How to make work flexible for people with chronic illness

by Brendan McDonald

Male model with beard sits on the arm of his sofa using a tablet.

For employees living with chronic illnesses, flexible working arrangements can provide better long-term health while boosting productivity.


©SFIO CRACHO / Adobe Stock

When the Doctor first told me I had leukemia, I went out of my way to hide it. The last thing I wanted to do was to tell my boss and co-workers in the United Nations. I didn’t want to go through another uncomfortable, awkward conversation about cancer. I thought I could hide it. But I soon realized that I couldn’t avoid them, and if I didn’t tell my boss, he couldn’t help me. Fortunately, I trusted my boss; I said to him, “I have leukemia,” and he supported me because he knew how to make work flexible for people with chronic illness.

The United Nations, at the most senior level, has endorsed and promoted progressive, flexible working arrangements for over a decade. Diagnosed with leukemia in January 2015, I was fortunate enough to have a manager who understood the advantages and disadvantages of these provisions. While undergoing medical treatment, I was able to cope with working full time, initially at least, by telecommuting two days a week. I scheduled face to face activities for the office, and writing and reading for my telecommute days. Even though flexible working arrangements are a part of the United Nations workplace, based on my experience, it surprised me how some middle managers don’t appear to have embraced them.

Whether it is to improve productivity, motivate staff, or help employees with chronic illness, flexible working arrangements work. Whenever I sought to introduce flexible working arrangements, with few notable exceptions, I experienced some level of resistance from my managers. They did not say no every time, but their hesitation pointed to a broader, more traditional, workplace culture. But this attitude is changing, and not just in the United Nations, with more and more managers and employees embracing the benefits.

In 2015, 3,045 United Nations staff members used flexible working arrangements, which represented a 30.8% increase from 2014.

A 2016 survey in the United States found that 43 percent of workers spent at least “some time” working remotely; up from 39 percent in 2011.

A 2015 survey in the United States found that flexible working arrangements were made available in around 80 percent of companies.

Although I ceased full-time work in 2017, my personal experience reaffirmed my support for flexible working arrangements and their potential to motivate teams, improve work-life balance, and better support employees with chronic illness. Whether it was Jordan working on the Syrian response, or in New York and Geneva working on policy issues, I only ever experienced positive outcomes from introducing flexible working arrangements. The benefits I observed included: increased productivity, reduced costs, improved business continuity, motivated staff, reduced stress, and better results.

Read more: Can one honest conversation about mental health at work change anything?

My personal experience is born out in other entities that have embraced flexible working arrangements. A recent 2017 Mental Health America study of more than 17,000 employees from 19 industries, revealed that employees who take advantage of flexible working arrangements are more productive and engaged in their work. Numerous other studies over the last few decades support Mental Health America’s findings.

Workplace wellness can affect everything from the number of sick days staff take to their overall motivation and performance, so it’s in the interests of any employer to make work as flexible as possible. Flexible working arrangements can also provide employees with chronic illnesses, opportunities for better long-term health while remaining a productive employee. If employers are to offer flexible working arrangements for employees with chronic illnesses, it is imperative from an equity perspective that all team members are provided with similar opportunities. Failure to do so is likely to build resentment against the employee with chronic illness.

What works for a person with chronic illness, can also work for other members of their team. It doesn’t have to involve enormous changes for managers to provide flexible working arrangements for their teams. Based on my experience, here are five essential guidelines for managers to follow when implementing flexible working arrangements. The guidelines should help their team members feel happier and more motivated.

How to make work flexible for people with chronic illness?

1. Communicate regularly

If you want to introduce flexible working arrangements that make a difference, you need to understand the issues your team members face. Whether you use group meetings or one-to-one sessions to get relevant information, regular and honest communication is essential. Be prepared to have that uncomfortable, awkward conversation about trust. Are you comfortable with your employee working from the chalet when it is the ‘best powder’ they have ever seen? Does it matter if they ski for a few hours in the morning, but still deliver the outputs you have asked for on time? If it does matter to you, why?

