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How To Support Employees With Chronic Illness In The Workplace?

8 min read
Last Updated on 30 April, 2024

Approximately more than half of the American population live with at least one chronic illness. It is one of the major leading causes of death in the United States.

Chronic illness is common, and realistically speaking, a significant number of your workforce may be dealing with it. This leads to a high healthcare cost burden on the organization.

According to the Integrated Benefits Institute, health-related productivity losses cost US employers $530 billion annually. Chronic health conditions negatively impact work productivity due to increased absenteeism, presenteeism, and sick leave.

The question here is, can you do something to support such employees and improve your ROI in the long term? Along with it, can you contribute in some manner to extend comfort to them on humanitarian grounds?

To help you out, I have curated this blog wherein you will get a gist of:

  • What is a chronic illness?
  • Challenges that such employees face in the workplace.
  • Benefits of supporting employees with chronic diseases and more.

Chronic illness in a nutshell

Woman having a headache due to chronic illness
A chronic illness is any health condition that lasts longer than three months. It can range from mild conditions like diabetes or asthma to severe conditions like heart disease, cancer, and rheumatoid arthritis.

Chronic illnesses often require ongoing management and may not have a definitive cure.

Employees with chronic illness may battle with a train of thoughts like:

  • How do they sustain a job life while dealing with their health problems?
  • How do they portray themselves as competent in management despite illness?
    According to Harvard Business Review, such employees are not lazy or incompetent. Well, they may sometimes struggle to keep up with their job duties or maybe work full time like others.

Also, as an employer, it becomes questionable whether to assign them work equally as other employees. And should you ask them if they are doing okay or not?

There are a lot of gray areas on supporting employees with chronic illness in the workplace. Worry not; we'll dive into the dos and don'ts of how to support them.

Common chronic illnesses also include type 2 diabetes, depression, irritable bowel syndrome, etc.

What are the challenges faced by employees with chronic illness?

When it comes to illness, especially severe ones, there is a social stigma related to it. Others tend to perceive such individuals differently as if they are weaker. Here are some more challenges that employees with chronic illness face:

1. They struggle to balance energy between work and health

Woman with chronic illness struggling to manage worklife
Employees dealing with any chronic illness may find it challenging to keep a balance in maintaining their work life and their health crisis.

As per a study published in Harvard Business Review, an employee diagnosed with a deadly autoimmune disease revealed she sometimes pushed herself to attend meetings that went too long. Investing most of her energy in work meetings left her drained, and she struggled to tend to her health needs afterward.

2. The struggle for not having a "sick look" always is real.

Chronic illnesses usually don't appear on the surface. Such individuals may look fine or sometimes even healthy on the outside. This baffles the others into dismissing their health struggles.

This also makes colleagues and managers believe they can work as efficiently as others. But this shouldn’t be the case.

Also, employees with such illness may push themselves to perform well at work for some days and struggle to do the same the next day. This is because they are aware of how others perceive them. As a result, they may end up overworking, only to struggle more.

3. Dealing with their "inspiring journey" label can be suffocating sometimes.

People living their lives with chronic illnesses are often labeled as inspirational and brave. While it is an excellent way to motivate them to fight their demons, they may not always prefer to hear how well they are handling their chronic health condition.

It's because the unwanted motivational boosts may only backfire upon them, making them overwhelmed unnecessarily.

4. They get generalized as incapable or less productive.

Woman feeling pressured at work
People tend to categorize such individuals as less productive easily. Well, yes, employees with chronic medical conditions may have more bad days than others. But they can still give their best at work and be productive.

How can employers support employees with chronic illnesses?

Employer supporting employee with chronic illness in the workplace
Chronic illness is itself a very sensitive topic, and it is trickier to extend support to employees dealing with it.

How do you support your employees without crossing boundaries? How do you increase their quality of life? Here are some pointers that you as an employer can follow:

1. Have an open conversation.

Employer having an open conversation with employee with chronic health issue
Striking a conversation is the first step in supporting employees dealing with chronic health conditions. Yet, you must be cautious and compassionate during the process.

Sharing one's medical condition is personal, and one may feel vulnerable about sharing the details. So, approach them with empathy and try not to assume their challenges beforehand.

You can make it easier for your employees, in this case, by asking open-ended questions.

Here are 10 open-ended questions to inquire employees about their chronic illness (remember, confidentiality is key):

  • Can you tell me a bit about the chronic illness you manage? (This opens the door for them to share as much or as little as they feel comfortable with.)

  • Are there specific ways your illness impacts your work? (Focuses on work-related challenges.)

  • Do you have any existing accommodations in place that help you manage your illness at work? (Helps understand current support systems.)

  • Is there anything you think we could do to better support you in managing your illness while working here? (Empowers them to suggest improvements.)

