According to the CDC, six in ten Americans have a chronic disease, and four in ten have two or more. Hence, considering that health promotion programs can help 157 million employees, it is well-advised that companies incorporate wellness within chronic illness to support chronically ill workers.
However, organizations must be mindful that wellness can take on many definitions for people suffering from chronic illness. For some, it might mean having a positive attitude towards symptom management, whereas for others, it may mean seeking help from family or support groups.
Thus, it’s prudent for employers to care for their workers in this situation by providing them with programs and benefits designed for their needs. Moreover, the HR team and leadership should encourage an accepting and understanding workplace culture.
What Are Chronic Illnesses?
The CDC defines chronic illnesses as “conditions that last one year or more and require ongoing medical attention or limit activities of daily living or both.”
Different institutions make different classifications as to which conditions are considered chronic. According to WHO, there are four main types of chronic illnesses:
- Cardiovascular diseases (such as heart attacks or stroke)
- Chronic respiratory diseases (such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma)
Other institutions include examples of chronic illnesses,such as Alzheimer’s, arthritis, Parkinson’s, epilepsy, or MS.
Many people with chronic illness usually deal with multimorbidity – the presence of two or more chronic diseases simultaneously.
Data from research by Boersma P, Black LI, and Ward BW, “Prevalence of Multiple Chronic Conditions Among US Adults,” shows that multimorbidity prevalence among US adults is nearly 30%. In addition, multiple chronic conditions are more common among women (28.4%) than men (25.9%).
Additionally, the prevalence is highest among non-Hispanic white adults (30.6%) and lowest among non-Hispanic Asians (16.4%) and Hispanic adults (17.7%). People living in rural areas (34.8%) are more likely to suffer from multiple chronic conditions than those in urban areas (26.1%).
A meta-analysis on the “Association between multimorbidity and hospitalization in older adults” found that the risk of hospitalization is 2.5 times higher for individuals dealing with multimorbidity. Hospital readmissions among the chronically ill were 1.7 times higher for older adults.
According to the CDC, the major chronic diseases in the US are heart disease,stroke, cancer, and diabetes.
Generally, these diseases cannot be avoided with a vaccine or cured with medication, nor can they disappear. However, some of them can be prevented with healthy lifestyles.
Managing Chronic Illnesses in the Workplace
Dealing with chronic illness in the workplace can be challenging.
Often, these conditions can impede the employee’s ability to perform effectively. As a result, it might leave them feeling depressed or stressed about how these conditions might impact their job security.
Therefore, the companies are responsible for ensuring that the affected workers are given support to complete their work. Whether by offering accommodations or incorporating wellness within chronic illness through wellness programs, initiatives such as these can help the chronically ill manage their chronic diseases in the workplace.
Even though the pandemic has completely changed the workplace, one positive change is that it normalized the discussion of health and wellness in the workplace.
Ways To Manage Chronic Illnesses at Work
For many people dealing with chronic illness, not working is not an option. Most employees rely on the insurance premiums and health promotion programs their employers provide.
This poses a challenge: how to cope with chronic illness at work?
Although the best approaches heavily depend on the illness, some are more common and can apply to any case.
1) Consider Disclosing the Diagnosis
Deciding whether to inform bosses and colleagues about the illness is ultimately up to the employee.
However, suppose the condition might hinder their capacity to complete tasks or interfere with the work schedule. In that case, it is advisable to make the supervisors aware of and educate them about the condition. That way, they can be more mindful, empathetic, and understanding.
Moreover, bosses and colleagues can act as a support network in difficult times. In fact, LinkedIn’s Relationships @Work study showed that 46% of employees see work friends as a crucial piece of their happiness.
2) Understand the Company’s Policy & Laws and Regulations
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), every employee coping with chronic illness has the right to request specific accommodations and arrangements when necessary. These include, but are not limited to, flexible working hours, additional feedback, further instructions, or remote work.
Thus, it is vital that workers become familiar will all laws and regulations that can support them in dealing with their chronic illnesses in the workplace.
For instance, the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows employees to periodically call in sick or go to a doctor’s appointment without penalty for missing hours.
If workers feel their rights have been violated, they can turn to the ADA for assistance in solving the matter.
3) Find a Balance between Work & Health
Managing a chronic illness is often unpredictable and frustrating.
Finding a balance between work and health is essential to managing chronic diseases. That is especially true for individuals who are returning to work after acute illness.
