I’m all for recognising progress, and in the spirit of this, a 2019 report highlighted that the most direct causes of ill health at work (i.e. industrial accidents and occupational diseases) are not just on the decline, but on a rapid decline. As cheery as the subject may be, it is most certainly something to reflect on and acknowledge.

Something else to recognise is, through development of reasonable adjustments in the workplace, we have continued to find new ways of ensuring that those with disabilities are able to pursue their dreams, and have access to the same opportunities, as other non-disabled members of staff.

Now I’m not saying it’s where it needs to be – there is still A LOT that needs to be done. But there has been progress nevertheless.

A ‘stumping’ point

One area that has far more to be addressed, and continues to be a ‘stumping’ point for policy makers and employers is, how we support and enable those who have been unable to work for a prolonged period of time, or have unpredictable work absences due to ill-health that veers between remission and relapse.

Work is one of the best things available to us for our physical and mental health, and when that is taken away from you, the negative impact of that is a double…triple… many more times whammy.

Life without work

For you lovely lot out there who have a job that you care about, and even better, are passionate about, what would life be like if you couldn’t turn up to work each day? All because you didn’t know if you could rely on your body to keep you functioning consistently for the foreseeable future? What would life be like if you were constantly having to call in sick and take long term absence?

For many, the guilt of being off work can be bad enough when it’s simply down to a bout of the flu, or a stomach bug. But when taking time off work becomes a pattern, the psychology of that adds a whole other layer of s***ness to an already crappy situation.

Exceptional but unpredictable…

According to Chief Medical Officer, Christopher Witty, in the 2019 Financial Times Health at Work report:

“the data on prolonged absence from work because of illness is stark: once people have been off work for more than two weeks, the chance of returning falls sharply.

People with relapsing-remitting conditions — including physical diseases such as multiple sclerosis, or mental health conditions such as bipolar disorders — are treated as more complex to plan work around.

They may be exceptional workers most of the time but have unpredictable periods when they have to operate below their normal capacity, or take time off work altogether…”

A management minefield

As an employer – how DO you support an employee whom, through no fault of their own, cannot be consistently relied upon AND sustain your business needs at the same time?

The ethical, moral and commercial decision-making considerations around this is a minefield…and of course, it’s never going to be a straightforward answer, but this is the challenge that we face. The question is, what are we doing to change it?

The options

There are many angles from which the issue of long-term health management in the workplace can be tackled; from education pieces that increase awareness of the key issues and reduce discrimination, to workplace programmes that can help staff manage their condition, and rehabilitation approaches that support more effective working practices.

In my experience, the Lightning Process has HUGE potential for employers and their employees facing the challenges of long term mental and physical health issues in the workplace. But as of yet, whilst the research continues to be built for evidence of its clinical efficacy, it is not something that has been tested in the workplace setting.

Testing, testing, testing

And this is where the focus needs to be – testing more approaches that can support both employer and employee in sustaining workplace presence, productivity and wellbeing.

As Christopher Witty notes in his foreword, “If we can take the same scientific approach to testing interventions to promote health at work as we have to reducing injury, occupational diseases and exclusion of people with disability, this could be a key area for advances over the next decade.”

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