5 ways to support employees with ongoing illnesses

Business Health and Wellbeing Services Provider
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It’s a fact of life that we get sick from time to time and might require time off work to recover. Thankfully, many of the leading reasons for sick leave aren’t life threatening conditions, but instead are issues such as migraines, back pain and other musculoskeletal disorders*.

While these conditions aren’t life threatening, they can make life miserable for the sufferer. For example, people with chronic back pain are four times** more likely to suffer depression than those without. Likewise, people with ‘silent’ conditions such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) or endometriosis can often cause the sufferer ongoing pain which, after time, can lead to depression.

This type of ongoing suffering can result in greater absenteeism at work, but also a decrease in engagement and productivity when the sufferer is in the workplace.

While you can’t necessarily ‘fix’ your employees’ health issues, you can certainly create an environment which supports them. Here are five ways to do just that.

  1. Foster a positive culture

New research shows that 70% of employees at private firms have come into the office despite being unwell or suffering with a ‘flare up’, believing that their employer values company performance over the wellbeing of its workforce.

On the surface this presenteeism might look beneficial, but it is actually anything but. If the employee is in pain or distracted with test results or ongoing treatment they are unlikely to be focussed on their work. It is far better to encourage people suffering with illnesses, that may affect their productivity, to stay off and return when they are feeling better.

To start fostering a positive culture why not give a talk or hold a meeting with your line managers about the importance of people staying away from work when they are genuinely ill. Once fully informed on the loss of productivity and the illogical nature of encouraging ill people to come to work, the culture will start to shift and the guilt surrounding taking time off for sickness will begin to erode.

  1. Have a clear policy

One way you can clearly communicate your positive culture is with a well-written and compassionate sickness policy. An example of a compassionate policy could be making the provision for employees to report on gender specific illness to a manager of the same sex e.g. on issues surrounding the menopause. With nearly two-thirds of women aged 50 to 64 now in work this is a health matter that is very likely to crop up.  Throughout the document you can also outline your expectations which will help allow you to have a compassionate policy. For example, perhaps ill employees should contact their line manager at the start of each day of absence to keep them informed of the situation.

  1. Make adaptations

Whilst presenteeism should be discouraged, there are some non-life-threatening conditions in which employees are able to work, provided suitable adaptations are made. Here are a few examples of this in action:

  • Time off for doctor appointments: From fertility issues (which affect around one in seven couples) to IBS (which affect around two in ten people), there are many non-life threatening conditions which require regular doctor appointments. Make it clear that in such cases there is no shame or guilt around taking time out of the working day to attend an appointment.
  • Allow working from home: There are some conditions where it may be more comfortable for an employee to work from the comfort of their own home rather than have to come into the office. Take for example a urinary tract infection, which 40-50% of women are likely to suffer from at some point in their life. It causes the sufferer to need to urinate more frequently, so understandably an employee is unlikely to want to come into the office. If they were able to work from home this would avoid them having to take time off sick until their infection had cleared up.
  • Specialised equipment: Over 30million working days are lost due to musculoskeletal conditions each year, however providing specialist equipment in the workplace could help to ease some of the symptoms. Take for example back pain.  Around 80% of adults will experience lower back pain at some point during their lives and you could help employees suffering by providing equipment such as lumbar support pillows, foot supports or a standing desk.  See our article for more ways to help  improve employee back care.
  • Plan ahead: Some illnesses can be planned around. Endometriosis, which affects 1 in 10 women, is likely to happen at the same time each month and can consequently be planned for.  This could involve implementing a working from home policy during those days or offering flexible working hours. Encourage line managers to work together with their team to develop a solution that works for them. 
  1. Have a strategy

Ultimately, most of your employees will get sick and require time off at some point or another. It’s far better to have a strategy in place to adequately deal with this rather than bury ones head in the sand and then try and cobble together a plan once it inevitably happens. Your strategy should be uniquely tailored to the specific needs of your workplace and could include hiring locum staff, offering overtime to healthy employees or implementing realistic deadlines which take into account the likelihood of staff illness.

  1. Provide health and wellbeing support

To help your staff manage their own health, consider providing further health and wellbeing support services. For example, Benenden’s Healthcare for Busines could provide faster access to diagnosis and treatment, and does not exclude pre-existing conditions or impose any restrictions because of age or usage. It also provides access to a 24/7 psychological wellbeing helpline where qualified therapists can provide structured and positive support whilst employees are going through treatment. 

It’s inevitable that from time to time your employees will get ill and need time off or require work adaptations to be made. By supporting your employees through their non-life-threatening illness you’ll not only help their health but also demonstrate your compassion as an employer. We’d love to hear how you support your staff with non-life-threatening illness – let us know on Twitter and LinkedIn using #healthandwellbeing!


Benenden is a not-for-profit health and wellbeing organisation, offering award winning employee healthcare, an extensive range of onsite health assessments and a business health cash plan. 

To find out more about our products and how we could help your business, visit www.benenden.co.uk or call  0800 414 8179.

This content originally appeared on Benenden’s workplace hub where employers can find a range of related articles to help with their health and wellbeing strategy



* https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/labourproductivity/articles/sicknessabsenceinthelabourmarket/2016

** https://www.spine-health.com/conditions/depression/depression-and-chronic-back-pain

About Benenden

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Founded in 1905, Benenden is a not-for-profit health and wellbeing organisation, offering award winning employee healthcare, plus an extensive range of onsite health assessments and a brand new business health cash plan. 

With no upper age limits and no medical questionnaires necessary, we believe our business health and wellbeing services could support your whole workforce, as well as supporting you in delivering on your duty of care to your employees. 

Whether you’re just starting to explore how you can support your employees, or you’re reviewing your current strategy, Benenden can provide a range of health and wellbeing services that could benefit your employees, increase productivity and help to manage absenteeism.

Find out more about how we can help your business at www.benenden.co.uk/business or call us on 0800 414 8179.


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