Degenerative illnesses can have devastating effects, such as loss of sight, hearing or mobility. At times like this, the ’employer of choice’ will be the one who thinks beyond the obvious to ensure that loss of income is not added to the list of consequences.

Could you do your job blindfolded? Emails could be tricky. You would need some very understanding colleagues to help you along the way. Navigating your way around the office would be hard. Would you even be able to get to work?

What if you had to? Losing your sight is the stuff of nightmares; a forever changed world, simple tasks suddenly completely unfamiliar and daunting. It’s incredibly difficult to even try to understand the impact this would have on all aspects of your life, including your job and your income. There are over two million people in the UK living with sight loss. By 2050 the RNIB predicts that this number will double, reaching four million. This is partly due to an ageing population, but also due to degenerative illnesses such as diabetes and glaucoma which affect people of varying age, including those who are still employed.

What if your world was suddenly silenced? If you found yourself unable to hear those around you, or use the phone. Could you function in your role? There are 11 million people in the UK living with some kind of hearing loss. That’s around 20% of the population, many of whom are still working or want to work.

These are just two examples of extreme health issues that can and will affect working people. But there are many more: cancer; strokes; heart attacks; arthritis; road accidents; diabetes; HIV and Aids; mental health problems; severe injuries such as back problems. The list goes on. Unfortunately, even though most of these conditions are well known and fairly common, many employers do not have a strategy to manage long term sickness absence.

You may well think that in the present day litigious culture, those with disabilities are protected by the law. Well they are … sort of. Under current UK legislation, a worker experiencing a long-term health issue such as sight loss or hearing loss would be classed as having a disability and would be protected against direct or indirect discrimination due to that disability under the Equality Act. So this means that someone who loses their sight or their hearing can’t be dismissed purely on the grounds of that condition, doesn’t it? Well no, not necessarily. Employers can still legally dismiss a disabled worker if he or she is no longer capable of doing their job.

Legislation also does not eradicate poor treatment and discrimination in practice. A recent survey by Totaljobs indicated that the majority of deaf workers in the UK have experienced discrimination in the workplace, either from their peers or their managers, with one in four workers with hearing loss being forced to leave their job due to discrimination.

The caveat to the legal situation is that, by law, the employer has to support employees with disabilities by making ‘reasonable adjustments’ in the workplace. Hmm…. “reasonable”. What does that mean exactly? Well, it could be as simple as installing a ramp for wheelchairs; a visual fire alarm for deaf workers; purchasing an adapted keyboard for those with arthritis; allowing ground floor working for those unable to get upstairs. So really, we are talking about adjustments that are relatively affordable and easy to implement in the context of the organisation.

Of course there are other cost effective options that employers can consider: phased return to work plans, offering alternative duties, or a completely different role that may be more suitable. These actions might well be the difference between someone returning to their job or being forced to leave.

Employers have a legal duty to support employees through illnesses and absence from work with regular communication and, ideally, a clear policy on long-term sickness absence so that employees know what to expect. But it’s so much more than this. Being an employer of choice is about offering empathy, and understanding that any one of us could be in that situation next. Nobody should be written off because of a health issue. As we continue to point out here at great{with}talent, a high performing business has to have a rich and diverse workforce. That means that not everyone will be at their peak condition all of the time. They may face hurdles in their lives. You may face them too. One thing is for sure though: as we continue to live longer and work longer, our chances of having health issues, either mental or physical, during our working lives increases and no-one is exempt from this. So we need to plan for the worst-case as well as the best-case scenarios.

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