How small businesses can support employees with long-term illnesses

Employers often feel out of their depth when confronted with employees with a long-term illness. Here, Christine Husbands discusses how to approach the situation.

One in seven employees was absent for four weeks or more from small businesses in the previous 12 months, according to a recent survey by Ellipse. This stark statistic highlights the problem faced by small businesses, when the loss of one employee from the workforce inevitably causes major problems.

Small business owners are more likely to suffer stress-related conditions, research has shown they work 13 hours a week more than the UK average (37 hours) and it is not uncommon to find smaller business owners working over 80 hours each working week.

Macmillan statistics show that by 2020, almost one in two people (47 per cent) will get cancer at some point in their lives, so unfortunately this issue is not one that SMEs can avoid. Add this to other long-term illnesses and small businesses really do need to make arrangements as they are very likely to experience a long-term ill member of staff at some point.

Employers treading on eggshells

The diagnosis of a serious illness can come as a massive shock, many people tell us that it changes their perspective on life and many go through a form of grieving for the loss of their health. People are often very concerned that their family may be affected by hereditary or genetic illnesses such as cancer and multiple sclerosis.

After the initial illness, many people find themselves living with long-term health problems which need careful management as well as the lasting psychological effects of such a major event. Support is just as important for mental health conditions as for physical ones; the absence of physical symptoms can make discussions in the workplace very difficult for employers and employees. Coupled with worries on the part of employees about how their employer and colleagues may view their illness, the situation can be exacerbated. Employers often feel they are out of their depth and ‘treading on eggshells’ when trying to treat staff fairly and manage effectively.

Employees’ real worries

After serious illness, many people suffer a drop in confidence and have low self-esteem, they may be nervous about how their colleagues will treat them or whether they will be able to do their job again. In our experience many people who have had chemotherapy report changes in memory, concentration and the ability to think clearly, sometimes referred to as ‘chemo-brain’ and this can also be the case for other illnesses.

Our nurses have found that eight out of ten people who have cancer, have huge concerns about their employment and how to deal with a return to work. Larger companies with teams of HR staff are usually better equipped to deal with this sort of issue whereas in smaller business it often falls to the MD or founder who may be very time-pressured and not understand the issues.

See also: The Small Business guide to HR

Expert, long-term practical advice and emotional support from a dedicated nurse can help employees through their illness by providing information, advice, help in making decisions and a listening ear to help deal with worries and concerns. It can be really valuable to have the same experienced, well qualified nurse that they trust telephoning regularly to give continuous support. They may need help in navigating the NHS and other medical services.

Sometimes, people have doubts about their diagnosis or recommended treatment and a Second Medical Opinion may suggest a different approach or give reassurance.

The right therapy

A course of therapy or counselling can sometimes help to aid recovery, it is important that this is professionally assessed so that the most appropriate service can be provided. This can range from complementary therapies such as reflexology or hypnotherapy to aid relaxation and sleep, to therapies such as speech and language, specialist physiotherapies, to talking therapies such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) or psychotherapy as well as mainstream counselling services.

Generally such services are available on the NHS but waiting lists can be very long; timely provision can speed things up significantly, getting people on the road to recovery much more quickly and in many cases avoiding them becoming depressed as a result of their illness.

Very often people don’t talk openly about how they feel to family and friends because they don’t want to burden or worry them. Even large employers are often ill-equipped to talk to people about health issues, and employees can feel worried about being open with their employer.Independent support can make all the difference.

Holistic approach

It is well documented that people with serious physical illnesses are much more likely to suffer depression, and our research shows that every patient with a physical illness also needs some degree of mental health support. An holistic approach is therefore necessary to ensure that people stay as emotionally strong as they can to recover more quickly from a physical illness.

Return to work

In our experience, most people want to return to work but find that there are many obstacles. These can range from practical adjustments such as needing special equipment in the workplace and flexibility in working hours to help with fatigue and ongoing medical appointments. Guidance is needed on all these practical matters so that the employee is able to have the discussions with their employer about what will help with their return to work. Small employers may have difficulties in sourcing and funding appropriate adapted equipment, the wrong equipment could cause more problems than it solves.

Even when employees have returned to work, they often still need help with practical issues, management of the health condition, specific worries and concerns.

Support services are available to small businesses through trade associations such as the Federation of Small Businesses. Employee Assistance Programmes are specifically designed to offer a range of services to support employees, the content varies significantly so care is needed to choose the most appropriate one. Other services designed for small businesses such as protection insurance (group income protection, critical illness, life assurance), Private Medical Insurance and cashplans often also include additional support services as well as the core financial protection.

Christine Husbands is managing director of RedArc Nurses.

Further reading on employee illness

Ben Lobel

Ben Lobel

Ben Lobel was the editor of from 2010 to 2018. He specialises in writing for start-up and scale-up companies in the areas of finance, marketing and HR.

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