How can organisations support staff with long-term health conditions?

long-term health

Need to know:

  • Rather than lose talent, employers should reap the business benefits of catering to employees with long-term health conditions.
  • Organisations should take a universal approach to discussing working structures, rather than singling out those with conditions or disabilities.
  • Flexibility and tailoring are important because each employee will have a different experience and unique needs.
  • Cash plans, medical insurance and employee assistance plans can help employees access treatment and support that might stabilise a long-term condition.

Twenty years ago, a diagnosis of a long-term health condition often signalled the end of an employee’s working life. But, with the default retirement age removed and more people developing long-term conditions, employers must find ways to support these individuals in the workplace.

As well as the social and ethical benefits, organisations are also realising that it is good for the bottom line. Dr Luke James, medical director, UK Insurance at Bupa, says: “Employers are seeing more and more people with long-term health conditions such as diabetes, mental health issues and cancer. Losing this experience isn’t good, so there are business advantages to supporting them in the workplace.”

Retaining a broad spectrum of employees also ticks the diversity and inclusion box. Dr Subashini M, associate medical director at Aviva Health & Protection, explains: “Having a workforce that more accurately reflects the population is good for business. An employee with a long-term health condition will be an expert in their condition and the needs of people with it.”

Support structure

Even with the best intentions, though, it is not always easy to support these employees, notes Kate Headley, spokesperson for the Recruitment Industry Disability Initiative and director of consulting at the Clear Company: “Employers need to create an environment where employees have the confidence to share information about their health issues. We see a lot of employers who say they’ve asked but nobody responded.”

To help with this, Headley recommends taking a universal approach. “Rather than singling out people who are disabled or have a known health condition, employers should ask everyone about how they carry out their job and whether they need any support,” she explains. “This can be very enlightening, but also makes it much easier for employees to ask for help.”

Line managers also have an important role to play in creating the right culture, says Charles Alberts, head of health management at Aon Employee Benefits. “Train line managers to spot the signs that someone may be struggling with work due their health, as this makes it much easier to be proactive,” he suggests. “A high proportion of cancers are diagnosed in A&E: don’t do the same with these conditions in the workplace.”

Alberts also recommends providing communication skills training. “The initial conversation is so important, but line managers often shy away from it because they’re scared they’ll say the wrong thing,” he adds. “Providing this training, and ensuring there are policies and procedures in place, gives them the confidence to have this conversation.”

Individual attention

While policies and procedures are important to set a framework for supporting employees with long-term health conditions, a personal touch is essential too. “Treat each employee as an individual,” says Dr M. “Even if two employees have exactly the same condition, they’ll react to it in different ways. One employee might be comfortable staying at work, another might want to take time off.”

Offering flexibility goes a long way to supporting these employees. Morag Livingston, head of group risk and wellbeing at Secondsight, explains: “Rather than force an employee into a position where they have to go off sick, adapt their hours and work duties so they can stay in work.”

As an example, she points to an employee with cancer. If chemotherapy is part of their treatment plan, allow them to work from home. This enables them to continue working, but also reduces their risk of picking up an infection, which could affect their treatment.

Employers also need to regularly review the flexibility they provide an employee. “Long-term health conditions are often progressive, so you may need to adjust the workarounds you have in place,” says Headley.

Benefit support

Employee benefits are also a valuable tool, with products such as cash plans, medical insurance and employee assistance plans (EAPs) helping employees access treatment and support that might stabilise a long-term condition. For example, an employee with diabetes might appreciate the podiatry benefit included in a cash plan, while someone with anxiety or depression could speak to a counsellor through the organisation’s EAP.

“When it comes to health, everyone wants something different,” says Livingston. “Often offering [benefits] on a flexible basis also means there’s access to a wider range of benefits, even if they’re funded by the employee.”

But this approach does not always work, and access to EAPs and group income protection is often best provided as a core benefit to all employees. For instance, although income protection is designed to provide a benefit when someone is unable to work long-term due to illness or injury, Livingston says it can be invaluable long before this point. “If an employee is at risk of going off long-term sick, the employer can access early intervention services through the income protection,” she explains. “This could include medical treatment, but also advice around any reasonable adjustments they could put in place to support the employee.”

Similarly, where an employee may have taken time off work due to a health condition, group income protection insurers can support their return to work. This could include paying a proportionate benefit to enable the employee to return in a reduced capacity.

Medical manoeuvres

Medical insurers are also waking up to the fact that more support is required for long-term health conditions in the workplace. “Medical insurance has traditionally focused on acute rather than chronic conditions but, as NHS support for mental health isn’t great, we’re starting to see insurers extend their products in this area,” Alberts explains.

Earlier this year, for example, Bupa launched its Business Mental Health Advantage feature, removing the time limit on treatment for mental health conditions. It also includes a periodic review to ensure that the employee is receiving the most effective and appropriate treatment. “An annual appointment provides ongoing support to an employee and can help them stabilise their condition,” explains Dr James.

While this is a welcome step, employers can also accommodate long-term health conditions by tailoring the benefits they offer, especially on larger schemes. Alberts suggests adding a pot of money, for example £1,000, to cover chronic conditions. “This could be used for a couple of consultations and tests to help the employee,” he says. “Offering this also sends out a positive message about how the organisation supports employees with long-term health conditions.”

And, with the number of employees with long-term health conditions increasing, ensuring that these individuals can stay in the workplace is a must.