Women struggling at work

4 Oct 2023

The Mental Health Impact of Long-Term Sickness in the Workplace

In today's fast-paced and competitive work environment, the mental health of employees due to long-term sickness has become a critical concern.

The amount of people off work due to long-term sickness has risen considerably since 2019, when there were around 2 million people economically inactive for this reason, which has since risen to 2.6 million in July 2023.

Employees grappling with chronic illnesses not only face the physical challenges of their conditions but also confront a multitude of emotional and psychological hurdles.

 

Understanding long-term health conditions

Long-term health conditions, also known as chronic illnesses or diseases, encompass a wide range of ailments that persist for an extended period, typically lasting longer than three months. These conditions may include diabetes, heart disease, autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis, chronic respiratory illnesses such as asthma or COPD and mental health conditions like depression or anxiety disorders.

 

The mental health impact

While the physical symptoms and limitations of long-term health conditions are often obvious, the impact on one’s mental health can remain overlooked. Here's a closer look at some of the key mental health challenges faced by individuals dealing with long-term sickness.

  • Increased stress, anxiety and depression.
    Managing a long-term health condition alongside work responsibilities can be overwhelmingly stressful. Employees may worry about their job security, productivity, and the ability to meet the demands of their role while coping with the symptoms of their illness.
  • Social isolation
    Many long-term health conditions necessitate lifestyle changes, including dietary restrictions, limited physical activity and healthcare regimens. This can lead to isolation in the workplace as employees may need to take time off for medical appointments or may find it challenging to participate in workplace social activities. Even in people’s personal lives, family and friends often do not understand long-term sickness adequately, particularly where the illness is not visible, or they cannot attend events or engage with life in the same way as their peers. This means many people feel they are alone with their illness.
  • Loss of identity
    The transition from being healthy to dealing with a chronic illness can challenge one's sense of self. Individuals may feel like they've lost their former identity or purpose, leading to feelings of inadequacy and diminished self-esteem. Many people question what their purpose is or having to spend months or years coming to terms with their new way of being.
  • Fatigue and burnout
    The fatigue associated with chronic illnesses can exacerbate stress and increase the risk of burnout. Employees may struggle to balance their health needs with their job demands, leading to exhaustion and decreased job satisfaction.
  • Stigma and misunderstanding
    Some long-term health conditions are invisible, meaning that individuals may not appear sick to others. This can lead to misunderstandings and scepticism from those around you, adding to the emotional burden.

     

By addressing the mental health impact of long-term health conditions, organisations can not only improve the wellbeing of their employees but also enhance productivity, job satisfaction and overall workplace morale. In doing so, they contribute to a healthier, more compassionate and ultimately more successful work environment.

Chief Nursing Officer Chris Rhodes says: “It is more important than ever for organisations to create workplaces that proactively support the health and wellbeing of their employees. The challenge of continued Covid-19 cases and ever-increasing NHS waitlists mean that early intervention and supportive and accommodative workplaces are essential for maximising attendance”.

“All long-term sickness absence starts as short-term sickness absence of course, so getting people seen early is an important step in improving their health” adds Dr Alasdair Emslie, Chief Medical Officer.

By embracing a holistic approach to care that encompasses both physical and mental wellbeing, organisations can help individuals with long-term health conditions lead fulfilling lives and support them in their journey back to good health.

Learn more about Health Partners comprehensive occupational health services: Services | Health Partners Group

 

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