A question for ya

QuestionI got this question in an email from Michael, a reader of my blog:

I’m a wheelchair user due to a neurological condition called dysautonomia. I first fell ill following a viral infection. I started a new job in September and was very excited and very motivated. However my condition means that if I get a viral infection I basically end up seriously ill needing 24 hour care. So I am devastated to have missed 3 weeks since starting. My line manager sees this as a big failure on my part ie. results will suffer if I keep being off. So now I am dreading going back and wish I’d stayed in my old job where they did at least seem to be more accepting that I averaged 3-4 weeks absence a year for reasons related to disability.

I also know of lots of other people who are disabled who have the same problem- employers just don’t like absence and don’t see that you are actually very dedicated to the organisation and want to do a great job.

So I suppose the broader question is how to tackle this “don’t be sick or there will be hell” culture. For myself and other disabled friends it seems to be the major cause of unhappiness at work.

This is not a question we have dealt with a lot in our consulting work, so I would very much like to hear your thoughts.

11 thoughts on “A question for ya”

  1. @Michael

    Wow, that’s pretty brutal. Personally I think there are many non-disabled users who also have 3-4 weeks absence because of illnesses. I’d rather have a co-worker with disabilities who’s absent a bit more often but motivated when he’s there than a co-worker without disabilities (if there is such a thing, but that’s another discussion!) who’s not motivated and treats other people like ****.

    I myself have a chronic illness that is not visible. I can normally do my job very well but things like small colds often turn in to a high fever for me, meaning I am ill anywhere from 2 to 8 weeks per year. That can also be rather annoying for myself and my co-workers especially because I’m a project manager and people need to run things by me.

    Like you, I’ve not had much sympathy from my co-workers, perhaps also because I don’t like it to be known too broadly that I have this illness. It has already cost me one promotion opportunity because I would be “too much of a liability”.

    In your case, being a wheelchair user can maybe work to your advantage. People already know you’re ‘different’ so perhaps you could explain why you’re ill sometimes. You’ll probably know who’s worth spending that energy on and who won’t understand :-(

    One way I use to cope myself and make life easier on my co-workers is to try and keep up with my documentation, so people know what I was working on if I fall ill. No matter how healthy you are, I think no job should depend on a single person, people should always know what their colleagues are working on so they can pitch in or take over if necessary.

    I also try to avoid taking on tasks with fixed deadlines or if I do, I try to get the tasks done early. Perhaps getting assigned tasks without strict deadlines is something you could discuss with your manager? I also have a to-do list of things that need to be done but don’t have a deadline at all. This includes doing jobs for my team. By doing some of these jobs each week, I buy myself some extra breathing space if I’ve been ill. In the weeks after I’m ill, I’ll do less of these extra jobs so I’ve got more time to catch up. But whether this could work for you depends on the type of job you have.

  2. This is a great question. I think the first ground rule in any discussion like this is to take it as a given that the employer is NOT evil. Maybe they are, but for the purposes of discussion I think you have to assume they’re not.

    When I was in college I took a summer job as a line worker in a plastics factory. I hated it. I stood for 8 hours a day and opened and closed a glass door and took out the extruded plastic doodads. The only way to get away from the machine was to go to the bathroom-which I did a lot.

    The point is, when I left my post the machine stopped working as the trigger to start the next production cycle was the closing of the door after the removal of the doodads. So, when I took a poddy break there was no production.

    Employers have to keep production going. If not, nobody makes money-and nobody gets a paycheck, not the staff, not the owner. So the question becomes, how to keep the doodads flowing even when there’s a legitimate absence. It’s not enough to say that management should be nicer. Maybe they should be, but the point is- no doodads no paycheck.

    So a creative solution needs to be sought by both workers and management. Can a scenario be worked out in advance that will cover someone’s position if they need to be off for an extended period? How about keeping a log which charts future work so that someone else can pick up in case of an absence? That’s part of the reason teacher’s keep lesson plans. So a substitute can move the class forward in case the regular teacher is absent. Or maybe the guy who’s sick could be conferenced in to help guide the other workers in getting the immediate work done?

    I think the lesson here is two fold: Realize that the employer needs work to get done even if you’re not there and work with your employer IN ADVANCE of an illness to develop a contingency plan.

    Oh, and as a side note- One can go to the bathroom just some many times in 8 hours. I lasted two days at the plastics factory.

  3. I also have a chronic illness, which counts as a disability under the Equality Act. What your employer is doing is actually illegal, and the Act protects you.

    Check out your rights on the internet – I use union and ACAS websites for impartiality. See:http://www.acas.org.uk/index.aspx?articleid=1860

    By the way, I believe that disability leave is different to sickness absence, and that employers must discount it when acting on prolonged sickness absence. See: http://www.ecu.ac.uk/your-questions/disability-leave-and-related-sickness

    Hope this helps!

  4. Oh this is such a tough question. My immediate thought is to ask the manager for a solution – cheeky I know, but have they got a solution (apart from making life difficult for you)?

    You have a disability. Fact. How can they find a way to work with your disability? Is there a way that you can telecommute (work from home)?

  5. As someone with MS, a condition covered under the disability and equality laws, and a union steward within the company I work for, I’ve first-hand experience of such behaviour (fortunately not with my current employer).