Read more: Cancer survival is on the rise, but return to work rates are not keeping up

Be prepared for the uncomfortable conversation

In the case of team members with a chronic illness, if flexible working arrangements aren’t enough to maintain their productivity, managers must be prepared to have an uncomfortable conversation about a career transition. Not all medical conditions, jobs, and work environments allow chronically ill employees to remain employed in their current position. Sometimes a change to less physically demanding employment, part-time employment, or even early retirement is a better option. I was lucky. My manager, with the support of HR, had that uncomfortable conversation with me about transition and the difficulties for me to continue working with leukemia. For that, I am grateful. With the support of my employer and my doctors, I finally acknowledged a transition was needed, and I am better off for it. Happy and motivated employees are assets to any organization, including those with chronic illnesses. So anything you can do to promote a better work-life balance should be embraced. And if flexible working arrangements don’t work for employees with a chronic illness, then work with them as they transition to something else.

Photo for article on how to make work flexible for people with chronic illness? Male model with beard smiles and waves at his laptop, having a video call.

©SFIO CRACHO / Adobe Stock

For employees with a chronic illness, open and confidential conversations about their condition can be useful if the manager is going to tailor flexible working arrangements to the needs of both parties. If managers or the person with the chronic illness feel uncomfortable about this conversation, they can ask someone else to join, such as a colleague, union representative, or someone from HR. Of course, there is no requirement to tell an employer about chronic illness, but if it is affecting employee work performance, it could be worth considering. It helped me. Once you’ve implemented flexible working arrangements changes, it’s also important to communicate them to the team immediately — clearly and concisely. If you don’t want to apply flexible working arrangements, tell them why. Be honest. Is it a trust issue or something else?

2. Work as an activity

We’re conditioned to believe that sitting at a desk or working in a particular type of office environment is the only way to do business. However, where the work gets done is often irrelevant. Can specific tasks be performed at home? Some of my best writing has been done at home in my pajamas. Could an employee focus more on work with a change of scenery? This will almost certainly be the case if they work in a noisy open plan office. Giving people the flexibility to work in different locations can make a huge difference. Work is an activity — not a location.

Male model with beard works on his laptop while laying down on the couch.

©SFIO CRACHO / Adobe Stock

3. Give Employees More Autonomy

Many roles aren’t dependent on being active during traditional office hours. If the only priority is to complete tasks in a timely fashion, why not let some employees decide on their hours/working patterns? Set guidelines on how and when to communicate, and allow members of your team to construct their working week. This move could help, amongst others: lone parents, people with mobility issues, those with long commutes, or people with chronic illness. If your organization has dedicated wellness staff, engage them in discussing a flexible working arrangement for team members with a chronic illness. Where possible, align work arrangements with the team members treatment regime.

4. Create a fluid working environment

Giving your employees’ space and time to be alone with their thoughts can help boost productivity levels. It’s also important to ensure members of your team don’t feel constrained by the confines of the same desk for eight or more hours a day. Create an office environment that encourages people to move around, collaborate, and enjoy changes of scenery. Take the team offsite. Maybe someone in the team is willing to turn their home into an impromptu fun “co-working” space.

5. Track Progress

As a manager, you need to know if the flexible working arrangements you’ve introduced have the desired effect. As well as tracking productivity levels, you should be meeting with team members regularly to gather feedback. Are the new arrangements making the life-work balance more manageable? Could anything be done to improve the changes you’ve made? Does the employee have any ideas about how to make working even more flexible? If their views make sense and enhance productivity, can you be a flexible working arrangement champion within your organization? When tracking progress, adopt a result-driven approach. Don’t confuse physical presence at work with productivity. By trusting employees to deliver the results you have both committed to, they become more empowered and accountable.

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Sources and further reading on  how to make work flexible for people with chronic illness?
Workplace Wellness, by Mental Health America
17 tips on how to make flexible working work for your business by The Guardian Media Network
5 Ways to Make Your Workplace More Flexible by Chad Brooks, Business News Daily Senior Writer
Why Workplace Flexibility Matters for the Chronically Ill by Work and Family Researchers Network
Is the Tide Turning Against Flexible Work? by Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes and Stephen Sweet
The hidden dangers of flexible work hours by Rick Paulas


Article by Brendan McDonald

Hi, I'm so glad you're here. I started UR with my wife and sister after a Leukemia diagnosis. All of a sudden, I began having some pretty awkward conversations with colleagues and friends. The truth is, most people don’t know what to say.



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