of other positives that contribute to doing their job right. Leaders in the organization have to lay down the foundation of a collaborative work environment no matter everybody’s accompanying illness. By modeling the right way of handling a situation other employees will follow the example.

It all depends on us humans

Chronically ill or not, we as a collective need to respect the other individual. Educate yourself about your co-workers’ disease and coordinate the workload so you both will feel comfortable doing it daily. Managers in turn must accommodate the chronically ill employee and also make sure that they develop a positive and inclusive workplace.

Did we miss something in the text? Please feel free to share some of the good practices you implement in your company in regards to better support of chronically ill employees at their workplace. We will be happy to hear from you.