In the UK around 15% of the working-age population have a chronic illness or disability (European foundation for the Improvement of Living and working conditions, 2003).
Long-term conditions or chronic diseases are health problems that can’t be cured, but can be controlled and symptoms eased by medication or other therapies. Examples can include arthritis, asthma, coeliac disease, diabetes, epilepsy and high blood pressure.
Although chronic illness may not necessarily by caused – or made worse – by work, poor management may have a negative impact on the individual’s health and work. By supporting employees with long-term illness, a manager can help to minimise loss of skills, encourage productivity and job retention, and help an individual maintain quality of life.
Communication is key
If you manage someone who has a chronic illness, take the time to find out if there’s anything you can do to support them. If they’re not ready to talk, let them know they can approach you if they need to. Ensure that any discussions take place in private and in confidence.
Listen without judgement; try to get an understanding of how your employee feels and how their diagnosis is affecting them. It’s ok to ask questions – this shows you care – but, if they feel uncomfortable answering anything, then avoid putting pressure on them.
Medical problems can change over time, so it’s important to schedule regular catch-ups to check on an employee’s progress and ensure their needs haven’t changed.
If your employee needs to take sick leave, it’s important to discuss any options for returning to work, following advice from their GP in the ‘Statement of Fitness for Work’. Be clear with your employee about arrangements for sick pay and conduct a return to work interview when they come back from leave.
If your employee says that contact with work while on sick leave leaves them feeling stressed, it’s important to strike a balance. Staying in touch is very important, but needn’t leave anyone feeling stressed:
- Explain the need to keep in contact with them, and talk through ways in which they’d feel more comfortable with this
- Would they be happier emailing than talking on the phone?
- Would pre-arranging phone calls and keeping chats short be easier to deal with than a call out of the blue?
- If no progress is made, consider seeking a medical opinion or talking to your HR team about how best to stay in touch.
When they return:
- Welcome them back
- Check they are well enough to be at work
- Ensure they are trained up on new processes or procedures
- Update them on any new developments in the business
- Have a friendly chat about what’s been going on at work e.g. upcoming social events
Do your research
Find out if your organisation has any relevant policies or guidelines to support you and your employees in the event of long-term illness. For example, policies regarding sickness absence, long-term conditions and occupational health. If you have an HR team, ask them for advice.
For more advice on your employee’s condition and how to approach their needs sensitively, it’s good to look up the website of an organisation that supports those with their specific illness / condition. For example:
- Arma UK – advice on working with arthritis, musculoskeletal disorders and lupus
- British Heart Foundation – returning to work after diagnosis/operation
- Crohn’s & Colitis UK – employment and inflammatory bowel disease
- Epilepsy action – working with epilepsy
- Macmillan – work and cancer, including specific advice for employers
- MS Society – employing someone with MS
- Parkinson’s UK – work and Parkinson’s
Employees who have long-term conditions may be covered by statutory protection that requires their employers to make workplace adjustments. You can find out what’s covered by the Equality Act 2010 on the Government’s website.
If an employee is classed as disabled then grants may be available to help you make such adjustments (for example via Access to Work). Whether or not this is the case, it’s good practice to work alongside your employee to ensure that their needs are being met.
Adjustments may include:
- Phased return to work following sickness absence
- Flexible working/changes to working hours
- Allowing more breaks
- Making adjustments to your work environment e.g. by providing equipment
- Redistributing some aspects of their work
- Adjusting performance targets
Laws that support people with a disability will also apply to some people with long-term conditions. For example, accommodating visits to hospitals or other medical appointments.
Additionally, we have more information on physical health and wellbeing on our support services pages.
We exist to provide support for life to those who work in the automotive industry and their families. If you need practical support or advice, you can contact our free, confidential helpline on 08081 311 333 or use our online chat. These are open Monday to Friday, 8am to 8pm.