Managing Health Conditions in The Workplace
Louise Aston, Wellbeing Director, of business-led charity Business in the Community
Over the coming years, managing chronic health conditions like diabetes, arthritis and cancer, are going to become an increasingly critical issue for employers.
The rise in state pension age means people are going to be working for longer – many of whom will develop long-term health conditions while they are still in work. Very often, physical and mental health issues go hand-in-hand. Among people with chronic musculo-skeletal disorders (MSDs), for example, up to 30 per cent also have co-morbid depression or anxiety. Living with both a physical and mental illness can make staying in – or returning to work, much more difficult to manage. It’s therefore vital that employers ensure they provide the right support for employees in order to retain their best talent and help them manage multiple health conditions including mental ill health alongside their work.
One way employers can do this is by using Business in the Community’s Workwell model. The model was developed by business and wellbeing experts to provide a framework for embedding wellbeing into organisational culture.
It’s evidence-based and enables employers to develop a proactive integrated strategy and holistic approach to health and wellbeing in the workplace. By positioning health and wellbeing as strategic boardroom issues linked to securing business objectives, it helps organisation create a context where employees can flourish. Many employers have already adopted it, including BT, Marks and Spencer and Unipart, and it can be used by organisations of all sizes and across all sectors.
The Workwell model frames what responsible employers can do to create the conditions for employees to make healthy choices while also encouraging employees to take personal responsibility for their wellbeing, benefiting both business and society as a whole.
Better Work Model
The ‘Better work’ segment of the Workwell model is about good job design. The model approaches people as human beings rather than ‘bits’ of people and takes into account the equal importance of mental and physical health – something that is key to employers supporting employees with long-term health conditions. Good job design also requires taking employees’ circumstances into account to help them manage their workload. An employee on medication may feel sleepy, for instance, so an employer may allow them to work flexibly in order to make up time they miss due to their condition or attending medical appointments. By doing so, employees can continue to contribute to the best of their ability.
Better physical and psychological health
This segment of the model is about preventing the development of long-term health conditions and recognising that, for all employees, their mental and physical health are inextricably linked. Employers can do this by improving the specialist support they provide to employees. This doesn’t just mean shunting people off to Occupational Health, but instead focuses on the role that line managers and HR departments have to play as well. For this approach to succeed, it’s vital that functions within organisations come together to take a proactive, collaborative approach to wellbeing. However, employers also need to ensure that this approach can be adapted to suit individual employees’ needs; in this instance, one size definitely does not fit all. That requires good communication between line managers and employers and regularly reviewing employee’s conditions, in order to manage any fluctuations.
Adopting the Workwell model approach early on can help reduce the likelihood of employees developing long-term conditions and the impact of those conditions on their work, but it’s crucial that employers are open about discussing wellbeing – both mental health and physical health. With line managers often acting as the first port of call in these instances, employers must ensure they are enabled to provide the right support to team members with long-term health conditions, including signposting them to occupational health or other services offered by the employer, as well as equipping them with coping mechanisms.
We’ve seen the impact of employers taking a positive approach to dealing with the impact of cancer in the workplace over the last two decades. Previously, it was something that wasn’t talked about, with sufferers written off despite wanting to work, even after they were in remission. Now, many people are able to keep working and balance their career alongside their health needs – but only because they’re getting the support to do so from their employers. That attitude should be held up as an example for other long-term health conditions, including mental health issues. Many long-term physical and mental health conditions improve with the right support, but early intervention is key. This could be achieved through activities such as health screening, which will help pick up early diagnosis and increase the likelihood of good outcomes.
Better culture and transparency
In adopting the Workwell approach and encouraging open discussion of and around physical and mental wellbeing, organisations are actually embracing a culture of openness. This transparency is vital when it comes to known medical conditions, as it is hard to be a responsible employer if you don’t know if someone has a pre-existing medical condition. A culture of transparency is critical for enabling employers to manage or support employees with known medical health conditions, such as diabetes, heart conditions or even allergies to medication or food, and this depends on employees disclosing any medical conditions.
However, sometimes stigma or embarrassment may hinder an employee in sharing this personal information and it is the role of the employer to actively encourage disclosure. By making disclosure and the wider communication of a condition – perhaps through the wearing of medical IDs – normal practice, it reduces stigma and contributes to a culture of openness which benefits both the employees and the employer.
At the core of this, is the ability to save lives, as disclosure enables the employer and colleagues to ensure the right treatment is delivered if ever required.
To sum up, this process of change is about embedding wellbeing in workplace culture and promoting the importance of good physical and mental health. That means employers need to help their employees make good choices and provide programmes to help catch long-term conditions early. It means supporting them to enable them to stay in work and manage their condition by making adjustments that work for the individual and the organisation. And it means putting mechanisms in place to enable those who have been absent from work for a while due to a long-term health condition to return quickly with practical resources that help them make a positive contribution. It requires adjusting job design, listening to employees and creating an environment where they feel enabled to ask for what they need. But ultimately, it’s about empowerment: removing the stigma of long-term health conditions and giving employees a voice to speak up so they can stay in work – and businesses can hold on to their talent.