Helping employees with health conditions return to work

Getting people back to work who have health conditions is a Government priority, but that requires a lot of understanding and flexibility. Lucie Mitchell investigates.

Mental Health


The number of people who are off work due to long-term sickness has reached record highs. According to data from the Office for National Statistics, 2.6 million people are now out of work due to their health, while more than 11 million are living with long-term conditions that can impact their ability to work.

Recent research by the Health Foundation revealed that the number of employees with a work-limiting health condition has jumped by 58% in the last decade, while 470,000 more people are out of the workforce due to ill-health since the pandemic.

“Nearly 60% of people who are economically inactive, and left work in the last two to three years, have a work-limiting health condition,” comments Nick Pahl, CEO of the Society of Occupational Medicine. “Occupation, gender, and disability affects getting back to work.”

It’s not just physical health either – there has also been a sharp increase in mental health issues, says Pahl, who adds that out of the 4 million people living with mental health conditions, only two million are employed.

So why are we seeing such large numbers of people out of work due to ill health?

“The reasons for the high levels of workforce inactivity are complex and driven by a number of factors, including a rise in mental health issues, especially in the younger age group, an increased burden of chronic diseases driven by lifestyle-related issues, an ageing population and the system inequalities impacting wider socio-economic determinants of health, like income and access to healthcare,” remarks Tina Woods, CEO and founder of Business for Health.

“Occupations with a low ability to work from home are more likely to see people leave the workforce due to long-term sickness, while pressures in health and social care delivery, including the impact of Covid, has led to backlogs for treatment and worsening health outcomes,” adds Pahl.


The modern work environment also plays a role, says Sarah Baldry, VP of people at Wysa, an AI-enabled mental health support service. “Unmanageable workloads and a high-pressure environment take their toll, and lead to burnout. Isolation due to work hours or location has increased because of remote working, which means social support is not always there.”

It seems clear, therefore, that supporting people with health conditions to return to work is vital. This means that employers must seek to break down some of the barriers that exist that may prevent employees from working.

One such barrier is inflexible work schedules. “Rigid work schedules can be challenging for those managing chronic illnesses or fluctuating health conditions,” says Baldry. “There can be a lack of understanding or stigma attached to chronic or invisible illnesses, making it difficult for employees to seek the necessary support. This can result in inadequate workplace accommodations or modifications which can hinder an employee’s ability to work

Management understanding

A lack of understanding from management and peers can also be a significant hurdle in returning to the workplace, says Lauren Chiren, health and menopause expert and coach, corporate trainer and founder of Women of a Certain Stage. ““For instance, an employee undergoing severe menopausal symptoms might need more adjustments to their ways of working, more frequent breaks or a cooler work environment. Often patients who have had an induced menopause through medical or surgical interventions like a hysterectomy, or certain cancer treatments, may need additional support whilst they recover from their treatments and figure out how to successfully navigate menopause.”

Employers must take the time to understand an employee’s health condition, the effects it has on them and their ability to work, advises Cicely Ward, head of HR at marketing agency Embryo.

“Like with many long-term health conditions or chronic illnesses, some symptoms aren’t visible, so employers need to take this into account too and note that an employee might be struggling even if they don’t always appear to be.”

She adds: “Line managers need to stay close to their team members, especially in the world of hybrid working. Regular 1-2-1s and wellbeing check-ins are key to ensure line managers can identify health issues early on.”

True flexibility

The government has taken steps to support those with health conditions to return to work, including remote working, and many employers do ensure these employees are able to work from home. However, some older workers must manage, for instance, flare-ups, fluctuations in their health, or even several health conditions at once; so is it even possible for employers to enable jobs to truly flex around all these issues?

“True flexibility means adapting work arrangements to suit individual needs.,” remarks Chiren. “This could involve allowing employees to start and end their workday at times that suit their energy levels best, especially important for those dealing with fatigue as a symptom. It might also mean understanding that an employee’s productivity could vary from day to day and catering to this.”

Baldry believes that, for true flexibility in managing health issues, it’s essential to recognise that each employee’s health needs are unique and, as such, may require personalised adjustments and support. “Maintain open communication channels for employees to discuss their needs and be willing to adapt roles and responsibilities to fit the health needs of the person. Unfortunately, stigma prevails, so look beyond policy and wellness washing and really create a culture where people can speak up through forums, workshops, and an open-door policy.”

It’s also important to ensure that employees’ jobs don’t make their health condition worse and to take steps to avoid risk in the workplace.

Conducting regular risk assessments is key to ensure the workplace is safe and supportive for both physical and mental health, says Baldry.

“It ultimately comes down to looking within and examining the ways of working in the organisation,” she adds. “Really look at working practices and how they are affecting wellbeing. How demanding is the workload, and are deadlines reasonable? Encourage a culture where taking breaks and managing workload is normalised, and have managers and leaders set an example. Be open to feedback and listen when people have concerns or ideas on how they could be better supported.”

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