How we should treat chronic illness at work

We need to change our thinking about chronic illness and how we handle it in the workplace. Photo: Shutterstock

We need to change our thinking about chronic illness and how we handle it in the workplace. Photo: Shutterstock

An invisible illness is a chronic condition that can affect the sufferer in ways that are not easily seen or immediately identifiable by others. It is not always obvious that a sufferer requires assistance or evident that you face challenges in undertaking daily life or work activities.

Chronic invisible illnesses are a double edged sword: on the one hand, many of us can hide our struggles more successfully, but on the other hand, this means that we often don't receive the support that we need to thrive in the workplace. However, if we do decide to disclose it, because we don't wear our illnesses clearly on the outside of our bodies, we are often disbelieved, and this affects workplace relationships, self-efficacy and confidence.

There are many chronic invisible illnesses that people suffer, often in silence, ranging from fibromyalgia and arthritis to chronic fatigue and cystic fibrosis. In fact, it might interest you to know that 96 per cent of illnesses are invisible.

Having an illness is something we tend to hide. Whether it's from fear of discrimination, the personal nature of the condition, fear of losing a job or failing to get one, or concern with regards to being treated differently or thought of as being somehow weaker than other colleagues.

None of this should happen - we are protected by the Anti-Discrimination Act - but we all know that it happens without it being named as such. Sometimes it's subconscious, sometimes it's under the mask of doing what an employer thinks is best for the staff member, sometimes it's blatant or excused or covered up, but it happens.

Especially in a labour market like the one that we are currently facing, where there is one job vacancy for 12 applicants, we often fear showing what we perceive to be as weakness to a potential (or current) employer.

At the best of times, Australians' cavalier "she'll be right mate" attitude is reminiscent of Monty Python's The Black Knight. But with labour market competition at an all-time high, stress and tensions running to the extreme and anxiety about the pandemic spreading, people are afraid to sneeze in public, let alone admit that they are struggling with a condition that could affect their ability to do their job.

I know all too well the pressure of appearing to be "fine" when your body is screaming on the inside.

As someone who suffers from degenerative disc disease in her lumbar and sacral spine, together with early onset osteoarthritis, I know all too well the pressure of appearing to be "fine" when your body is screaming on the inside. Disbelief or people believing that you are "putting it on" is possibly the hardest thing to deal with when you are in genuine pain and trying to get on with things.

Statistics released from the latest National Health Survey were crunched by Ben Harris (a policy expert at Victoria University's Mitchell Institute) and found that 11.4 million Australians - that's almost 50 per cent of us - now have a chronic disease. These numbers demonstrate that we need to change our thinking about chronic illness and how we handle it in the workplace.

Listening to our team members to understanding their experience is a vital first step to take, and making sure that we are listening to each other to assist and not judge or take advantage of is crucial. It's equally important to understand that sufferers of chronic illnesses and pain may be afraid to express how they are feeling and that compassion and demonstrated empathy is important.

Make believing them your default mode and avoid providing unsolicited and unqualified medical advice about how they should manage their condition. Instead, ask them what they need from you to make the challenges that they face in their daily work lives easier to meet.

There are government programs to support workplace adjustments and staff training in order to better meet the needs of our workforce. Look them up and be proactive about supporting and assisting your staff, while valuing the contribution that they make and the goals they achieve.

Stoicism seems to be the hallmark of being Australian, but this approach doesn't actually achieve anything other than a lack of understanding, increased stress and lowered workplace morale.

When you are suffering, don't assert, "tis but a scratch!" Even if coconut clapping Monty Python Knights can see that you might need a hand. Literally.

This story How we should treat chronic illness at work first appeared on The Canberra Times.