Supporting and managing employees with chronic illness
Engagement 4 minute read

Supporting and managing employees with chronic illness

Megan Orr | July 26, 2022

Do you have employees with chronic illnesses? You might be surprised by the number. Here’s what you need to know about reasonable accommodations and how you can better support all of your employees.

According to the Government of Canada, 44% of adults 20 and older have at least 1 of 10 chronic illnesses, including conditions such as hypertension, arthritis, and asthma. That means that in any organization, it’s likely that nearly half of employees are dealing with some sort of chronic—and often invisible—illness. 

As Vice Media notes, even though the pandemic has made people far “more sympathetic to health issues, there’s still a long way to go, and workers battling persistent illnesses are often required to provide proof”. The Harvard Business Review writes that increased conversations about health in the workplace due to the pandemic can be “a real opportunity to improve how organizations support, accommodate, engage, and enable the best work for all employees”.

Vice goes on to describe the struggles that those with chronic illnesses experience, noting that “the emotional labour of having to disclose your illness to every relevant person just to try to get workplace accommodations can be a lot”. More than that, managing employees with chronic illness should go beyond providing accommodations to ensuring that employees feel supported and have everything they need to do their jobs and thrive at work. 

Managing employees with chronic illness requires providing reasonable accommodations. 

Reasonable accommodations, or the duty to accommodate, is described by the Government of Canada as “not about employee preferences; it is about removing discriminatory barriers related to the 13 prohibited grounds of discrimination, up to the point of undue hardship to the employer”. The 13 prohibited grounds of discrimination are race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex (including discrimination because of pregnancy or childbirth), sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, marital status, genetic characteristics, family status, disability (including both visible and invisible disabilities), and conviction for an offence for which a pardon has been granted.

Reasonable accommodation can include offering an employee the ability to work from home more frequently as they need to or providing sitting duties instead of standing or physical ones. As long as the accommodations are considered “reasonable” in that they don’t cause major disruptions to the organization, then employers are obligated to make those accommodations. 

Beyond offering reasonable accommodation, employers should learn to listen to their employees, without trying to fix things. Managing employees with chronic illness means taking a step back and not assuming that you know better about their limitations. What those with disabilities can and can’t do will vary from person to person and moment to moment. 

Offering accommodations should benefit everyone. 

The Harvard Business Review notes that one of the challenges when managing employees with chronic illness is that other employees may feel jealous of the accommodations individuals with chronic illness are receiving. They write that “if you (or your colleagues) are envious that someone with a chronic illness takes a full lunch break, works from home, or has flexible hours or a better office chair, consider what it is that you need to best take care of your own energy and balance, and consider discussing this with your own manager”.

Take managing employees with chronic illness as an opportunity to incorporate better inclusive practices into your workplace, as well as an opportunity to evaluate your company culture. Do you celebrate people who are willing to put in long hours and go above and beyond the duties of their role? That may be sending a message that you don’t value employees who aren’t able to put in more hours than required, and may at times struggle to complete their regular duties. 

As a manager, it’s important to be educated on chronic illness so you can better support your employees. Don’t make them be the ones to educate you. After doing some research, the next step is to speak to HR and determine the appropriate accommodations that your organization is able to offer, but also to touch base with your employee and ask what accommodations have worked for them in the past and how you can best support them. 

It’s important to also check in regularly, as your employees’ needs may change continually. Ultimately, it’s important to take initiative in pre-emptively offering support, while also following your employees’ lead. You want them to feel supported, without having to deal with the emotional burden of needing to ask—repeatedly—for support and accommodations.

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