For some workers, Covid could become a long-term health problem. Only time will tell. In light of this ambiguity, is your workplace prepared to support people with Long Covid? What can we learn from what we know already about self-managing long-term health conditions at work?
We know long-term health conditions are becoming more prevalent in working populations, are mostly incurable and mainly self-managed away from healthcare, in the context of people’s everyday lives. Self-management is concerned with the actions people take to manage a health condition, for example by taking medication, seeking support and managing emotions.
Many working people have long-term health problems and whilst some conditions are stable, others fluctuate, progress and worsen. This requires people to self-manage symptoms and adjust – including at work.
Importantly, being supported to self-manage at work might improve both health and work outcomes. Whilst employers are not expected to provide routine clinical support to workers, they can support people to self-manage.
Workplace self-management support is insufficient.
Loughborough University research found that support for workers self-managing long-term health problems (including amongst others mental health, musculoskeletal and neurological conditions) is insufficient. As a result, workers are not meaningfully supported.
This might result in negative health and work outcomes.
It could be that employers are unaware of self-management or conditions are undisclosed meaning employers are unaware of support needs. It could also be that support is not provided despite disclosure because of work demands. Equally, employers might not know what or how to support people in this way.
It is inevitable that sometimes workers will need to manage their health and minimise symptoms at work. If we acknowledge support needs to improve – how does it need to improve?
What Needs to Change?
Culturally, self-managing health at work needs to be regarded as equally (if not more) important as work tasks. Workers need to feel comfortable disclosing a condition to access support and employers need to realise the value of self-management.
Workers with health conditions might not need advice about how to manage their health, but they do need to be enabled to self-manage. This involves employers making it as easy as possible for workers with health problems to do what they need to, when they need to.
This in turn requires employers and managers to have trust and confidence in people.
How can we better support workers with health problems?
Workers can be experts of a health condition affecting them, but this does not preclude needing support. The research identifies key psychological and social support features that can be used to generate conversations with workers to identify people’s needs.
- Conversations need not be formal
- They could help identify obstacles to workers self-management and target support to overcome these obstacles
- Conversations could feed into a plan to capture workers’ support needs and help employers collaboratively meet those. This can help workers manage and cope with health problems, their confidence in managing them and beliefs in their work capability.
What support is needed?
The research reveals workers need psychological support to ensure they have the internal resources to self-manage health at work. Potential workplace obstacles include:
- Low confidence;
- Poor motivation;
- Low control;
- Poor empathy and care;
- Stressors and perceived inability to cope.
Workers also need social support to ensure that the relationship between their self-management of a condition and work is clear and importantly, enabled. Potential workplace obstacles include:
- Poor manager awareness and understanding;
- Lack of (or perceived lack of) permission to self-manage;
- Punitive work policies and practices.
Two features were revealed as critical to enabling workers to overcome workplace obstacles:
- Manager support (to be empowered);
- Flexible work practices (and not necessarily formal adjustments).
Self-managing could improve people’s health, quality of life and ability to work. Yet despite the large amounts of time many people spend working, work does not openly present itself as a time or venue for self-managing long-term health problems. The question remains particularly in light of Covid, why not?
About the author
Sally Hemming was previously an Associate Director in Talent at EY. Currently, she provides independent health, wellbeing, long-term condition and disability integration services to organisations. In partnership with Loughborough University, Sally recently completed a PhD examining the workplace self-management support needs of workers with long-term health conditions. To find out about the research and how to support people with long-term conditions she can be reached via her LinkedIn profile.