Disability Management

The Emotional and Psychological Impact of Physical Illness on Employees

By: Janet Pun

Published | Feb 4, 2020

Disability Health

A physical illness diagnosis can have a profound impact on our mental and physical health.

It’s a life-altering experience that forces us to re-evaluate our priorities, family roles, work, and finances. While an illness like cancer is a devastating physical diagnosis, it can also have a significant effect on our emotional and psychological state.

Not only do we worry about our bodies, the strain we are putting on it, but we also worry about our family and what may happen should our condition worsen. For work, we worry about how this will impact our career and what our job will be if we return. 

For an illness like cancer, “chemo brain,” the feeling of fatigue, depression, mental fog, and other forms of cognitive impairment may arise due to the aggressive treatment³.

For physical injuries, it can often lead to anxiety, depression, and even abuse of a substance.

Depression and anxiety, in particular, are common among employees trying to transition back to work post-treatment. They are eager to return to work and feel like themselves again, but would often experience great difficulty transitioning back. It is known as the “vacuum effect” as employees on disability struggle with going from an environment with lots of support from their healthcare team to only seeing them once every few months post treatment

Returning to work can also be stressful for employees who link their diagnosis with the stress of their job, and therefore fearful that returning to the same environment may cause a relapse. Even when there is no sign of their illness returning, any body sensations can create a high level of anxiety, stress, and depression. 

What can organizations do to support employees and improve their chances of successfully returning to work?

Here are 5 things disability case managers can do: 

  • Improve Employee Communication: Before employees return to work, disability managers should work to have meaningful check-ins by referring them to resources available. It will foster a relationship built on trust and compassion, leading to a better chance of full recovery
  • Understand Employees: Disability managers should educate themselves on the physical and mental effects a physical illness can have. It will help disability managers understand what is needed to help an employee. Starling’s Return-to-Work solution does this through our story about “Vanessa,” an employee who diagnosed with cervical cancer and a hysterectomy
  • Help Employees with Accommodations: Employers are often very willing to make appropriate accommodations, but cannot do so if they do not know what their claimant’s limitations are. Disability managers should reach out to their employee’s physician to help develop a return-to-work plan best suited for them
  • Advocate for Retraining: This will encourage employees to refresh their skills to succeed in their role
  • Relaxation Exercises: Provide support and resources focused on breathing, visualization/guided imagery, or muscle tension and relaxation to help them manage their stress, anxiety, and depression. Many guides, tutorials, and digital solutions are available to help 

Here are 7 things leaders can do to help employees:

  • Compassionate Culture: Leaders should have strong policies around health and safety within the workplace, and demonstrate it through their daily interactions. It will foster a culture around employee well-being
  • Modified Work Schedule: Leaders should implement modified work schedules to help employees ease back into work, leading to a steady increase in confidence
  • A Return to Work Plan: Disability managers should support employees by assigning them tasks and projects without putting co-workers and supervisors at a disadvantage
  • Trained Supervisors: Leaders should encourage supervisors to understand what their employees are going through and assist in their return to work plan
  • Early and Considered Contact: Ensure immediate and considered communication with employees to build rapport and trust between case managers and employees
  • Coordinated Return-to-Work: Ensure case managers work with physicians, therapists, and EAPs to accommodate employees and their needs best
  • Healthcare Information: Ensure information between employers and healthcare providers are available to help employees make smarter decisions around their health

In Starling’s Return-to-Work, we are the only digital program designed to help employees return to work for a mental and physical injury. We provide: 

  • Support to employees struggling with the “vacuum effect” 
  • Guidance on how employees can manage their mental health and improve their resilience
  • A customized return-to-health program to each employee based on their program answers
  • Employees with the tools and skills they need to develop realistic goals
  • Helpful tools and resources for disability managers to use 

To learn more about how to support employees, get in touch with us!

Janet Pun

Janet is an energetic and passionate lover of all things related to marketing and brand strategy. With her background in tech, digital media, and mental health advocacy, she hopes to make the world and the people who live in it a bit happier and healthier.

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