Chronic Health Conditions and Employment

The number of workers with a chronic health condition in countries such as the US and UK is astonishing. In the US it’s reckoned to be 60% and in the UK the Department of Health estimate around 15 million or a quarter of the population have at least one chronic health problem, with the Labour Force Survey estimating 40% of the seven million people between 50 and 64 in work are living with a health condition or disability. 

What is a chronic health condition?

A chronic health condition is an illness which may affect you for an extended period of time, or indeed always. It could be managed by medication or lifestyle changes. It might fluctuate, deteriorate, be cured or improve. The key feature is that it affects you for a lengthy period. 

There’s no doubt that chronic health conditions are on the increase. Many people will have more than one condition or diagnosis. Some common conditions include diabetes, asthma, cancer, heart disease, arthritis, mental health issues, high blood pressure, IBS, epilepsy etc. 

There are many other conditions that people have which may be genetic, related to life stage or hormonal status etc eg Gilbert’s Syndrome and perimenopause/menopause

How common are they?

One thing is for sure – many many people will experience a chronic health problem during their life. One in six adults will experience a common mental health problem at some point , one in two people will get cancer in their lifetime , one in ten people over 40 in the UK are living with a diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes,of%20those%20with%20Type%202, all women with a functioning uterus will go through the menopause.

What should an employer or employee do?

Whether an employer or an employee there’s no point pretending chronic illnesses don’t affect the workplace. That will just guarantee higher rates of sickness and absenteeism. What we can all do is create an environment where we work with everyone’s capacity and capabilities. It’s absolutely the case that you will get more out of yourself and other people if you collaborate in creating a supportive and compassionate environment at work. 

Indeed, in the UK the Equality Act insists reasonable adjustments be made to support people with a disability, with a number of chronic health conditions automatically qualifying on diagnosis. The Equality Act 2010 states that:

“A person (P) has a disability if (a) P has a physical or mental impairment, and (b) the impairment has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on P’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.”

What constitutes ‘reasonable’ can end up the subject of tribunals, however, mostly, with an open and considered supportive conversation including risk assessment can result in some straightforward options for ensuring you get the best out of the situation for everyone. 

If you don’t have an HR department that can advise, then training for managers might help open up the thinking on how to manage chronic health conditions. 

Adjustments can include:

  • Flexible working hours around medical appointments or adjusted hours to take account of when a condition is better or worse. 
  • Part time working during flare ups or permanently, or job shares. 
  • Changes to the physical environment – access to open windows or fans for people going through the menopause; access to a nearby toilet for people with bowel or bladder problems; sitting away from busy roads for people with asthma.
  • A quiet room where people can lie down for a while if they get fatigued or feel unwell during the day. 
  • Ensuring meetings are not too long and that chairs and other arrangements can accommodate physical conditions which may cause pain. 
  • More breaks during training sessions.
  • Voice operated software to give people with arthritis a break from typing. 

Most importantly, keeping an open dialogue to discuss supportively how you can help manage a condition will enable your colleague to remain in control and giving their best. 

Where can I get more advice?

Many of the chronic health organisations and charities can provide advice on how a workplace can offer support. They also may offer training on how to support people with common health conditions or to prevent them, such as MIND training for dealing with stress in the workplace or recognising mental health problems

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