Chronic conditions, always a concern for employers, in all likelihood has exacerbated during the pandemic as many people didn't visit healthcare providers for several reasons.
This is particularly alarming since 51.8% of the U.S. population have at least one chronic condition, and almost 30% have more than one, according to a 2020 study published by the CDC.
Looking specifically at working people ages, 45-65, 49% have multiple chronic conditions according to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.
Companies are covering the costs of these illnesses. According to a review done by UnitedHealthcare of all claims issued by the Health Action Council's 57 nationwide employer members, companies spent $2.5 billion to treat employees' asthma, diabetes, hypertension, mental health and substance abuse and back disorders over the course of two years. More than 60% of workers struggle with at least one of these chronic conditions, making them the top cost drivers in employer healthcare.
Those numbers were, of course, before COVID-19. “Because people with chronic conditions are at higher risk for COVID-19, we are likely facing a second pandemic of chronic condition exacerbation,’ said Matthew Loper, CEO of Wealth, in an article in Newsweek.
While employers are paying the bills, but are they actively supporting employees? Not really, according to an article by Alyson Meister and Victoria Woolfrey, in an article in the Harvard Business Review.
A study of over 1,000 working individuals in the U.S. reveals that 60% believe that their leaders are unprepared to support employees with a serious and/or chronic medical condition, and nearly 90% are concerned about their own abilities to offer support. Much of this unpreparedness comes from a lack of awareness, understanding, and effective tools.
Based on our work with individuals with chronic illness, we’ve come up with a few strategies for leaders to better understand and support employees with chronic illness.
Loper offers employee some tips for supporting employees with chronic conditions:
- Providing opportunities for employees to discreetly connect with someone who can help them navigate their condition is important to help them feel understood and supported. Whether this means providing healthcare coverage for therapy, including Employee Assistance Programs as part of employee benefit packages, or utilizing a third-party platform to help employees adhere to care plans through empathy-driven support teams, every little bit helps.
- Employers can encourage healthy behaviors, such as care plan adherence and exercise, by proactively building motivation through incentives. This could be something as simple as offering a prize to the individuals or departments with the highest logged step count after a summer-long walking competition — or as robust as an employer or health plan-facilitated rewards program for healthy behaviors like medication adherence, flu vaccinations and more.
- Beyond signaling healthy balance in job postings, we can offer paid time off for annual wellness visits, bring flu vaccine clinics to the workplace, encourage walking meetings or schedule active company parties — like bowling or volleyball tournaments — alongside traditional cocktail hours and dinners. In addition, we can consider "putting our money where our mouth is" by incentivizing certain key preventative care measures to improve buy-in and strengthen employee health.
Meister and Woolfrey also have some advice on how to manage someone with a chronic illness.
Challenge and update your assumptions about what’s “normal.”
Reflect on your assumptions and expectations of their abilities when assigning tasks and deadlines. For example, assuming your employee should be able to do something after they’ve communicated that they cannot or offering advice about how they should best manage their illness, is a sign that you may not truly understand the limitations they’re facing. To cultivate your own empathy and understanding, consider what information you need to know, read, and research to understand their experience. Also, reflect on what beliefs or values you hold that may be confronted by their behaviors or their illness. One chronically ill woman we interviewed was told by her colleague, “I don’t really believe in being sick, it’s all ‘mind over matter.’” Working with chronically ill colleagues is an opportunity for you to grow and develop as an inclusive leader.