Long-term sickness - What support should you provide?


After being diagnosed with a long-term health condition, an employee’s mind will be reeling with fears about their future, the strain the illness will place on their loved ones, and the potential physical discomfort that it will bring. On top of this, they may face anxiety arising from uncertainty about their employer’s reaction to the news and be asking themselves questions including:

‘Will I be taken seriously?’

‘Will my colleagues think I’m not pulling my weight?’

‘Will they say I can’t hack the pressure because I suffer from anxiety?’

With almost half of the UK population stating they have some kind of long-term health issue, these are concerns that are all the more important for employers to address.

In fact, a responsible employer will work to support employers facing mental and physical illness as part of its duty of care to the health and wellbeing of its people. Not only is this compassionate and the right thing to do, but it also ensures that people feel safe and valued at work. That’s particularly important when firms consider that a happy workforce is a more productive one, and less vulnerable to churn. But what extra steps should employers take to support those with long-term health conditions in particular?

Growing awareness

The issue of long-term health issues is becoming more widely understood as a result of long COVID, where patients continue to suffer symptoms of the virus long after their initial infection.

Research by the Office of National Statistics reveals an estimated two million people in the UK have experienced self-reported long COVID, causing fatigue, brain fog, breathlessness, and pain. This, combined with a greater understanding and awareness of mental health issues, has brought long-term sickness to the fore for many employers who are now considering it as part of their wellbeing strategy.

That awareness is all the more critical when we consider the financial impact of long-term illness as well. In total, an estimated 36.8 million working days were lost due to work-related ill health and non-fatal workplace injuries in 2021/22, according to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), with the total economic cost estimated to be more than £16bn. Stress, depression or anxiety and musculoskeletal disorders accounted for the majority of lost working days.

First steps

As a first step towards supporting those with long-term conditions, employers must be aware of their legal obligation to protect and support employees when they are at work or absent.

Correspondent legislation includes the Employment Rights Act 1996, which covers areas related to the employee’s contract and includes issues such as unfair dismissal and the termination of employment on ill-health grounds, and the Equality Act 2010, which covers a number of different types of discrimination and applies to protected characteristics including disability.

And then there is the Health at Safety at Work Act 1974, which places a duty on employers to ensure the health, safety and welfare of employees, as well as the obligation to pay Statutory Sick Pay (SSP). Being aware of these regulations, and obligations, will make it easier for employees to support staff without falling foul of the law.

Handling conversations with care

Making sure teams know how to handle and discuss health issues, particularly for those suffering chronic or long-term conditions, is also important.

Illness is an emotive issue and managers should approach conversations about it in a compassionate and productive way. Managers with concerns about a colleague’s wellbeing should not bluntly ask if a colleague is ill, but instigate an informal one-on-one conversation about what the organisation can do to support them.

The first step is proactively seeking out information about the long-term illness before the conversation and listening to the employee’s concerns and experiences. What do they think you should know about their condition? What fears do they have? What accommodations will help them operate at an optimal level?

It’s vital for teams to bear in mind that an employee’s experience of a long-term health condition may be very different to someone in a similar situation as well – there is no one way of handling it.

Adjust and assist

There are a number of initiatives available to modify the tasks and responsibilities of a colleague diagnosed with a long-term illness to make them more comfortable.

Potential options could be to adjust their workload and targets in order to minimise stress and reduce tiredness, vary working hours or implement flexitime, allowing absence for treatment, temporary redeployment, or altered duties. Managers can also appoint another colleague to support the person with a long-term condition, particularly if they need help finding their feet after time away.

Employers should be conscious of the fact that an employee’s condition and circumstances may vary significantly, so it’s important to be flexible enough to accommodate unpredictable circumstances, such as sudden absences.

Professional support

Finally, working with a healthcare trust like Healix allows employees to access counselling and other support that could help boost their overall wellbeing during what can be a challenging time. Similarly, access to experts like Occupational Health Therapists can help map out the support needed during long periods of illness, giving individuals a roadmap that could potentially help them to get back to their best sooner.

From legal obligations to handling conversations with care and providing access to professional experts, employers are increasingly considering how they can support employees with long-term health conditions as part of their wellbeing strategies. For firms looking to take their own steps and build their own strategy for wellbeing, taking just some of the steps outlined above could set them up for success.

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