Chronic Health Conditions: Courage in the Workplace

By Carrie Gadsby

Pursuing a career and becoming part of a vibrant and thriving organization that has created a culture of acceptance and support for employees, is a true measure of success in the workplace. Having a career is a defining journey, with pride, confidence and identity all playing a part in the mix.

But what if something unseen and wholly unpredictable jeopardized this path? Chronic illness and disease, and what it means for both employers and employees, is a reality that merits further discussion.

Chronic health conditions in employees have major implications as they can affect one’s ability to maintain steady attendance, and absenteeism in the workplace amounts to a significant cost to Canadian businesses. There are 650,000 people in British Columbia who live with arthritis, with more than 360,000 in the labour force. Three in five people living with this disease are of working age – between 15 and 65 years old – and more than 4.6 million Canadians have it. Arthritis can be an invisible disease. It doesn’t discriminate, affecting anyone at any time, regardless of age, ethnicity or gender. It is the leading cause of disability in Canada, and can reduce mobility, seize independence, halt a career and steal a childhood. There are over 100 different kinds of arthritis including gout, lupus and scleroderma, and some forms are even life-threatening.

There is a stigma around having chronic disease, especially in the workplace. Speaking up can be hard. So can staying silent. Riitta Nihtila is one woman who chose to be very open with her employer about her struggles with arthritis, and adaptations were made to make her continued employment possible.

“I wouldn’t be working today, and would probably be living on disability if my employer hadn’t helped me by making accommodations,” Nihtila shares. She was just 19 years old when she realized that something wasn’t right with her body. After having led a healthy, active and, by all accounts, “normal” childhood that saw her into young adulthood, everything changed without warning. Nihtila graduated from college in a wheelchair.

At the time, Nihtilawas diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. Now over fifty, her diagnoses include osteoarthritis as well as fibromyalgia. It hasn’t been an easy journey, as the osteoarthritis now affects her knees, back and hands. The pain and fatigue colour each of her days, and they vary in intensity. But Nihtilahas requested support where she can, and physiotherapy and other treatments have helped her at various times in her life.

Nihtila also found assistance at work. She talked about what she was facing with her Human Resources department, and was very pleased with their level of understanding, interest and compassion. Changes were made to support Nihtila, from relocating her parking spot so she could avoid taking the stairs, to ergonomically designing her work space and adjusting her schedule to accommodate her variety of medical appointments.

“I felt heard and valued by my employer” says Riita. “I appreciate the effort they have made to keep me a part of the team.”

This is an excellent example of someone with a disability collaborating with their employer so that the best outcome becomes reality. Together, strides can be made so that more people like Nihtila can work and follow their chosen career path. Losing employment opportunities can contribute to mental health issues including depression and anxiety.

Nihtila was able to advocate for what she needed, and was fortunate to have a work environment that was quick to get on board. But that isn’t always the case, and this can feel like a very risky conversation to initiate when one is living with an invisible disease or disability like arthritis.

Employers can take steps to start the conversation so that their employees don’t have to. This dialogue can lead to a greater understanding of arthritis in the workplace and can minimize revenue-loss caused by absenteeism, and mental health issues that may result from the loss of employment or opportunity.

Visit arthritis.ca to learn more. Arthritis can change a life, but it doesn’t have to.

Carrie Gadsby is the communications manager with the Arthritis Society, BC & Yukon Division.

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Category: Workplace Wellness

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