According to research by Gragnano, Andrea & Miglioretti, Massimo & Simbula, Silvia & de Boer, Angela, “Work-Health Balance – A new construct to explain workers’ well being after RTW.” a better work-health balance positively correlates with higher job satisfaction and work engagement.
The Importance of Wellness Programs for Managing Chronic Illnesses
The most common chronic diseases – heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, and arthritis – are also the costliest.
For that reason, chronic disease prevention and health protection programs are becoming a priority for companies.
Employers realize that wellness within chronic illness can exist, and supporting employees’ health and wellbeing should be a strategic imperative.
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Benefits of Corporate Musculoskeletal Programs
Musculoskeletal conditions affect people of all ages in all types of work.
In fact, data shows that 1.71 billion people suffer from musculoskeletal disorders globally.
Thus, it’s no surprise that offering musculoskeletal programs can be beneficial for multiple reasons.
- Lower Costs
According to Hinge Health’s State of MSK Report, over half of Americans suffer from musculoskeletal conditions, resulting in a $600 billion annual cost.
The same report also shows that the highest MSC costs can be attributed to emergency room visits and outpatient hospital care.
Hence, effective and well-designed musculoskeletal programs which offer advisors, exercise plans, or medical support can help decrease costs by reducing the risk of work-related injuries and preventing the development of MSC into more serious conditions.
- Improve Quality & Productivity
A critical factor in improving the quality and productivity of work is advancing the worksite design. A worksite that allows for good posture, fewer motions, and better reach makes workers more efficient.
In fact, scientific evidence confirms that technical and engineering interventions in the workplace have a positive effect on reducing back pain without compromising productivity.
- Engages Employees & Shapes Culture
A company that offers musculoskeletal programs shows its workforce that it cares about its physical health and safety. This creates a strong health-oriented culture in an organization.
According to a cross-sectional study “Associations between culture of health and employee engagement in social enterprises”, a positive correlation exists between a culture of health and employee engagement. Gallup’s research showing that engaged employees experience fewer health issues confirms this correlation.
Moreover, another Gallup study shows that disengaged employees are 64% more likely to endure safety incidents.
Benefits of Corporate Diabetes Programs
Diabetes is a fast-growing chronic illness. With the pace and style of living changing daily, more and more people are at high risk of developing the condition, no matter their age.
In fact, according to diabetes statistics, about 537 million people between 20 and 79 live with this condition.
Therefore, with such a high number, it is evident that taking advantage of a corporate diabetes program can have huge benefits for employees and companies.
1. Produce Good ROI
Providing employees with diabetes programs helps them learn how to lead a healthier lifestyle and teaches them how to manage the disease.
Reciprocally, this decreases the direct health costs related to diabetes and the indirect ones such as absenteeism and reduced productivity.
2. Increase Employee Awareness
Educating employees about the behaviors that increase the risk of diabetes can positively influence their daily habits.
According to a meta-analysis “Diabetes self-management education reduces risk of all-cause mortality in type 2 diabetes patients”, enrolling in educational programs reduces the risk of death by 26%.
Additionally, teaching people with diabetes how to lead a better life saves the employer money in the long run.
3. Improve Diabetes Management
A vital aspect of living with diabetes is knowing how to manage it. As part of their diabetes programs, employers can implement diabetes management tools to support their employees in managing this condition.
According to the “Health care use and costs for participants in a diabetes disease management program” study, workers taking part in integrated disease management programs significantly improved their glucose control.
How Can Managers Support Employees with Chronic Illness?
Despite chronic illness being omnipresent, a workplace survey by Wakefield Research shows that about 60% of employees in the US aren’t confident that management knows how to support people living with chronic illness.
Much of this unpreparedness comes from a lack of awareness and understanding of the conditions. Therefore, leaders must be provided with training that will teach them how to assist employees in coping with chronic ailments.
In addition to having access to equipment and tools, the following strategies can enable managers to finesse their approach.
1. Provide Accommodations
McGonagle, A.K., Schmidt, S. & Speights, S.L.’s research “Work-Health Management Interference for Workers with Chronic Health Conditions: Construct Development and Scale Validation” found two major conflicts for employees with chronic conditions: the time they spend on work interferes with the time needed to manage the condition, and work deprives them of the energy required to deal with the disease.
Additionally, these conflicts caused burnout and decreased the efforts employees put into their work.
However, managers can help employees resolve these conflicts by providing them with proper accommodations.
2. Establish a Healthy Work-Life Balance
It is a general thought that separating work and life can be challenging.
Therefore, it is up to management and leadership to promote a healthy work-life balance by considering the workload, organizational and technological factors, and making appropriate changes.
