The increasing prevalence of long-term conditions in society as a whole is often reported on and discussed. But are we aware of the specific challenges this pattern poses at work? And are line managers, who usually take up responsibility for the issue, sufficiently supported themselves?
Recent data from NHS Digital reveals that the percentage of people living with at least one longstanding health condition has risen to 41%. This is, of course, hugely concerning for the individuals involved, but it is also a concern for the businesses they work in.
Three challenges for line managers to address when handling long-term health problems
Employers often find it difficult to discuss long-term health problems with their employees, let alone manage each complex situation, with its own unique set of symptoms and responses. Responsibility for addressing the issue often falls to line managers who face three key challenges:
1. Understanding the issue
Long-term health problems are often among the most difficult to understand, as employees could be experiencing a complex range of symptoms that change from day to day.
Coupled with this, there is a significant effect on mental health – the emotional impact of suffering from a life-limiting condition can be debilitating. Line managers need to understand the impact any long-term illness is having on a member of staff and support them in an appropriate way.
In some ways, line managers need to be pseudo-clinicians or GPs, capable of understanding a vast range of physical and mental health issues.
2. Managing the absence
Employees who are off work for a long time can often be forgotten about by businesses. If they’re not in the office on a daily basis, it’s easy to put them to the back of your mind. But, they are going to come back to work at some point.
Line managers need to make sure they are in regular contact with those they manage, form a quality connection and put in place a realistic return to work date.
Both parties need to work together to create a staggered rehabilitation plan. Doing this well requires a significant degree of understanding that needs to be underpinned by empathy.
3. Bringing the employee back into the workplace
Getting the right rehabilitation plan in place is tricky. Line managers need to understand what sort of work the returning employee will be able to do, how their condition is likely to affect them and what the mental impact of being in the workplace after such a long period of absence will be.
Improving line manager capability to address the challenges of managing long-term absence
The key to addressing these challenges lies in improving line manager capability. The main reason line managers can fall down in these situations is because they are often unprepared.
For many, their first experience of managing long-term health issues is unchartered territory, and they struggle to make the right judgement calls. The most important thing for businesses is, therefore, to put in place a good level of training right at the start to help line managers understand and manage a range of physical and mental health issues.
Ongoing support needed for line managers
Once line managers have been trained and are better equipped to handle long-term health issues, businesses need to provide regular refresher courses so they remain confident in addressing these difficult situations.
These updates should be accompanied by easily accessible resources that allow line managers to check their decisions against, or refer to, if they’re experiencing a particular issue.
It’s crucial that line managers receive this training and support to enable them to get employees back into work as soon as they feel able to – for the benefit of the individual and the business as a whole.
Work as an aid to recovery from long-term ill-health
Work can help people recover from a long-term illness, as it provides what we call the ‘three S’s’.
The first S is socialising.
The workplace provides friends and colleagues, and we know that socialising and talking to others is good for our mental health.
The second S is structure.
We all have different levels of structure in our lives but, in the workplace, we know what we’re required to do and that’s good for our mental wellbeing, too.
The third S is stability.
Being back in work means income, which gives employees the stability to know they can pay for bills, food and perhaps even a few luxuries. All of these elements help boost recovery, which, in turn, make individuals happier and more productive at work.
It’s crucial that line managers receive the proper training and have access to ongoing support to help them handle employees with long term ill-health. Failure by businesses to provide this could have serious negative consequences not just for a business’ reputation as an employer, but also for its bottom line.
About Pat Ashworth
Pat is a Learning and Development specialist and facilitator with over 25 years’ experience in coaching and developing people in both the public and private sectors. She has an extensive track record in talent management, executive coaching, leadership development and performance management.
Pat works with senior leaders and managers on a one to one and group basis, specialising in helping to develop their leadership skills and to maximise performance. A business focused senior HR professional with considerable financial services and business to business experience, at both strategic and operational levels across retail banking, insurance, legal, sales and service centres and multi-site operations. Pat joined AdviserPlus in October 2007 from Co-operative Financial Services where she held a number of senior roles including Head of Management Development.
Pat is both a Chartered Member of the CIPD and member of the British Psychological Society.