People with episodic disabilities valuable talent

Flex-time, different work duties, private space at work among common accommodations: Report
By Amanda Silliker
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 02/14/2012

When Deanna Matzanke and her team at Scotiabank were having difficulty accommodating an employee with bipolar disorder, they decided to bring in a job coach.

The coach spent six weeks with the employee looking at the flow of his work, how he handles interruptions, how well he does in client-facing meetings and helping him organize and prioritize his work so it caused him less anxiety.

Scotiabank was able to offer this non-traditional accommodation because its guidelines around funding for accommodations had recently been changed to include services, said Matzanke, director of HR policy and compliance, diversity and inclusion at the 32,800-employee bank based in Toronto.

“A lot of episodic disabilities don’t actually need assistive technology or an electric door. What they need more often are types of services like a job coach to help organize the workplace,” she said. “We were seeing cases where we were struggling to find an accommodation that fell into that category and we thought we needed to expand this, make it more inclusive.”

The talents of people living with episodic disabilities need to be better available to employers to help meet increasing labour force demands, according to a recent report by the Canadian Working Group on HIV and Rehabilitation (CWGHR).

“We’re facing a shrinking labour force in Canada and a lot of focus has been on immigrant labour, but we also need to look at who do we have that we’re not accessing as well as we could,” said Matzanke. “We need to look at how can we leverage that group and invite them into the workforce.”

Episodic disabilities include multiple sclerosis (MS), arthritis, diabetes, HIV-AIDS, hepatitis C, chronic fatigue syndrome, migraines, chronic pain and some forms of mental illness. These are lifelong conditions characterized by periods of good health interrupted by periods of illness or disability that vary in severity and length from one person to another.

More than four million Canadians are living with arthritis; as many as 75,000 Canadians have MS; and 65,000 are living with HIV, found Evolving the Workplace: Identifying Opportunities to Support People with Episodic Disabilities in Employment.

With an aging workforce, more employees will likely develop an episodic disability and employers need to make sure they retain those employees, said Wendy Porch, a disability specialist and education co-ordinator at CWGHR in Toronto.

“A lot of people with episodic disabilities like MS and arthritis come to have these disabilities after they’ve already been in the workforce for a while and they’re usually in their prime working age,” she said. “So accommodating their disability means retaining them as employees and the employer investment is not lost.”

There is a lack of awareness around episodic disabilities in the workplace, found the report. Slightly more than one-third (35.4 per cent) of the 117 employers surveyed as part of the report said their knowledge related to supporting people with episodic disabilities in employment was average, while 31.3 per cent rated their knowledge as low.

“It’s about helping to categorize the kinds of disabilities that fall into this category and being able to show they have some commonalities to them,” said Matzanke, who is working with CWGHR to increase employer awareness.

“A lot of focus is on the exact nature of different disabilities and that’s kind of overwhelming so, if we get them together under this banner, it provides a much clearer, simpler way of raising awareness and it’s something people can understand.”

The types of accommodation that work best for people with episodic disabilities are related to changes in work practices such as flex-time or working from home, said Porch. Eighty-one per cent of the employers surveyed said they offer these options.

“Take, for example, the case of a person living with HIV who has to take antiretroviral medication in the morning. These medications are very well-known to cause a very upset stomach so, for this individual, the only accommodation they may need is to come in and start work a little bit later in the morning, after the side effects from the medications have worn off, and to leave work a bit later as well,” said Porch.

Providing an adjustment in work duties could be another accommodation, or offering a private space at work where employees can rest or take medications, which 51.8 per cent of employers offer, found the survey.

Focusing on project-driven work with wider, more flexible timelines can be another effective accommodation, said Steve McGregor, president of Impact Health in Calgary.

“If you think about someone in a factory, they have to produce so many units a day and that process is difficult for someone who has an episodic disability,” he said. “But if you focus on a project-driven strategy… there are periods of time where they can be really productive and periods of time where they can recover and maybe chip away at it.”

And for some episodic disabilities, such as arthritis, ergonomic and adaptive equipment can be put in place, he said.

However, these accommodations — such as flexible work hours — can be seen as a type of favouritism and lead to co-worker hostility, found the report. And this hostility can make employees afraid to disclose their disability and request accommodations.

Employee education sessions attempt to prevent this from happening at Scotiabank.

“Where there’s an accommodation being implemented that involves a lot of co-workers that need to be on the same page, the Scotia health department invites community organizations to come in and do awareness sessions for those groups they kind of cut if off at the knees before it becomes an issue,” said Matzanke.

Managers also need training on being adaptable and breaking out of the routine, said McGregor.

“There are lots of different ways to do things, and training on how to enhance (an employee’s) function in a workplace environment for a variety of scenarios ahead of time would be helpful,” he said.

Managers and supervisors should also receive training on how to provide support and guidance for employees in properly managing their health.

“Sometimes, employees need that support around them all the time… just to make sure they’re following through on the right things,” said McGregor. “You don’t want a diabetic drinking a two-litre bottle of pop at work.”

While the report found many employers hold the perception people with episodic disabilities have lower productivity and higher absenteeism than other workers, the opposite is true, said Matzanke.

“Anyone with a disability, and particularly people with episodic disabilities... in a supportive workplace, they tend to have better productivity, certainly a lot of loyalty and really strong engagement, and frankly less absenteeism because they’re managing it, they’re being supported.”

Tips for employers

Training for managers

Training is particularly needed for managers and supervisors of people with episodic disabilities, found the report by the Canadian Working Group on HIV and Rehabilitation (CWGHR). Wendy Porch, a disability and education co-ordinator at CWGHR, said they should receive targeted training that:

• sensitizes them to the issues around episodic disabilities

• gives them practical steps to follow when an employee discloses the disability

• helps them prepare for co-worker issues

• teaches them what sorts of accommodation would be helpful.

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