Three Ways to Empower, Support, and Manage Chronically Ill Employees

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In 2019, the National Health Council said that about 133 million Americans have an incurable and chronic disease. It was a big number, and it represented more than 40 percent of our nation’s total population at the time. The report didn’t stop there, however. They also said that by 2020, it would have grown the number was projected to grow to an estimated 157 million, with about half of them having multiple conditions.

We cannot deny that chronic illness is so much more common than we think, which is why hiring chronically ill employees is only the first step towards creating a truly equitable and non-discriminatory workplace. However, it doesn’t end there. Business owners, managers, and bosses need to create a work culture that ensures they are protected, supported, and empowered.

It’s one thing to hire employees with chronic illness, but another to create a work culture that supports and empowers them. If you are a business owner, manager, or boss with the power and influence to create lasting and positive change in your company, here are some ways you can achieve this worthwhile goal:

Learn as much as you can without invading their privacy

Illnesses and health are an intensely private topic that we cannot broach our employees’ boundaries in this area. And once the employees do disclose their condition, employers and/or human resources (HR) are bound by law to keep that knowledge confidential.

Here are some valid reasons why employees need to tell their direct superiors, and even HR, about their illness:

  • If the condition or illness will keep them from doing their job as described
  • If the disease might cause physical symptoms so that people at work will have some knowledge on what to do
  • To set and manage proper expectations on both sides

Once an employee trusts you with this information, you need to do all that you can to learn more about it. Your best bet is to ask them questions, instead of going right to Google for answers. Ask them how they’re doing, but not just because you’re primarily concerned about their output or productivity level. Ask them what their day-to-day life looks like, how they manage their pain, and how you as a boss can make things easier for them.

Manage your own emotional responses and challenge your preconceived notions

employees in a meeting

If you are not chronically ill yourself, chances are you won’t truly understand what your employee is going through. And even if you do have a chronic illness like them, no two cases are the same—especially if your diagnoses are different. This is why it is incumbent upon the bosses and supervisors to manage their own emotional responses and to challenge their own assumptions about what is “normal.” Practically, doing this can look like the following:

  • If the employee has communicated that they cannot finish a certain task, avoid giving them advice on how they can best manage their condition so that they can finish their tasks within the deadline.
  • Challenge your team members’ own assumptions as well. It’s not about treating your chronically ill employee any differently; it’s about doing an entire overhaul so that you and your team have a new perspective on what constitutes “great work.” In a world that glorifies overworking and toxic productivity, you have a fresh opportunity to challenge assumptions and still meet your goals without running your team to the ground. We can take our cue from Scandinavian countries and how they managed to find success in shortened workweeks.

Consider their suggestions

As you keep communication lines open, you also want to listen to their suggestions. Your chronically ill employee knows their body best; they know what they can and can’t handle. If they can do their work from home and do it well, and if they say they prefer to do remote work, then listen to that.

If, however, they offer an idea that seems unworkable at first, don’t be too quick to dismiss it. For example, their work involves being in an assembly line which requires their presence, but they want to do it from home. It may sound unworkable to you, but take time to listen first. Explain the business reasons why that particular recommendation won’t work, but continue communicating with them so you can find an alternative that will.

These are difficult times, but especially more so for people who battle chronic diseases or illnesses. If you are someone who has enough clout to change things for the better in your company, do it. We all could use some compassion, empathy, and kindness during these times of uncertainty.

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