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5 ways to support employees experiencing illnesses

It’s a fact of life that we get sick from time to time and might require time off work to recover. According to Health and Safety Executive, 36.8 million working days were lost in 2021/22, with some of the leading reasons being poor mental health, musculoskeletal disorders, physical ill health or non-fatal injuries.

While some conditions may not be life threatening, they can make life miserable for the sufferer. And this type of ongoing suffering can not only result in greater absenteeism at work, but also a decrease in engagement and productivity when the sufferer is in the workplace.

The latest CIPD report also says over three quarters of employers have seen presenteeism from remote workers, which is working while you’re sick. Plus, seven in ten employers have seen a rise in ‘leaveism’ – which is using annual leave to catch up on their backlog instead of taking a break from work. Despite flexible working becoming increasingly popular, the pressure to ‘always be on’ has festered unhealthy behaviours at work.

While it’s sometimes out of the employers’ control to monitor their team’s unhealthy work patterns, you can certainly encourage a more supportive work environment to curb them. Here are five ways to do just that:

1. Foster a positive culture

On the surface, leaveism and presenteeism may look beneficial, however, they’re actually anything but. If an employee is in pain, distracted with test results or ongoing treatment, they’re unlikely to be focussed on their work. It’s far better to encourage people suffering with illnesses that may affect their productivity, to stay off and return when they are feeling better.

To start fostering a positive culture, why not give a talk or hold a meeting with your line managers about the importance of people staying away from work when they are genuinely ill. You could also schedule regular check-ins with remote workers to make sure you’re still connected with their day to day life. Creating a culture of openness will start a  shift and the guilt surrounding taking time off for sickness will begin to erode.

2. Have a clear policy

One way you can clearly communicate your positive culture is with a well-written and compassionate sickness policy. An example of a compassionate policy could be making the provision for employees to report on gender specific illness to a manager of the same sex e.g. on issues surrounding the menopause.

Nearly 3 in 10 employees going through the menopause suffer from poor health as a result, yet only 19% of businesses have an official policy in place for supporting those experiencing  the menopause, with over a third of employees not actually sure if their company offers them any support at all.  With a compassionate policy, you can outline your expectations of employees going through the menopause and educate line managers on how to talk to employees experiencing it.

3. Make adaptations

Whilst presenteeism should be discouraged, some non-life-threatening conditions may still allow employees to work. However, employers need to provide suitable adaptations to help accommodate for them, such as:

  • Time off for doctor appointments: From fertility issues (which affect around one in seven couples) to IBS (which affect around two in ten people), there are many non-life threatening conditions which require regular doctor appointments. Make it clear that in such cases there is no shame or guilt around taking time out of the working day to attend an appointment.

  • Allow working from home: There are some conditions where it may be more comfortable for an employee to work from the comfort of their own home rather than have to come into the office. Take for example a urinary tract infection, which 40-50% of women are likely to suffer from at some point in their life. It causes the sufferer to need to urinate more frequently, so understandably an employee is unlikely to want to come into the office. If they were able to work from home this would avoid them having to take time off sick until their infection had cleared up.

  • Specialised equipment: Over 30million working days are lost due to musculoskeletal conditions each year, however providing specialist equipment in the workplace could help to ease some of the symptoms. Take for example back pain. Around 80% of adults will experience lower back pain at some point during their lives and you could help employees suffering by providing equipment such as lumbar support pillows, foot supports or a standing desk. 

  • Plan ahead: Some illnesses can be planned around. Endometriosis, which affects one in ten women, is likely to happen at the same time each month and can consequently be planned for. This could involve implementing a working from home policy during those days or offering flexible working hours. Encourage line managers to work together with their team to develop a solution that works for them.

4. Have a strategy

Ultimately, most of your employees will get sick and require time off at some point. It’s far better to have a strategy in place to adequately deal with this rather than bury ones head in the sand and eventually try to cobble together a plan once it inevitably happens. Your strategy should be uniquely tailored to the specific needs of your workplace and could include hiring locum staff, offering overtime to healthy employees or implementing realistic deadlines which take into account the likelihood of staff illness.

5. Provide health and wellbeing support

To help your staff manage their own health, consider providing further health and wellbeing support services. For example, Benenden’s Healthcare for Business could provide faster access to diagnosis and treatment, and does not exclude pre-existing conditions or impose any restrictions because of age or usage. It also provides access to a 24/7 mental health helpline where qualified therapists can provide structured and positive support whilst employees are going through treatment.

It’s inevitable that from time to time your employees will get ill and need time off or require work adaptations to be made. By supporting your employees through their non-life-threatening illness you’ll not only help their health but also demonstrate your compassion as an employer.


Our business healthcare

Benenden Healthcare for Business provides an affordable, high quality, private healthcare solution to support all your employees. With easy setup and no exclusions on pre-existing medical conditions, we want to help make healthcare a standard of employment for everyone, rather than just a perk for the few. See how we can help you develop a healthcare solution that works for your whole business.