Helping employees with health conditions get back to work

Getting people with health conditions back into work is a Government priority, but it requires a lot of understanding and flexibility, as Lucie Mitchell investigates.

Jigsaw pieces shown as parts of the brain.


The number of people out of the workplace due to long-term sickness has reached a record high.

According to data from the Office for National Statistics, 2.6 million people are currently out of work due to their health, while more than 11 million are living with long-term health conditions which can impact upon their ability to work.

Recent research by the Health Foundation revealed that the number of employees with a work-limiting health condition has jumped by 58% in the last decade, while 470,000 more people are out of the workforce since the pandemic due to ill-health.

As Nick Pahl, CEO of the Society of Occupational Medicine explains: “Nearly 60% of people who are economically inactive, and left work in the last two to three years, have a work-limiting health condition. Occupation, gender, and disability affects people getting back to work.” There has also been a sharp increase in mental health issues, confirms Pahl, so that out of the 4 million people currently living with mental health conditions, only two million are employed.

So why are such large numbers of people out of work due to ill health?

“The reasons behind the high levels of workforce inactivity are complex and driven by a number of factors, including a rise in mental health issues (particularly in younger age groups), an increase in chronic diseases caused by lifestyle-related issues, systemic inequalities impacting wider socio-economic determinants of health, like income and access to healthcare and an ageing population,” explains Tina Woods, CEO and founder of Business for Health.

“People are more likely to leave the workforce due to long-term sickness in occupations with less ability to work from home”, adds Pahl. “While pressures in health and social care delivery, including the impact of Covid, has led to backlogs for treatment and worsening health outcomes”.

Support at work

Sarah Baldry, VP of people at Wysa, an AI-enabled mental health support service, suggests that the modern work environment also plays a role. “High-pressure environments and unmanageable workloads take their toll, and lead to worker burnout. In addition, isolation due to work hours or location has increased because of remote working, which means that the social support of colleagues is not always there either.”

It seems clear, therefore, that employers must work to break down some of the barriers that exist to prevent employees with health conditions from working and provide them with appropriate support to return to the workplace.

One of the main barriers can be inflexible work schedules. “For those managing chronic illnesses or fluctuating health conditions, rigid work schedules can be challenging” says Baldry. “There may also be a lack of understanding or stigma attached to chronic or invisible illnesses, making it difficult for employees to seek the support that they need. This can then result in inadequate workplace modifications which can hinder an employee’s ability to work effectively.”


A lack of understanding from management and peers can also be a significant hurdle in returning to the workplace, says Lauren Chiren, health and menopause expert and coach, corporate trainer and founder of Women of a Certain Stage. ““An employee experiencing severe menopausal symptoms might need more adjustments to their ways of working, for instance, like more frequent breaks or a cooler work environment. Those who have had an induced menopause through medical or surgical interventions like a hysterectomy, or certain cancer treatments, may also need additional support whilst they recover from their treatments and work out how to navigate menopause.”

Employers must take the time to understand an employee’s health condition, the effects it has upon them and how it impact on their ability to work, advises Cicely Ward, head of HR at marketing agency Embryo. “With many long-term health conditions or chronic illnesses, symptoms aren’t visible to others, so employers need to be mindful of this and realise that an employee might be struggling even if they don’t always appear to be. Managers need to stay connected to their team members, especially in the world of hybrid working. Regular wellbeing check-ins and 1-2-1s are key to ensure line managers can identify employee health issues early on.”

Individual needs

The government has taken steps to support those with health conditions to return to work and many employers already ensure that these employees are able to work from home. However, some older workers may need to manage flare-ups, fluctuations in their health, or even several health conditions occurring at once. Is it even possible for employers to enable jobs to truly flex around all of these potential issues?

“True flexibility means adapting work arrangements to suit individual needs,” confirms Chiren. “This may mean allowing employees to start and end their work day at times which fit with their energy levels, which is especially important for those dealing with fatigue. It might also mean understanding that an employee’s productivity could vary from day to day and adjusting for this.”

Baldry agrees that to achieve true flexibility in managing health issues, it’s essential to recognise that each employee’s health needs are unique and, as such, may require personalised adjustments and support. As Baldry suggests: “Maintain open communication channels to encourage employees to discuss their needs and be willing to adapt roles and responsibilities to fit the health needs of the individual. Look beyond policy and wellness washing and really create a workplace culture where people can speak up through forums, workshops, and an open-door policy.”

It’s also important to ensure that employees’ jobs don’t make their health condition worse and to take steps to avoid risk in the workplace. “Conducting regular risk assessments is key to ensure that the workplace is safe and supportive for both physical and mental health”, explains Baldry.

“It ultimately comes down to looking within the organisation and examining the ways of working which exist,” she adds. “Look at working practices and how they are affecting staff wellbeing. Consider how demanding workloads are and if deadlines are reasonable. Encourage a culture where taking breaks and managing workload is normalised, and have managers and leaders set an example. Be open to feedback from employees and listen when people have concerns or ideas on how they could be better supported at work.”

Your Franchise Selection

Click the button below to register your interest with all the franchises in your selection

Request FREE Information Now

Your Franchise Selection

This franchise opportunity has been added to your franchise selection



Click the button below to register your interest with all the franchises in your selection

Request FREE Information Now

You may be interested in these similar franchises