Also, accommodations, flexible benefits, and health promotion programs can all help employees achieve the desired balance.
In fact, Astriid’s “Employment And Long-Term Illness: The Invisible Talent Pool” research report found that 24% of employees with long-term illnesses who report having a good work-life balance attribute it to receiving proper accommodations.
3. Amplify Benefits
As a result of the pandemic, six in ten U.S. adults are worried about affording healthcare, and 30% avoided seeking medical assistance due to costs.
Therefore, providing robust medical care and a comprehensive benefits package can be a game-changer for employees. However, the insurance and the packages must be easy to navigate and offer comprehensive coverage.
Likewise, encompassing wellness within chronic illness through health benefits can significantly impact a worker’s lifestyle and welfare. As a matter of fact, WHO’s Healthy Workplace Framework and Model verifies that health promotion programs can improve risk factors for many chronic conditions.
The Cost of Chronic Conditions for Employees & Organizations
The total expenditure on chronic conditions in the U.S. amounts to $3.7 trillion annually. This represents 19.6% of the country’s GDP and about 90% of the nation’s health care costs each year.
The CDC provides information about the costs associated with the most common chronic illnesses.
- Heart disease and stroke- These diseases are the leading cause of death for 877,500 Americans yearly. They cost the health care system $216 billion and take a toll of $147 billion due to low job productivity.
- Cancer- More than 1.7 million are diagnosed with cancer, and 600,000 die from it annually. The economic toll of this condition is expected to reach $240 billion by 2030.
- Diabetes- Almost 35 million Americans have diabetes, and 88 million suffer from prediabetes. The cost of the condition is $327 billion in medical costs and lost productivity.
- Arthritis- Affecting one in four adults, or a total of 58.5 million Americans, arthritis is the leading cause of work disability. Out of a total cost of $303 billion, $140 billion was spent on medical expenditures, and $164 billion was associated with indirect costs due to lost earnings.
Other CDC statistics show that five chronic illnesses and causes of chronic disease – high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking, physical inactivity, and obesity – cost employers $36.4 billion annually because of health-related absenteeism.
Considering the costs of chronic diseases, it is no surprise that the financial ramifications on employers and employees are significant.
According to a RAND study, chronic conditions entail higher costs in prescription drugs, with those with five or more conditions using twice as many medications as those with three or four illnesses.
Generally, people suffering from five or more conditions spend 14 times more on health care than those with none.
Furthermore, expenses pile up due to inpatient stays, outpatient procedures, and emergency room visits.
Diagnosing a chronic disease can be difficult and expensive. However, the longer the condition goes undiagnosed, the more expensive it might be to manage.
Apart from healthcare expenses, chronic conditions also affect employers in other ways.
For one, conditions that cause fatigue and sickness can cause workers to miss work. In some cases, they might need extended time off, so the employer will have to hire a temporary replacement.
Recruiting and training replacements entail additional costs for organizations.
Chronic Illnesses & the Future of Work
The prevalence of chronic illnesses is constantly on the rise. In 2014 the rate was 40%, estimated to increase to almost half of the adult U.S. population.
With more than 157 million Americans with chronic conditions looking for work, the GDP could experience a boost of almost $25 billion if just 1% of them joined the workforce.
The best way to include these individuals in the labor force and support them in the workplace is to provide them with the proper accommodations. Yet, according to research by Nicole Maestas and Kathleen J. Mullen, “Unmet Need for Workplace Accommodation,” only 35.5% of chronically ill employees report being accommodated, and only 70% percent of those work four years later, compared to 62% of those not accommodated.
While some organizations might believe that accommodations are expensive, the truth is that 56% of them cost absolutely nothing, whereas others cost about $500 per worker.
With flexible working and remote work currently on the rise, it’s much easier to provide chronically ill workers with the necessary support and accommodations they might need.
On a Final Note
More and more people suffer from chronic illnesses every day. To help them manage their disease in the workplace, employers should look to incorporate wellness within chronic illness and provide their employees with the support and accommodations they need.
- Chronic Illness
- About Chronic Diseases
- Noncommunicable diseases
- I Have a Job and a Chronic Illness: 8 Tips on Managing Both
- 5 Ways to Manage Your Chronic Illness at Work
- 5 Strong Benefits of Musculoskeletal Disorder Prevention
- How Managers Can Support Employees with Chronic Illnesses
- The Effect of Chronic Conditions on Employer and Employee Healthcare Costs
- How the Chronically Ill will find a Future of Work