According to Department of Health figures quoted by the King’s Fund, an estimated 15 million people in the UK suffered from chronic diseases in 2012 – just under a quarter of the total population – and this has significant implications for employers and the economy as a whole.
With more people living longer and the state pension age being pushed back to 68 for both men and women by 2018, employers will increasingly need to consider how they support their employees to remain in the workplace, often with declining health. Positive steps, taken early, will help reduce the level of absenteeism, boost productivity and support the economy in general.
What is chronic disease?
Chronic diseases (also known as long-term conditions) include conditions which have no cure, persist for an extended period, and are managed with drugs or other treatments. In fact, treatment and care for people with long-term conditions accounts for £7 in every £10 of health spending according to the King’s Fund.
The World Health Organisation reports that chronic diseases, which are far more prevalent in older people (58% of people over 60 compared have a chronic disease compared to 14% of those under 40) account for 85% of deaths in the UK every year, and numbers are likely to increase with the growing levels of obesity and diabetes.
Chronic diseases include:
- Heart disease: An estimated 2.7 million people in the UK live with coronary heart disease, which causes heart attack and angina.
- Cancer: Statistically, one in three people will develop cancer in their lifetime, but with improved diagnosis and treatment many will survive to enjoy a longer working life.
- Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD): This results in 9 million lost work days every year and includes conditions such as persistent bronchitis and emphysema.
- Diabetes: The number of people with diabetes has increased from 1.4 million to 3.5 million since 1996.
- Mental illnesses: Depression, anxiety and major mental health conditions such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia can be regarded as chronic and recurring conditions that cannot be cured but only managed. Mental illness can also develop as a consequence of living and struggling with a life-threatening or debilitating chronic illness.
- Musculoskeletal problems (MSDs): MSDs such as back ache, arm and neck pain, accounted for 41% of sick days in the UK in 2016.
Chronic disease and the workplace
Of the 7.2 million people aged 50-64 who are still employed, 42% are living with a health condition or disability, according to the Labour Force Survey of 2013. With the increase in obesity and diabetes, and with lack of exercise and poor diet also impacting on the nation’s health, this figure is expected to rise.
The impact that chronic diseases have on an individual’s quality of life is significant and many medical experts recognise the importance of remaining in work for mental, financial and emotional wellbeing.
There are a number of steps that employers can take to support staff who are suffering from long-term and chronic disease.
- Reviewing working practices and addressing any issues that may endanger the long-term health of the workforce through risk assessment (e.g. reducing the number of repetitive physical movements in tasks, or heavy lifting).
- Building a supportive working atmosphere and training managers to be supportive and react appropriately to concerns raised by staff. This will encourage employees to share their health issue more confidently and enable managers to find ways of keeping talented and highly trained employees at work.
- Investigating flexible working solutions that may benefit employees and the organisation overall and could help a person with chronic disease to stay in employment (e.g. flexible hours, time off to visit the doctor or hospital, part-time work, or homeworking).
- Making modifications to a person’s job role or work environment (e.g. changing responsibilities, reducing the pace of work, managing workloads or modifying workstations).
- Developing management plans for employees to ensure that issues are discussed confidentially and proposed solutions are logged and implemented.
- Implementing a formal return to work process when a member of staff comes back to work after a period of absence. This is the ideal time to find out if there are any barriers which will prevent a person being able to sustain their return.
- Offering health checks in order to catch illnesses early and demonstrate to staff that their wellbeing is important.
- Promoting a culture of good health and wellbeing and encouraging employees to take steps to look after their own health.
Support from Fit for Work
Support and guidance about work and health can be sought from Fit for Work, which offers free, online work-related health advice and guidance to anyone looking for advice and support about an existing case of sickness absence, or about issues that may result in sickness absence. Employed people who have been off work due to illness for four weeks or more can be referred for a telephone assessment with a Fit for Work case manager in order to identify all the obstacles preventing the person from returning to work. The Fit for Work case manager can also provide recommendations about how the obstacles can be addressed and to potentially enable an early return to work. Visit the Fit for Work website or call the free telephone advice line on 0800 032 6235 (English) or 0800 032 6233 (Welsh). There is a separate service running in Scotland (0800 019 2211).