Chronic conditions and long term sickness absence – things to consider

Oct 16, 2017 | Time Off Work

Managing long-term sickness absence can always be difficult in terms of how to support the employee, how to help them back to work and how to deal with operational issues while they are away.

But where an employee’s illness is a chronic condition such as cancer, there are some additional things to bear in mind. Obviously it’s important to realise that people with chronic conditions are often able (and keen) to remain at work, and don’t necessarily take lots of long periods of sickness absence.  But chronic conditions can often lead to long-term sickness absence and it’s worth considering the specific issues around that.


The Equality Act defines a disability as ‘a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities’. Obviously any physical or mental health condition which causes long-term and/or frequent absence may well match this definition and therefore be a disability, but this is particularly likely to be the case for chronic conditions.

If the employee has cancer, multiple sclerosis or HIV, they are automatically considered as having a disability from the point of diagnosis, even if their condition does not at that time have the impact normally necessary to qualify as being disabled.

If an employee has a disability you are specifically required to make reasonable adjustments to their role to enable them to work. During (and approaching return from) long term absence is obviously a common time to explore these. Depending on their individual needs, reasonable adjustments might include changes to working hours, additional breaks, working from home, adjustment or reallocation of certain tasks or changes to the working environment. Adjustments they need might also change over time depending on how their condition progresses and on the treatments they might be receiving.

It’s important to remember that while most supportive employers will look at making (perhaps temporary) changes to working hours or similar when someone is returning from long-term sickness absence, when the condition is a disability there is a specific requirement to do so.

Different needs and experiences

People diagnosed with cancer and other chronic conditions have different experiences in terms of treatments, progression, side effects of treatment, the emotional and physical impacts of their illness and how they prefer to deal with their situation. It’s important to be sensitive to this and not make assumptions about how your employee is feeling, and what support or contact they would like.

When you become aware of an employee’s diagnosis with a chronic condition, try to arrange to meet with them in a private place to discuss it. Let them tell you about what’s happened, and take their lead in terms of how much they want to talk about it. Let them be upset without making them feel uncomfortable, and give them plenty of time.

If you have access to occupational health advice, you could offer this to them, but most of all, listen to what support they would like, and what their needs and preferences are. You may have relevant policies or support options available, make sure they are aware of these.

Supporting colleagues

Having a colleague being diagnosed with a chronic condition like cancer can be very upsetting for colleagues and it’s important to remember the rest of the team may well need support as well as the employee him/herself. Other staff members may have questions about the condition, about wanting to talk to the employee, about long-term prognosis and many other things. Support them as far as you can, giving them appropriate information about what’s happening (see below about confidentiality) and how the employee is being supported.

Respecting confidentiality is crucial

Your employee is entitled to privacy and before speaking to any colleagues about their condition you must check whether they would like people to know or not. Obviously it is easier to ensure colleagues are supportive and understanding if they are aware of the situation, but it is the employee themselves who gets to decide.

If they are comfortable people being told, ask them how they would like that to happen – some would prefer to do it themselves while others would prefer someone else to be the one to inform the team. Also make sure on exactly how much detail your team member would like to be communicated and how they would like common questions to be answered.

Terminal illness

Whilst obviously many people with chronic conditions get better, or live and work successfully with their condition for many years, this isn’t always the case. If an employee is told their condition is terminal, there are again implications to deal with. As well as emotional support, you can take practical steps, such as directing them to advice on finances, will-writing or similar. If there are any death-in-service benefits involved in their employment with you, provide them with advice on those as well.

If your employee dies, there will be some things you need to do. You will need to ensure colleagues, clients and other contacts are advised of what has happened, in a sensitive and appropriate way depending on their role and how well they knew the person.

You should support the employee’s family and liaise with someone sensitively about practical matters such as dealing with outstanding pay, pensions and insurance, and also belongings.

Colleagues will be upset and will need space to grieve in their own way. If you have access to an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) which offers telephone or in-person counselling, encourage staff to use it. They may wish to attend the funeral/memorial service, and it would be sensible to establish with the family whether this would be appropriate.

If you have an employee with a chronic condition and you would like some advice, do get in touch.