    So if Michael is in the UK he should contact his HR dept as soon as possible and, if they’re unable to step in and help, either his union, ACAS, or an employment law specialist. He should also be recording names, times, places and conversations, as well as how he was made to feel, so that he can reference them if necessary.

    To the wider question. When dealing with any long-term illness, especially one related to a disability, sympathy is not important. Understanding is.

    The employer must understand that the member of staff wants to work, has a condition that may prevent them from working, and the impact of the illness or disability on the person. A disability is a 24hr condition, not one that runs 9-5, so the employee must make the company understand. To achieve this, the employee must talk to the company, be open to questions, and be honest about how their condition affects them. If they don’t, how can their employer be expected to understand?

    The employer should also understand their obligations and duty of care under the employment laws. In most cases, the HR dept. will be fully aware of the law, but the manager might not. In such cases, a meeting with all concerned is usually sufficient to start resolving the situation and make the manager aware of the potential consequences of his actions. But the employee must be open and honest. Again, how can I expect anyone to understand what’s happening if I haven’t told them?

    There also has to be understanding on the part of the employee. As above, the first step is to make people aware. I don’t advocate shouting about it or sending out a company wide email, but be open and honest with those you work with. For example, the people I work with are fully aware of my condition because I called a meeting and explained it to them. Anyone new is made aware and, if I have a relapse or my condition prevents me from working a full day, allowances are made i.e. I can work from home, start late or finish early.

    The employee also needs to understand the company process and that they are being paid to do a job, so has a personal responsibility to do the best they can to manage their condition to minimise its impact in both their personal and work lives.

    Disability leave is not separate to sickness leave in the UK, but the best companies will treat it as such. Most employers will handle disability leave under the normal absence process but should be able to make allowances as appropriate. A good employee understands and appreciates this, but doesn’t abuse it.

    In short, the employee and employer must work together so that they can understand and adapt to the situation. In doing so, they can prevent problems from escalating, the employee remains productive, feels supported and hopefully happy at work, and can face the future with confidence. The company benefits from having a productive member of staff with processes in place to protect both themselves and the employee.

    These are just my rambling thoughts based on experience, but mutual understanding will always be more important than sympathy. I hope Michael gets the support and advice he needs before it goes too far.

  6. I agree that getting HR involved is something that needs to happen as soon as possible. This doesn’t mean every HR administrator is well versed in treating employees with disabilities well. But they do know the legal ramifications of discriminatory employment practices and are likely to see this as a problem they need to resolve with as little conflict as possible. One way to approach HR in a non-confrontational way would be to find some resources online written by and for HR personnel on how to ensure a fair and equal (and non-hostile) workplace for employees who need accommodation. This lets them know that you are trying to see things from their side and that you want to work together with them to help your manager develop better skills in managing employees with disabilities. Sometimes, being proactive in helping management develop a plan for making sure work gets done during your absences can make a big difference in their attitude.

    Best wishes on finding a happy resolution!

    Daisy McCarty

  7. I live in a country where this problem is relatively fairly solved for both sides…

    The companies here are obliged to pay all the taxes coming from the salary (pensions fund, healthcare, personal tax…) which totals about 33% from the gross salary.

    Companies which employ disabled persons are free from paying those taxes for the disabled employees or if the percentage of the disabled persons in the company is higher then 50% (i think, not sure) they are free from taxation for their emplyees.

    That way the employer is compensated for the absence of the workers (meaning they can emply more people), while the worker remains payed the same like persons without disabilities.

  8. In my previous job the manager decided that whoever gets ill will loose the performance bonus for the month (no matter how well was the performance for 3 weeks, if the 4th you are not in the office, you loose the whole bonus). The reason behind the decision – some employees get “ill” just to go on vacation. I have explained to him, that this is the wrong pill for the wrong problem – that he have to understand the root of the problem. And it was pretty simple – too often manager have declined vacations (which is perfectly legal). What he needed to do is – when he decline a vacation, first he needs to make it perfectly clear why the vacation is declined (Listen, right now this project hardly depends on your presence, so I can’t let you go right now, I will let you go after the project is finished). And second, after he have declined a vacation more than once, he have to send the employee on vacation (the employee may not require the vacation after 2 declines, but he have to receive it).

    Now on the topic. If someone absence is a problem for the manager, than ask him: what will it be in case of my own dead? If the employer depends on someone so hard that a force majeure circumstances will stop the business, than the organization is flawed and employer should fix that. And as somebody said before me, the employee and the manager should work together to achieve a win/win solution.

    Also, in project management there is something called “risk management”. It deals with force majeure circumstances. And actually if you know that your employee can be 3 weeks off, it’s much better than if your employee is healthy, but is taken to a hospital after car incident for example. Because you are planning for sure for the first risk, but you are not planning car incidents.

  9. @Goran Here in the Netherlands we have similar legislation. Normally, a company has to pay the workers when they’re ill. For people with disabilities, the government pays sick days so the employer can hire a substitute.

  10. The boss should be accommodating to Michael. He is enthusiastic about the job he has, and I bet he does a great job when he is able to work. He probably gets more quality work done in less time than an employee that is less motivated. Why dishearten somebody who cares about the job…that is what comes back to bite you.

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