How Organizations Can Support Employees with Chronic Health Conditions

All over the world, and especially in the Western Hemisphere, human life expectancy has gone up steadily over the decades. Most workers stay employed till the very end of the mandatory retirement age set down in their state or country. Others may continue working even past that age milestone. However, most modern workplaces, while inclusive in terms of gender, age, and ethnicity, still lack the capability to deal with chronically ill or terminal employees. Given that most workforces in the United States include significant proportions of workers aged between 51-60, the risk of a terminally or chronically ill employee is not as far-fetched as you might think.

Why and How To Support Chronically Ill Workers

Chronic illnesses and health conditions can occur just as easily among younger workers as older ones. This makes it important for everyone involved in hiring and onboarding, from recruiters to interviewers to a staffing services agency, to work towards supporting and integrating such employees into the workforce without negative bias.

Most workers in the developed world have access to some kind of healthcare provider, health insurance, or a medical allowance as part of their compensation and benefits package. Older employees between 51-60, however, are very likely to develop at least one chronic health condition such as asthma, rheumatism, debilitating allergies, and, most commonly, arthritis. In many cases, health insurance premiums cost higher for older workers, and typically much higher for workers with chronic health issues. This is one reason why conventional business managers are wary of hiring older workers with pre-existing health conditions, and the medical expenses they can accrue. Of course, these are just the highest-risk group of the American workforce demographic. Here are a few ways to do this:

Developing Employee Well-Being and Support Programs

One of the easiest and most effective ways to be inclusive to chronically ill workers is to offer them hands-on support. An employee well-being support system can help chronically ill workers better manage their condition, both in the workplace and after hours. A support group can be as simple as a listening space where a worker with a chronic condition can voice their concerns without fear of judgment or reprisal. More robust programs will help workers identify previously undiagnosed chronic illnesses, and offer the necessary learning material and support needed to cope with them.

Engaging Frequently With Chronically ill Workers

An engaged workforce is a magic ingredient that transforms an average team into a high-performing one. When managers have workers with chronic health issues, the need to engage with these workers is even more important. Of course, some measure of discretion is obviously required on the part of the manager and HR function. Many employees may not be comfortable with being open about certain chronic health issues, particularly mental health issues given the stigma still associated with them. That means managers need to ensure confidentiality and tact when engaging with such workers.

At the same time, it may be a good idea to have general sessions to raise awareness about common chronic illnesses, particularly those that are often caused by stress or unhealthy lifestyles like being a workaholic. Many workers will appreciate both the discretion as well as the useful information offered.

Showing Empathy and Inclusivity Through Flexibility

The best managers are usually the most empathic ones. Empathy is a powerful connection that builds trust and appreciation between workers and management. A team that does not trust its manager (or vice versa) is limited in its ability to succeed. However, a team with an empathic manager will often voluntarily go the extra mile without prompting. Managers with chronically ill workers in their teams need to learn that the best way to show empathy and be inclusive is to be flexible.

There is nothing wrong with giving a little leeway to a worker that is obviously struggling with a condition and still wanting to show up and get the job done. A manager that tells an obviously suffering worker to take some time off, asks them to work from home until they feel better, or even arranges for a thoughtful care package for them isn’t offering preferential treatment, but making an emotional investment. You can be sure chronically ill workers are deeply and painfully aware of their condition. Anything you do to signal your understanding and empathy towards that condition can often prove to be a valuable motivator as well as a source of support.

Understanding Their Needs and Asking For Suggestions

Of course, for many of us without chronic health issues, it can be very difficult to truly understand what someone goes through if they have them. This isn’t necessarily insensitivity, but mostly just inexperience and limited knowledge about the condition. That’s permissible since most managers don’t have a degree in medicine or pharmacology. But there is still something you can do to remedy the situation, and that is to seek feedback and suggestions from workers suffering from chronic illnesses. You’d be surprised as to how much you can accomplish, and how much you can make life easier for such workers, simply by taking the time to ask them how to do it.

Ensuring Other Workers Aren’t Hostile or Discriminatory

For many people, it makes no sense to be hostile to someone that is working on their career despite a history of chronic illness. In fact, it is usually something to be applauded and gain inspiration from. Unfortunately, workers can sometimes lose sight of the larger picture. There may be times when you sense hostility from your team towards a chronically ill worker. This can be the result of what the rest of the team perceives as preferential treatment, such as flexible timings, special transport, shorter hours, emergency leaves, and much more.

If you feel that members of your workforce are being hostile or discriminatory, you need to take steps to quash the problem immediately. It may simply be a matter of perception, such as the rest of the team not being aware of the chronic illness or why you’re flexible to that particular worker. Encouraging empathy among your workers won’t just fix the problem, but also make them more understanding towards people who suffer from serious health problems.