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How the Chronically Ill will find a Future of Work

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How the Chronically Ill will find a Future of Work

Applying for a new job is a daunting task. Questions abound: Will my employer know if I change my LinkedIn profile to ‘open...

10 Minutes Read

Applying for a new job is a daunting task. Questions abound: Will my employer know if I change my LinkedIn profile to ‘open to new opportunities’? How do I sound self-promoting but not pompous on my cover letter? And, the biggie – how do I know for certain if it’s the right next move?

For a worker with a chronic illness, applying for a new job has its own set of challenges. Insignificant to many applicants, the simple disability checkbox is a source of anxiety for workers with chronic conditions. A new set of conundrums emerges: To check, or not to check? If I check, will my prospective employer make the wrong assumptions about my ability? And if I don’t check, how do I bring up my chronic condition? Do I have to bring it up at all?

I had the great pleasure of connecting (virtually, of course) with Hannah Olson, founder and CEO of Chronically Capable – a platform helping match chronically ill and disabled workers to better work. Hannah, a Lyme survivor, says:

“Personally, when I began looking for jobs out of college, I wasn’t prepared for the question on job applications: “Do you have a disability?” I never considered myself to be disabled, and having not worked a full-time job yet, I wasn’t even aware of the accommodations I’d need. There was a lot of fear involved in applying for jobs, because I didn’t want to be judged based on my illness.”

During our conversation, Hannah shed some light on what chronically ill workers are looking for, how employers can support them and why it’s high time to rethink the language around illness.

Caroline: What are some of the common misconceptions that people have regarding chronic illness?

Hannah: Speaking with employers on a daily basis, I’ve learned that there is a general lack of understanding around what it means to be chronically ill. Unless an employer knows someone with a chronic illness or has one themselves, it’s hard for them to truly understand this population. The general feedback I receive is the fear that chronically ill people need major accommodations that are costly to the employer. Employers have also cited that employees with illness experience high rates of absenteeism.

Caroline: Are these fears legitimate?

Hannah: The research suggests not. One of the big misconceptions is that offering accommodations is a financial burden for employers, but actually 59% of accommodations cost absolutely nothing to make, while the rest typically cost only $500 per employee.

What’s more, employers should find the common characteristics of this community hugely desirable. The strength and determination of chronically ill individuals is truly unparalleled. It takes a LOT for “healthy” people to wake up each day, take care of your body, complete your work, and have time for you. Imagine the added stress of a treatment protocol, doctor’s appointments, blood draws, pharmacy trips, ER visits, etc… It takes an incredible amount of diligence and organization that I believe translates into being a mature and capable employee.

The chronically ill also has the ability to adapt to change. When you deal with the constant fluctuation of emotions, symptoms, pain, etc…, you have to learn to adapt to whatever your body is feeling that day. This translates to a great sense of flexibility and strength that I don’t imagine I would’ve learned if it weren’t for my battle with Lyme.

There are simply no excuses for not hiring chronically ill workers. Doing so would detrimentally reduce your available talent pool. There are 157+ million Americans living with a chronic illness. What’s more, 31.3% of Americans (5.6m) have a disability and are either employed, or unemployed but actively looking for work. GDP could see a boost of nearly $25 billion if just 1% more people with disabilities joined the workforce. These numbers are too great to ignore.

Caroline: So, what is the reality of hiring someone with a chronic illness? What are the typical accommodations that have to be made?

Hannah: Unfortunately, unlike most disabilities, there isn’t a standard accommodations list for the chronically ill community as their needs fluctuate. The most common accommodation request we see is the need for flexibility. This doesn’t mean that chronically ill people need to work remotely 100% of the time, but it is important that employers allow their employees to leave early for a doctor’s appointment, or skip out during their lunch break to get their blood drawn.

An example list of accommodations available on the Chronically Capable platform. Most of these are either free to implement, or much cheaper than is often assumed.

Caroline: What are the top three things that employers can do to better support and integrate chronically ill workers?

Hannah: Firstly, organisations have to become more flexible – which is something every organisation has been forced to get to grips with during COVID-19 – and offer accommodations.

Secondly, there needs to be more transparency at work. By signing up for Chronically Capable, you’re one step closer to being a more transparent company, but this needs to continue while employees are at the office (whether that’s physical or virtual). Managers should be open to their employees stating their needs, as these can change daily, and often hourly.

Lastly, I recommend that businesses have ERG’s (Employee Resource Groups) to support the chronically ill community. These groups can help employees learn about their rights, build community with other chronically ill folks, and can serve as a safe space.

Not only are ERGs great support networks for the disabled and chronically ill communities but they can serve as a sounding board for employers to understand how policies will affect their community. They can also serve as a business resource for external policies and products that the company would like to bring to market. The chronically ill and disabled community is a diverse population with market power. Being cognizant of the community’s needs can go a long way for a company.

Caroline: How can employers support the chronically ill community during COVID-19?

Hannah: During COVID-19, we’ve seen businesses globally make accommodations for their employees, with all non-essential businesses going remote in a short period of time. In a way, this truly furthers our mission as we’re seeing how simple and low cost it is to accommodate a virtual workforce.

Beyond policies, having a supportive manager makes a difference in the output of all employees. Technology can also help make employees feel connected during this time. Virtual coffee chats, scheduled breaks and virtual happy hours can bring levity to the virtual workplace and increase employee engagement and productivity.

Additionally, there are some policies that employers should have in place to ensure inclusion of the chronically ill and disabled workforce, such as an easily accessible reasonable accommodation process and an available Employee Assistance Program (EAP).

We created a guide for managing remote teams during COVID-19, specifically focused on the chronically ill and disabled community.

Caroline: Why is the term ‘chronic’ so loaded?

Hannah: When we first came up with the idea for Chronically Capable, we wanted to make sure to choose a name that would flip the negative connotation of the word ‘chronic’.

When we think of “chronic”, we think of “chronic pain”, “chronic disease”, “chronic depression”; all of which have a pretty negative connotation. When I think about the chronically ill community, the first word that comes to my mind (still) is CAPABLE. We are capable of fighting our illnesses and we are capable of being instrumental parts of the workforce.

I think the name Chronically Capable has really resonated with our community, because it embodies that we ARE capable and that is something that is going to persist forever. We will never stop fighting for our health and our acceptance from society.

Caroline: What does the future hold for the Chronically Capable community?

Hannah: We wanted to build Chronically Capable to remove the fear and stigma from the hiring process. We’re absolutely slaying the elephant in the room, because there’s a two-sided understanding here. Employers on the site are signing up because they believe chronically ill individuals are capable of being their future employees. Applicants are signing up because they have an illness and want to find these employers who care.

I believe that we are creating the future of work through our innovation at Chronically Capable! As we see our platform scale, our vision is to go from an online job-board to a fully-fledged gig-economy platform for part-time and deliverable-based work where job seekers can look for a stable inflow of gig work anywhere, anytime.

Chronic illness is only going to rise, so we need to work to create reasonable accommodations for these employees so that they can thrive.

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I’d like to extend my thanks to Hannah Olson for her time to share her expertise and insights with me. Visit Chronically Capable to find out more about Hannah and her work here.

For more on how we can adapt career models to a diverse work, see my latest publication: Mismatch: Adapting Old World Career Models to the New World Workforce.


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