When an employee is diagnosed with a serious illness, everyone is affected. The employee must confront sickness, medical treatments, and uncertainty—and the entire team must adapt to the situation while remaining productive.
Often, those with chronic, including terminal, illness try to maintain their normal lives by continuing to work. Wise employers know how to support employees with chronic illness while meeting business goals.
Dealing with Serious Illness in the Workplace
If you know what to expect, you can most effectively manage employees with chronic illness—without disrupting everyday operations.
Learn about your employee's illness, including symptoms, treatments, and side effects. For example, will the employee require medication that causes nausea?
Be prepared for physical changes, such as weight loss, hair loss, scarring, and loss of mobility, including the need for a wheelchair. In addition, expect those with chronic illness to be struggling with strong, unpredictable emotions.
Remember that no two people will cope with illness in the same way. Read personal accounts about working full-time with chronic illness at The Mighty, an online community of people facing health challenges.
Offer reasonable accommodation
Employers have a legal duty to accommodate employees who have limitations due to disability. You may offer various types of reasonable accommodation:
modifying job duties
offering flexible working hours, such as starting late and ending early
altering workplace facilities or equipment
providing parking or transportation assistance
permitting time off for medical appointments
Be creative with your options. If your employee is battling fatigue, for example, consider rearranging his or her work schedule to coincide with high-energy times.
It's clear that employers must make reasonable accommodation for employees who qualify as disabled. But even if an employee isn't legally disabled, most organizations accommodate all chronically ill employees who choose to continue working.
Always take prompt action when there's a potential need for accommodation. Initiate your organization's process immediately, meet with your HR department, and review sick leave and long-term disability policies.
The "human touch" can make an enormous difference. Employees with chronic illness are facing new burdens, from physical distress to financial strain. At work, they might be worried about losing their jobs or being treated differently. Showing that you care will reassure them.
Regularly stop to check in. See how they're feeling not only physically, but also emotionally. Simply asking about a person's health—and truly listening—will show that you care. Always let the employee lead the conversation, and refrain from giving unsolicited advice.
Bear in mind, however, that an employee's health is a private matter. Do not reveal details about the illness unless specifically requested to do so.
Lead your team
To keep your organization running as a united team, you must demonstrate leadership. Other employees might be unaware that a colleague is seriously ill. Thus, you must clearly communicate appropriate information to your team.
For example, notify team members of any changes to their workload or responsibilities. With advance notice, they can better adapt to new demands.
If a chronically ill employee is tardy, absent, or less productive, you must pull the team together to get the job done. Mention that everyone occasionally has unexpected or expected absences (in sick or vacation days off) to foster empathy.
Be clear that discrimination or harassment will not be tolerated.
Help with transitions
If an employee takes an extended medical leave, it's even more critical to stay connected. Keep the employee updated on what's happening at the workplace. If possible, include the person in tele- or video-conferences.
Find out as early as possible when an employee will return to work. Create a specific transition plan. Be timely in making workplace infrastructure more accessible. If the employee's responsibilities were transferred to others, reallocate the workload.
Everyone should be clear on what's expected of them.
Managing chronic illness in the workplace requires sensitivity and strong leadership. If an employer makes it possible for a chronically ill employee to continue working—while keeping everyone motivated and productive—a tragic situation can become a positive one.
Rising drug costs are a key consideration in chronic illness management.
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