Employer perspectives on accommodating workers with episodic illness
A recent study published by Queens University in Kingston, Ontario reveals that workers whose absences from work are due to unpredictable illness-related disabilities are the most challenging to accommodate.
The Canada-wide study was conducted with 25 employers from a range of business sizes and sectors to identify why employers hired persons with intermittent work capacity (IWC) due to episodic disability, the challenges to accommodating them, and the support they needed to retain workers with IWC. Intermittent work capacity is not well understood in the literature, nor in the workforce but in this study refers to an employee who has unexpected or periodic diminished capacity relative to the expected workload because of a disability or health issue.
Data was gathered through a combination of one-on-one interviews and two focus groups. The main finding was that employees whose absences from work were unpredictable – in terms of warning and duration – were often the most difficult to manage, causing workplace disruptions, as well as stress and frustration among the staff. These employees typically had mental health, emotional or behavioral issues that created frequent workplace disruptions and an increase in employer costs (as appropriate replacement staff and additional resources were sought, often with little notice). Accommodations proved more difficult for workplaces that had to replace nightshift employees, or those with specialized skills and a workload that could not wait for the employee’s return.
The ability of the worker to manage their disability, disclosing the nature of accommodation that would be most helpful, and having a workplace culture that was compassionate and sensitive to the disability were noted as success factors in assisting employees to remain on the job. Other factors such as the availability of benefits were also helpful for an employee who experienced frequent time off from work.
Employers identified mental health disabilities as the most costly type of condition to accommodate because they had to bear all costs themselves (unlike physical accommodations which can be partially covered by insurance).
Strategies that helped employers manage unpredictable work absences included anticipating worker replacement and productivity needs before they occur, building a contingency plan (such as job sharing or a buddy system), or fostering a supportive work environment. Education and outreach to community organizations such as the Canadian Mental Health Association were identified as tools to be used when employers had concerns they could not address internally.
See, “Employers’ Perspectives on Intermittent Work Capacity – What Can Qualitative Research Tell Us,” available at www.qshare.queensu.ca.