A recent article for Personnel Today described chronic illness as a “ticking time-bomb” and stated that most workplaces aren’t set up to deal with the reality of employees who experience chronic, progressive, terminal or fluctuating illness.

With the rising life expectancy, more people are working into old age. In fact, the U.K. is increasing state pension plan ages to 66. Between 2026 and 2028, they will rise again to 67. With the pressure on government budgets, it is unlikely that they will stop there.

A large study of employee health carried out by insurer Vitality in 2018 found that nearly half of employees aged 51 to 60 have at least one chronic condition — mostly asthma, severe allergies, arthritis or rheumatism. But chronic illness aren’t confined to older generations. People of all ages can suffer from long-term illness, and chronic diseases are becoming more prevalent across generations.

Research described by The Guardian last year predicted that more than two million Britons will be living with four or more chronic illnesses within 20 years as a result of living a sedentary lifestyle. In addition, a 2017 report found that 300,000 people with long term mental illness lose their jobs each year in the U.K.

Many employees experiencing chronic health conditions want to work and benefit from it like employees without chronic illness. By supporting employees with long-term health conditions, employers can help minimize loss of skills, improve productivity, help individuals maintain a high quality of life at work and retain more talent.

With a growing elderly workforce, chronic ill health across the generations and mental illness a growing concern, what can employers do to prepare? If they want to attract and retain the best talent, and reap the rewards of a diverse workforce, they will need to understand how to manage employees across different stages of their lives and careers, including through periods of chronic ill health.

Business Culture and Chronic Illness

When it comes to managing employees with a chronic illness, business culture and an employer’s attitude toward well-being are crucial to outcomes for both employee and employer. Simply put, poor culture and a stressful working environment contribute to poor employee health. They contribute to absenteeism and presenteeism and have a negative impact on productivity and business success.

In a survey carried out across seven European countries, people with chronic illness named career development, stress, work structure and work load, the support of colleagues, and attitudes in the workplace as the factors that most affected their work lives. They recommended that organizations adapt the workplace to meet the needs of people with chronic health problems.

Robust Well-being Programs

It is challenging for employees to succeed at work with long-term illness, but they can do it with some support. It starts with listening and supporting a healthy work-life balance and continues through offering opportunities for development. A robust well-being program is essential for supporting employees with health conditions and for helping to prevent certain illnesses, such as musculoskeletal problems as a result of working conditions or mental illness as a result of stress.

Having Regular Conversations

Managers should have regular conversations with their staff about well-being and stress management, regardless of any known chronic health conditions. It’s important to note that managers and human resources personnel should never share details of an employee’s illness that they have disclosed in confidence.

The Importance of Flexibility

Flexible work options may benefit employees with chronic illness and the business overall. Common arrangements include additional breaks to eat and/or take medication, providing rest time or reduced or condensed hours, enabling remote work, or offering a change in role or location. Flexibility is also key when implementing a return-to-work plan after an employee has taken medical leave.

Listening to Employee Suggestions

Employee know best what they can and can’t cope with. It is important to consider their suggestions. Managers should always take the time to listen to suggestions and seek a compromise.

Helping Employees Stay Connected

It is easy for someone with a chronic illness to feel isolated and disconnected from the workplace. If they work from home, it is vital to help them stay in the loop. Always include them in meetings using video or conference calls, and keep in touch with them on a regular basis. Be careful not to be too intrusive, as it can come across as though you are checking up on them.

Early Intervention Services

As part of a health and well-being program, employers can offer health screening and early interventions, such as access to physical therapy, exercise classes and counseling.

Most employees don’t want to take time off work because they’re chronically ill, and many chronic health conditions, such as depression and fibromyalgia are difficult to spot and can, in the wrong culture, raise unfounded questions about a person’s ability to work. Businesses with a strong company culture that embraces well-being are in the best position to help and support all employees.