Helping employees get back to work

HR team plays critical role in managing employees suffering from serious illness: Expert

Helping employees get back to work
Strong support for ill employees through their benefits package can foster engagement and a positive workplace culture.

A serious illness can be a significant challenge for an employee — it can uproot their personal and professional lives, affect relationships, and bring uncertainty for the future. It can also be difficult for employers to know how to respond.

“People tend to avoid difficult conversations or they don’t know really how to help [seriously ill individuals],” says Sherry Hnatyshyn-Webster, managing director of CAREpath, a healthcare navigation program for employers and employees based in Mississauga, Ont.

Because of this, employers and HR professionals aren’t always equipped to handle the ill worker’s practical and personal circumstances — which has become even more important during the pandemic where cases of COVID-19 have been severe for some people, she says.

If an employer isn’t sure what to do and fails to take steps to support an employee who falls seriously ill, the negative effects can spread to others in the workplace. Employees can become disengaged and disconnected from their employer if they don’t feel supported during their illness, says Hnatyshyn-Webster.

They may take a medical leave because they don’t have any support or resources from the employer to help them get through the challenges presented by their disease, and be less motivated to return. When other employees get wind of this lack of support, it could increase their own disenchantment, particularly if they know the ill employee, she says.

Where an employee has mental health issues — whether as their primary illness or stemming from another illness — a lack of clear support or solutions can further discourage employees from seeking help.

“Mental health is still a big barrier for employees to go to their employer or even their HR because there’s still, unfortunately, a lot of stigma with mental health in the workplace,” says Hnatyshyn-Webster.

On the other hand, strong support for ill employees through their benefits package — which could include access to third-party healthcare providers — can foster engagement and a positive workplace culture.

“People value their employer for providing these services for them and their significant others,” she says. “It really demonstrates that it’s a caring workplace and that just flows through right from the employee needing this service and co-workers knowing that it would be there for them as well.”

“It makes it easier for the employee to come back to work.”

In cases where an employer suspects that an employee suffers from a mental illness that may be affecting their performance at work, the employer has a duty to inquire, says one law firm.

Critical role for HR

The HR team plays a critical role in managing an employee’s serious illness and helping them come back to work when they’re ready, says Hnatyshyn-Webster. That includes communication with the employee and third-party provider, if applicable, to help develop a return-to-work plan that engages the employee and allows for a return that’s as smooth as possible.

What tools are there for this? A benefits package that includes healthcare support and treatment programs such as CAREpath can help employers overcome the difficulty and uncertainty of not knowing what an employee needs. HR people can refer employees to the provider, giving them access to the help that they need to manage their illness. And, of course, an HR team that brings empathy for the employee’s circumstances as they deal with their illness can pay off when the employee comes back, says Hnatyshyn-Webster.

It’s important to remember that an ill employee is still an employee and the ideal scenario is for the employee to return to work and be productive. Supporting the employee throughout their illness and ensuring that they come back in the right state of mind can help foster engagement and a good workplace culture, she says.

As an employee copes with a serious illness, HR and employers should be patient. Employees can get stuck when it comes to resuming not just their jobs but also their normal daily living activities, which can lead to anxiety, says Hnatyshyn-Webster. Co-operation with employees and third-party providers is a key part of the return-to-work process that can pay off when the employee successfully integrates back into the workplace.

When employees see their employer providing support for serious illnesses for their co-workers from start to finish, it creates “a positive environment and real camaraderie,” says Hnatyshyn-Webster. “The employer is really respected and noticed for providing these benefits to their employees.”

Developing proactive accommodation and return-to-work processes can help employers control their exposure to disability claims, says another expert.

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