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An Aging Workforce: Advice for managers on supporting employees with long term medical conditions

Many businesses now and over the next ten to twenty years will have to start coming to terms with an ageing workforce. Alongside extensions to the pension age that could see many of us working up to the age 70, there are major issues for employers to contend with, not least managing long term medical conditions. This includes possibly dealing with long periods off work as well as implementing strategies that ensure a safe and effective return.

According to a recent article by Personnel Today:

“…half the people aged between 50 and state pension age have a long term health condition. The Mental Health Foundation says that depression affects one in five older people and that 70% of new cases of depression in this age group are related to poor physical health.”

The stark fact is that, as we grow older, we are more prone to long term health conditions such as heart disease and cancer. Providing the support that ensures individuals can get back to work as expediently as possible is not only good for the person concerned but can have major benefits for the company itself if handled with empathy and professionalism.

Research undertaken by Macmillan Cancer Support demonstrated that the tax returns for a company could outweigh the overall cost of the initial interventions that help a person back to work. There are over half a million people with cancer working for a living and who contribute over £16 billion to the economy per annum. The cost of those people not returning to work also costs billions each year in lost productivity.

Helping Workers Stay in Work

With better medical provision and employment practices, more people with long term medical conditions are now able to stay in work. Chronic illness can be anything from physical conditions such heart problems or mobility problems to mental health challenges including depression, stress related issues and even dementia. For some people, simple changes to the way they work can make all the difference in providing the opportunity to move back into work. It can be something as obvious as creating better access, for example if there are have mobility problems, to ensuring that immediate needs are met, for instance allowing more frequent breaks during the working day.

There is, of course, no one size fits all solution and managers and employees need to work closely together to find the right way forward. A condition such as Multiple Sclerosis can be diagnosed early on but may not be debilitating until later years. The employee may not require much support in the initial stages of the condition but will want assistance with their office space to help with their growing disability. They might benefit also from being able to work from home on certain occasions.  If special equipment is needed businesses can apply for funding help through the Access to Work Program run by the Government.

Having the Appropriate Processes in Place

As workforces get older, more and more businesses will need to have the appropriate measures in place to cope with long term health conditions. Depending on the type of environment you operate, it is always important to have honest and open discussions about what can be done to make life more comfortable for the employee. Getting the right balance is important if you want an employee who is able to happily do their job and contribute to the productivity of your business. Not only does it help the individual feel they are not fighting such an uphill battle but it shows your company actually cares about workforce wellbeing.

If you understand what your employee needs and how their condition affects them, it makes planning in the short and long term easier for both parties. It will also help that you are taking their condition seriously and, if they do have to take some time off work, they won’t feel pushed into returning.

Leading the Way

If you have an employee who has developed a serious long term medical condition, they actually might want you to take the lead in the first instance and provide them with the asssitance they require. Initial talks can take place in private with the assurance of complete confidentiality which may make the process much easier and provide a way to develop a formal plan for return to work that satisfies everyone’s needs.

While there might be statutory regulations in place that you need to comply with anyway, it is always good practice to lead the way and put in place solutions. This could include:

  • Changes to the working environment such as better access or more appropriate seating.
  • Alterations to working hours or the introduction of more flexible working practices.
  • Phased returns to work to see how things go and an adjustment to performance targets so that office life is a little easier when on return.

Long term health problems often require physical alterations to make life easier but they will also undoubtedly require support for the mental health of the individual. It’s not uncommon for a condition such as cancer or heart disease to be accompanied by depression or anxiety that can affect how a person feels and performs. A good deal of empathy and support around the office is needed in addition to any other changes that are made.

Organisations such as the NHS provide a good deal of information concerning workplace health for both employees and employers.

Getting the Right Advice

Expert occupational health advice will benefit both the employee and the employer when trying to find the most appropriate solutions for a particular condition, as well as managing issues such as absence. Long term health problems are exactly that – they’re not conditions which are set to disappear anytime soon. An employee could have a relapse and need to take more time off work, so having the strategies in place to deal with this can help ease a difficult situation for both sides.

With an ageing workforce, it’s highly likely that long term absence and its management, including back to work strategies, are set to become major employment issues for many businesses. Supporting any employee who has a chronic health condition comes with its own challenges and getting the right advice is vital. It also requires a good deal of empathy and a lot of patience. Getting it right, however, can be rewarding both for the employer and the employee who needs help over this difficult period in their lives.

For a list of online resources relating to particular health issues take a look at the NHS leaflet Advice for line managers on supporting employees with long-term medical conditions.


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