COVID-19, Chronic Illness & The Workplace
With Phase 3 of the pandemic emergency underway in Ontario, commerce is opening up and people are returning to work. However, the circumstances are far from “normal”. The risk of a COVID-19 infection remains palpable. If you are the breadwinner in your household, you may worry more than most. After all, this virus has the ability to create an economic problem for you on top of a health emergency. How will you manage financially if you must go into quarantine or seek treatment for the illness? Physicians are only just starting to understand the virus. While a majority of us who catch the virus may experience mild symptoms, it can be deadly for others. And those who have fortunately recovered from serious infection seem to harbour long-term symptoms and chronic illnesses.
Extensive muscle and joint pain, Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS) and cardiac damage, as well as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), appear to be common problems for recovered COVID-19 patients. Some continue to suffer these symptoms months after they are discharged from the hospital and no longer contagious.
Regardless, individuals who recover from any illness or disability will eventually be ready to return to work. And if you bring a chronic illness in tow, you may find yourself in a vastly different situation compared to before. It should come as no surprise that you may not be able to perform at peak. Medical appointments, therapy sessions and medication management may demand your time and focus. On top of this, the added expense of medical bills can put some people in a hapless situation. Just when you need the paycheque most, you may find your mind and body giving up on you. And this can spiral down to you worrying about becoming redundant. So, how exactly should one navigate the workplace when you fall ill, or return with a chronic illness?
Sick Leave & Disability Benefits
When your health fails, the obvious thing to do is to reach out to your healthcare provider to obtain a diagnosis and treatment plan. It’s time to dust off your employee manual and become familiar with your annual sick leave entitlements. Members of a union often receive superior sick leave entitlements through collective bargaining agreements. With COVID-19, you might need to use these days to the maximum allowable.
Some employees also receive extended health or disability benefits through work. You will find them very valuable if your doctor recommends a temporary leave of absence to bring your symptoms under control. Short-term disability benefits generally pay a portion of your salary for 3-6 months and most long-term disability benefits do so for up to 2 years. Qualifying to receive these benefits often presents challenges. Insurance providers make the application and appeal processes onerous. This will be frustrating, particularly when you are also fighting an illness. In some cases, you will require legal intervention.
Individuals without workplace health plans should look into government-funded options, such as EI Sickness Benefits, to take extended time off from work to manage your health. The government has also made provisions that allow you to tap into these benefits should you require time off to care for a loved one.
Once recovered, you must rely on your medical team to help you understand your abilities. If your recovery requires you to live with and manage symptoms of a chronic illness, then you must carry these through to your workplace with changes and accommodation. Your coping thresholds and limitations will drive your productivity, and you may have triggers that aggravate your symptoms. With these in mind, your doctor can craft a return-to-work plan customized for your circumstances to present to your employer. It should clearly outline the boundaries within which you should operate at work.
Ontario’s Human Rights Code requires your employer to accommodate your illness when you return from work, albeit on a temporary basis. Presenting them with your work plan will allow them to investigate how much accommodation they can reasonably provide, without it impacting their ability to operate an effective workplace. Examples include a graduated return to full-time hours, time off for medical appointments and therapy, modified duties and responsibilities as well as ergonomic modifications of your work environment. Some forward-thinking employers go even further and offer training and transfers to alternative positions, to retain valuable employees.
Chronic Illness: Constructive Dismissal
However, this is not always the case. You must remain vigilant of co-workers and managers who will start viewing you as “damaged goods”. Your chronic illness might render you less efficient than before. What used to come easily may now require extra effort and planning. When your illness puts a burden on others, resentment will set in, regardless of what the law states about accommodation.
Consider this a red flag. Under these circumstances, supervisors and coworkers can put obstacles in your way to ensure you fail, rather than support you to succeed. Constructive Dismissal is a very unattractive by-product of employment relationships turned toxic. This is where your work environment becomes so bad, it compels you into quitting, unwillingly. Bullying, harassment and discrimination because of your chronic illness is completely illegal. Before you resign, understand your rights by contacting an employment lawyer.
A Support Network
Your health status remains your own business and you are not obliged to divulge details to your employer. However, you also do not want to be perceived as an unproductive employee. The best way to mitigate hostility at work is to build alliances. Shore up a network of support for yourself through skilled diplomacy.
It can start with a candid conversation with someone in authority who you believe will be sympathetic. Ensure your supervisor and the HR department are also kept in the loop in the event tensions arise with co-workers. In addition, proactively arrange check-in meetings with your supervisor to ensure he or she remains satisfied with your performance. Permit them space to offer feedback.
At the end of the day, your health must remain a priority. Many workers suffering chronic illnesses report being able to get work done, but just not on a rigid schedule. If you know your limitations and create an environment where you are able to ask for help when you require it, you can successfully balance your chronic illness with the demands of your job.
COVID-19 requires all of us to remain vigilant about our health. And employees should also become familiar with workplace policies, rules and culture to ensure you are not caught unprepared if you fall ill or suffer a chronic illness because of it.
About The Author
Susan Heim is the president of Equity Career Transition and Outplacement Services, offering personalized coaching services for individuals in their quest for the perfect job and career. Equity also provides cost-effective outplacement services for organizations, large and small, in both the private and public sectors.
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