Often thought of as an ‘old person’s disease’, dementia isn’t always top of mind for employers today. However, it’s vast becoming an issue that employers simply can’t afford to ignore.
The number of cases is increasing and now 40,000 of the 850,000 dementia sufferers in the UK are under 65, and 18% of them will continue working after their diagnosis. Even if you don’t have an employee with the condition, dementia could already be in your workplace. Your employees could be handling customers with dementia on a daily basis, or caring for loved ones with the condition.
What is dementia and what are the symptoms?
Dementia is a progressive illness that affects the brain’s ability to function. There are over a hundred specific types including the most common - Alzheimer’s. Dementia symptoms affect everybody differently, but typical signs are:
- Struggling to remember recent events, having difficulty with following conversations, thinking and reasoning
- A decline in communication skills (including reading, writing and speech)
- Forgetting the names of people, places and things, forgetting where things are kept and repeating information
- Feeling confused (even in familiar surroundings)
- Feeling anxious, depressed or angry about the forgetfulness
Can you continue working if you have dementia?
Whilst for some people with advanced dementia it won’t be possible, many people are able to continue working through the early stages of their diagnosis – which could be for a number of years.
What is my legal duty if my employee has dementia?
As dementia is considered a disability, The Equality Act 2010 protects all employees with the disease (including agency, casual and zero-hour contract workers, not just full-time employees) against discrimination and unfair treatment at work. Employers must, where necessary, make reasonable adjustments to ensure the employee has access to all facilities in the workplace. For an employee who struggles remembering where things are, this could include enhancing the signage in the office to make directions and instructions clearer.
But being a truly supportive employer goes far beyond simply complying with legal requirements.
Why and how to create a dementia-friendly workplace
Why go a step further to create a dementia-friendly workplace?
For your employees
To put it simply, it’s the right thing to do. Taking just a few steps to support those with dementia can make a huge difference to their lives, and in turn you’ll be enhancing your company culture.
A dementia diagnosis can be traumatic for the sufferer and their loved ones. The symptoms (such as confusion and difficulty communicating) can be frustrating, worrying and potentially embarrassing. But knowing the company supports and values them can help relieve some of the anxiety.
For your business
Employers who demonstrate a culture of caring are more likely to attract the best talent and retain them. Plus, research suggests that people are more productive when they work in an inclusive environment.
So, here are our practical tips to help you become a dementia-friendly employer:
Treat everyone as an individual
It’s important to consider each employee’s case independently, and take time to understand their unique needs and situation.
Regular communication is really important, particularly as dementia is progressive and the symptoms can change rapidly. As communication skills are often affected by dementia, consider these practical tips:
- Find a suitable place to talk in, considering background noise, light quality and comfortable seating
- Set aside enough time not to rush the employee
- Maintain eye contact, listen carefully, and check they’re understanding you
- Follow up in writing, or using a voice note, if they have difficulty remembering things
It’s also important to establish early on, whether the employee wants their peers to know about their illness – or if they’d like to keep it private.
Show compassion and understanding
The symptoms of dementia can be frustrating for the sufferer – and they may react with irritation or even aggression in extreme circumstances. Ensure they have regular breaks and a safe space to unwind from any stress.
Provide access to professional mental health support
Offering a 24/7 EAP helpline is a great way to provide round-the-clock access to professional advice and support around depression, anxiety or any mental health issues.
Educate your company and raise awareness
Educate your workforce on how dementia can impact people in the workplace and how to support those suffering, through online training or workshops. Fundraising events and charity collections could also help raise awareness and encourage open conversation around dementia.
Encourage them to exercise
Exercising is one good way of helping deal with the symptoms of dementia. Consider introducing lunchtime exercise classes, running clubs or offering flexible working options that can allow people to fit more into their working day.
As well as helping with work-life balance, flexible working hours can help those who are unable, or find it difficult to, drive or use public transport during peak times due to confusion or anxiety.
Support through the end of employment
Support your employee fully through their decision to leave work. Make sure they don’t feel pressured to leave prematurely, or to stay in their role for longer than necessary and healthy for them. Give them enough time to consider what’s best for them and their loved ones.
Keep in touch, and consider inviting them or their loved ones along to company events, particularly any fundraising events related to dementia.
Every employee provides a unique set of skills and experience that can be valuable to your company, regardless of their age or any disabilities. The right mix of talent from all generations can really help a business to thrive, but only if they’re happy, engaged and motivated. Discover how to look after a multigenerational workforce and their wellbeing needs with our free employer’s guide.