A Balancing Act

A Balancing Act

Working Together to Manage Compassion & Business

Long-term medical conditions, commonly referred to as chronic illnesses, present a complicated challenge for employers. You want to show compassion for the needs of your staff, but you have to mitigate losses in productivity as much as possible. It’s a balancing act with no definitive one-size-fits-all solution.

The types of illnesses referred to here run a wide gamut and could have a major or minor impact on your company. For example, individuals with asthma will likely have increased absenteeism on days with poor air quality. Perhaps this can be mitigated by simply allowing the individual to work from home on those kinds of days. But if you have an employee that becomes suddenly afflicted by a major degenerative disease that produces the loss of motor control or other bodily functions, the situation can become much more complex. In situations like these, it can be extremely difficult to satisfy the definition of “reasonable accommodations.”

Terminating this type of employee can be a very risky decision. First and foremost, there are regulations to consider, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA), the Family Medical Leave Act, and other similar laws. Secondly, in this current age of social media and incessant news coverage, terminating an employee that suffers from a chronic illness can outright destroy your company’s image. That isn’t to say it can’t be done, however, under the umbrella of poor performance. But it should never be an employer’s go-to strategy.

Instead, employers should find ways to examine their ill employee’s needs on a case-by-case basis and collaborate with them to determine the best pathway forward. Research has shown that open and honest dialogues regarding the employee’s individual needs is the smoothest way to develop strategies to help afflicted employees perform their job duties. Legally, under the ADAAA, employers are not allowed to discriminate against chronically ill employees, but they are allowed to ask questions in an effort to gain a better understanding of the employee’s needs.

Employers should evaluate the demands and duties as described by the ill individual’s job description and will need to figure out what kinds of assistance the person will need to fulfill them. Take care when making any changes to a person’s position or pay rates though, as certain acts along those lines can be interpreted as retaliation against the ill employee, which is prohibited by the ADAAA. Your sole obligations are: to provide reasonable accommodations so the individual can still fulfill their duties and to make no discriminatory actions against the individual’s employment.

Remember that employers are not required to provide an accommodation that would constitute a significant difficulty or expenditure, such as valet service for an ill employee. A much more reasonable request would be taking extra time off to receive treatments, which is common in these cases.

Top Five Most Common Accommodations Provided by Employers

  • Parking lot or transportation modifications, closer parking spaces, ease of access
  • Facility accessibility, such as wheelchair access, ramps, powered doors, etc.
  • New equipment to help perform regular duties.
  • Job restructuring or alternate responsibilities
  • Modifications to the work environment

Source: Society for Human Resource Managers

While there is no general, clear-cut solution to managing chronic illnesses in the workplace, maintaining flexibility and an openness to finding suitable alternatives is really the only sure option that employers have. It’s definitely a delicate matter and one that could produce a major impact on your business. Employers and employees will need to work together in order to achieve the best possible results.



Fact: Among 22 wealthy nations, the United States is the only one that does not guarantee workers paid time off for illness.

Source: Center for Economics and Policy Research



A Look at Some of the Rules Employers Should Know –

Brief Summary of The Family Medical Leave Act:

The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) entitles eligible employees of covered employers (50 or more employees) to take unpaid, job-protected leave for specified family and medical reasons with continuation of group health insurance coverage under the same terms and conditions as if the employee had not taken leave. Eligible employees are entitled to:

  • Twelve workweeks of leave in a 12-month period for:
    • A serious health condition that makes the employee unable to perform the essential functions of his or her job; or
    • To care for the employee’s spouse, child, or parent who has a serious health condition.

Key Points from the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act:

  • It is unlawful for a covered entity (employer) not to make reasonable accommodation to the known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified applicant or employee with a disability, unless such covered entity can demonstrate that the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the operation of its business.
  • An individual with a disability is not required to accept an accommodation, aid, service, opportunity, or benefit which such qualified individual chooses not to accept. However, if such individual rejects a reasonable accommodation, and cannot, as a result of that rejection, perform the essential functions of the position, the individual will not be considered qualified.

Source: DOL, ADAAA