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How to support and manage employees with chronic illness


Managing the demands of the modern workplace can be quite a challenge for employees with a chronic illness, like heart disease, type 2 diabetes or arthritis. It can also be tricky managing these employees with chronic illnesses.

Some chronically ill employees may feel depressed or stressed about not working at their peak productivity – and how that may impact their job security.

As an employer, you’re tasked with giving your employees the accommodations they need, while making sure the work still gets done, and complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which protects disabled workers.

It’s a delicate balance that takes some finesse, but doing whatever you can to manage employees with chronic illness is worth the effort, for three important reasons:

Company knowledge

Long-term employees possess valuable institutional knowledge and skill. Even if health problems prevent them from performing all their job duties, they can still teach or mentor others on tasks related to the position, or contribute their talents in other ways. Keep in mind how costly it is to recruit and train new employees.

Your company’s reputation

In today’s competitive job market, it’s critical to be known as a good employer, and one employees want to work for. Employees who feel they’ve been treated unfairly won’t hesitate to let others know by posting on social media or job sites. Today’s job candidates are savvier about checking up on organizations. If they see a lot of negative comments, they’ll likely steer clear of your company.

To avoid legal liability

Under the ADA, employers with 15 or more employees must provide reasonable accommodations to individuals with disabilities to help them perform the essential functions of their position, if the accommodation does not cause undue hardship on business operations. Also, if you don’t show a good-faith effort to try to make accommodations for chronically ill employees, and their employment ends, they could say they were wrongfully terminated because of their disability.

The fact is, you’re likely to manage many employees with chronic illness throughout your company’s history (and one in four adults has two or more chronic health conditions, most commonly heart disease, stroke, cancer, type 2 diabetes, obesity and arthritis).

That means a good percentage of your workforce has some sort of chronic disease, or will develop one in the future. So, it’s wise to learn how to support this growing population of workers, the right way.

Here are five things you should do:

1. Do: Have an open conversation

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), recommends employers use an “interactive process,” to comply with the ADA. That means employers should work with their employees with disabilities who request accommodations to determine whether accommodation is needed. In addition to these tips, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Job Accommodation Network (JAN) is a great resource to guide you through the interactive process.

2. Do: Define the job description

Before making accommodations, the employee should understand the company’s business needs and the essential functions of their job. Under the ADA, employees asking for a reasonable accommodation are required to perform only the essential functions of the job. Having a well-written job description ensures management and the employee are on the same page, and employees get the help they need to perform the tasks that matter most.

For example, arranging the CEO’s travel schedule might be an essential job function for an executive assistant. But sending out the company’s holiday cards could be assigned to someone else.

3. Do: Think outside the box

Now’s the time to put on your thinking caps. Could an employee who is unable to work full-time work in a part-time capacity, or work partially from home? Or could they come into work earlier or stay later to make up time missed for doctor’s appointments? Or, let’s say you have a worker who is a machine operator, and she just can’t physically perform her duties anymore. Could you transition her to more office-type work, or assign her special projects that still help the company? Don’t be afraid to consider non-traditional work arrangements when brainstorming.

4. Do: Consider the employee’s suggestions

Employees know best what they can and can’t do, and will be more accepting of accommodations they propose. That’s not to say all accommodations will work for your business. An employee who assembles widgets on a production line likely can’t do that at home. But if an employee offers up an idea that’s unworkable, don’t immediately reject it. Instead, take the time to listen. Explain the business reasons why that particular accommodation won’t do, and find an alternative that will.

If you’re having trouble coming up with ideas, contact outside resources such as JAN, vocational rehabilitation experts, and disability-related organizations. Be sure to withhold your employee’s name to comply with the ADA’s rules on confidentiality.

5. Do: Help chronically ill employees stay connected

It’s common for chronically ill employees to feel isolated from their coworkers and everything that’s going on at work. So, make an extra effort to include them in meetings (on conference call or video chat if they’re working from home) and social events, and touch base with them on a regular basis. Reaching out helps chronically ill employees continue to feel like they are valued team members, and that their company cares for them.

And here’s one important don’t:

Don’t: Ask for more information than necessary

Don’t ask for details about the employee’s medical condition or history. A good policy for employers who have a chronically ill employee is to ask only what’s absolutely necessary. Under the ADA, when an employee requests an accommodation, and the disability and need for accommodation are not obvious, the employer can ask for medical documentation. The documentation can help determine whether the employee has a disability and needs the accommodation, while providing information to help process the accommodation request.

It’s not the employer’s role to assess whether employees truly have a disability or not. It’s more about helping employees perform their job duties to the best of their ability.

Communication and compassion are critical

Keep the lines of communication open. Chronic conditions may worsen over time. It’s important to monitor how the accommodations you’ve made are working, and whether they may need to be changed, or if additional modifications might be needed. Showing compassion is equally important. Good companies understand that success includes treating people with respect and dignity, in sickness and in health.

For more information on managing employees with chronic illness, download our free e-book: Employment law: Are you putting your business at risk?