  • On a good day, how does your illness affect your workload or schedule? On a bad day? (Provides a broader picture of their experience.)

  • Do you feel comfortable discussing your illness with colleagues? If not, why? (Opens a discussion about workplace culture and comfort levels.)

  • Are there any resources you've found helpful in managing your illness outside of work that you'd be willing to share? (Shows genuine interest in their well-being.)

  • Sometimes chronic illness can lead to mental health challenges. Do you feel comfortable discussing this aspect if it applies to you? (Approaches mental health in a sensitive way.)

  • Is there anything else you'd like me to know about your illness or how it affects you at work? (Gives them a final chance to share anything they haven't mentioned.)

  • How can we ensure you feel comfortable talking to us about your illness in the future, should any needs arise? (Focuses on building an open and supportive environment.)

Maintain confidentiality throughout the conversation and let your employee lead the conversation once you open up the topic.

2. Tweak the job description if required.

Creating healthy work environment for them to contribute towards the organization is a great way to show support.

You can make necessary changes to the job roles of employees with chronic illness. For instance, you can offer them flexible work hours or maybe a hybrid work policy. Or maybe offer them additional sick leave to help them cope with their health problems and work dedicatedly.

Refer to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to create a better workplace for employees with any chronic illness.

3. Leverage a wellness platform.

Leveraging a wellness platform is a foolproof way to create a desirable work life for all employees, including those with any health troubles. Wellness platforms are designed to cater to an individual's basic and special health requirements.

Such platforms are customizable and easy to track the participant's progress in real time. They usually offer a wide variety of challenges that target all dimensions of wellness.

On this note, Vantage Fit is a wellness platform worth mentioning. From providing customized, incentivized wellness challenges to counseling sessions at discounted rates, your employees will have it all.

4. Manage your emotional response.

Learning that someone is struggling with health problems is one thing, but dealing with them daily in the workplace is tricky. You may feel overwhelmed after such individuals share their health struggles, or you may get confused about where to draw boundaries while assigning tasks.

In this case, managing your emotional response is the key to creating a better workplace for such employees. Take up courses on how to deal with your emotions while managing employees with chronic illness. Additionally, train the managers in all departments for the same purpose.

5. Consider the employees' suggestions.

Listening to what your employees require to sustain and flourish in the work is essential. While you may do your own research to support them, hearing out what their challenges are at work is equally important.

6. Help chronically ill employees stay connected.

Make it possible for your employees to interact with others who are going through similar experiences. A peer support network can also be incredibly helpful for emotional well-being, practical advice, and belonging.

Benefits of supporting employees with chronic illness

1. Enhanced Employee Retention:

Supporting employees with chronic illness as an employer shows dedication to the workers' well-being. This will increase employee loyalty and increase retention rates. It will also lower turnover costs related to recruiting and onboarding new staff.

2. Enhanced Productivity:

Employee working productively
As you help meet the needs of workers with long-term diseases, you can assist them in better managing their symptoms and preserving their productivity at work.

3. Decreased Absenteeism:

Assisting workers with long-term diseases can help lower absenteeism associated with medical conditions.

4. Attracting Top Talent:

Job seekers happy to be employeed at new organization
Companies that prioritize employee well-being, including support for those with chronic illnesses, are more attractive to potential employees. Offering comprehensive support programs can help employers stand out and attract top talent.

5. Positive Workplace Culture:

Fostering a workspace of inclusivity, empathy, and respect for employees with chronic illnesses can improve employee morale. It also contributes to a positive work environment as everyone feels valued and supported.

Suggested reading:The Complete Guide to Fostering Employee Wellbeing at Work

The Importance of manager and colleague support

Support from the manager and colleagues is crucial to creating a viable workplace for employees with chronic illness. Managers and colleagues spend a lot of time working together; empathizing and supporting such employees helps build a strong bond among all.

But it's also essential to learn how to show support correctly. Otherwise, the effort will only fail and may create a negative situation for everyone.

Never share your personal experience trying to relate to employees with chronic illness. Be a listener for the moment and be empathetic.

Final words

Supporting employees with chronic illness is a moral obligation. And it is also a great way to develop a positive brand identity for your business. From introducing special policies to arranging support communities, you can significantly boost their quality of life.

However, effective support towards chronic illness in the workplace is more than just organizational policies. It also involves the empathy and understanding of managers and colleagues. Lastly, a compatible wellness platform is the ultimate key to it.

For that, exploring comprehensive wellness solutions for your organization and workforce is the way to go.

Schedule a call with us today to empower your workforce.

This article is written by Supriya Singh who is a content marketer at Vantage Circle. Writing is how she keeps her creative side ignited. An avid dog lover. Loves to cook and binge watch TV shows. To get in touch, reach out to

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