Early in her career, Lauren Janek often felt she had to choose between her work and her health. At ten years old, she was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, and then in college with Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS), both conditions that require advanced care regimens. After college, Janek began a career in investment banking, and found herself simultaneously managing her symptoms and the heavy workload of her finance job.
“At times, I felt indestructible and that I could do absolutely anything,” Janek said. “But at other times, I’d think, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to hold a job.’”
The pressure was intense. Even though her managers weren’t overtly discouraging, she still worried that voicing her health needs would signal she wasn’t able to manage the expectations of her role. But downplaying her symptoms didn’t make them go away.
How to Support an Employee With Chronic or Sudden Illness
- Establish strong boundaries: Cultivate a workplace environment where employees don’t feel guilty for taking time off or asking for accommodations.
- Start with questions, not solutions: Don’t offer unsolicited advice, and ask what kind of support they may need.
- Put privacy first: Maintain confidentiality while advocating for your employees.
- Offer strong benefits: Comprehensive insurance plans and PTO policies are non-negotiable.
- Be available: Make it clear to your employees that you’re there to support them.
“Most days I tried to keep a smile on my face, and so I often waited too long to raise concerns,” she said. “I ended up on three different mini medical leaves in my four years of banking because it got to a point that was unhealthy.”
A banking career became unsustainable for her. She decided to join the tech industry, eventually becoming the strategy director at Chicago-based security software company LogicGate. Since then, Janek has felt more comfortable discussing her health and asking for support. Now that she’s in a management role, she said her past experiences have inspired her to be a more empathetic leader.
“One of the things I struggled with before was that I didn’t necessarily feel empowered by leadership,” she said. “Now, I’m able to set better boundaries. My doctor’s appointments are going to stay on my calendar. I’m also trying to be a leader that encourages my team to do those things too.”
Dealing with a health condition is challenging enough, but not having adequate support at work only makes things harder. You can’t ask your employees to separate their health from their work — but you can create a workplace environment that helps them feel balanced and empowered. If your employees are managing sudden or chronic illness, here’s what you can do to support them.
Start With Questions, Not Answers
When you hear one of your team members is dealing with a significant medical condition, your instinct may be to find solutions. But offering unsolicited health advice, while good intentioned, can make your employee feel shut down or invalidated, Janek said.
“I’ve had managers at past companies suggest supplements for me to try and new tests to run,” she said. “I know that all of it was meant to be helpful, but the best way to help is by being an advocate, whether in private or more publicly, and be there as a listener.”
“The number one thing a people manager should do is listen ... Really try to understand what the person is going through, and be there to support them as they’re making their decisions,” said Gianoukos.
Leave the medical advice to the professionals — there are plenty of other ways to help your employees. Rather than offer suggestions, ask how you can help and let them tell you what exactly they need from you. Don’t pry into sensitive info about their condition or treatment, but ask what they’re struggling with at work and do research in your own time to learn more inclusive leadership tactics.
“The number one thing a people manager should do is listen,” said Goodpath’s CEO Bill Gianoukos. “Really try to understand what the person is going through and be there to support them as they’re making their decisions.”
Establish Effective Boundaries
It’s nearly impossible to compartmentalize your health. Feeling sick or fatigued makes it hard to focus and can make your work life more difficult. On the other hand, if you’re stressed and burned out at work, your health may take a hit. Attempting to separate the two can wind up doing more harm than good.
Dr. Akl Fahed, chief medical advisor at Boston-based integrative healthcare technology company Goodpath, said that he witnessed this dilemma firsthand while working to develop the organization’s long-haul Covid-19 services.
“Your living situation, your work situation, your relationships — those are all very important components of integrative health, and there are stressors that potentially come up in the workplace,” Fahed said. “As we’ve seen with long Covid, many people are unfortunately scared to share with their manager that they’re struggling with brain fog, because they may have reduced the ability to work full time.”
“In today’s environment, where employees are your biggest asset, and we’re having a tough time with the resignations, a leader that decides that an employee’s chronic condition is not important is doing their business a disservice.”
Living with POTS and Crohn’s disease and having an understanding employer, Janek still struggles to ask for time off or accommodations at work. She said it’s common for employees with chronic illness to feel pressure to hide or minimize their symptoms in favor of getting work done.
“As a disabled person, you often think if you take time off, people will think you just don’t want to work, or that you want special treatment,” she said. “I sometimes feel I need to overcompensate in other ways because I have to run to an appointment or grab a prescription.”
No one should have to put work above their medical needs, but many employees do. If that’s the case, you might need to set better work-life boundaries. Set standard work hours, and don’t pressure employees to work or answer calls outside those hours so they can have time to take care of themselves. Make sure to model those boundaries yourself, and consider hosting panels or training sessions around chronic illness in the workplace to show your employees that their health is something leadership takes seriously.
Managing health is stressful enough and having an unhelpful employer only compounds that stress. Forcing employees to work beyond their bandwidth can push them to a breaking point. It also doesn’t do your company any favors, according to Gianoukos.
“In today’s environment, where employees are your biggest asset and we’re having a tough time with the resignations, a leader that decides that an employee’s chronic condition is not important is doing their business a disservice,” he said.
Put Privacy First
An employee that confides in you about their health might not be ready to let everyone else know. Janek suggests asking your employee about their confidentiality preferences and to be discreet about sharing their information with third parties.
“For example, if a team member needs to take time off, communicate that they’re ‘taking time away to address a personal situation’ rather than diving into the specifics,” she said. “An employee may not want their health status to be public knowledge, [but] managers and others in the know can still re-allocate workstreams when a situation arises.”
Remember, your employees have the right to decide whether or not to share details about their health. Your employees health status is private information — don’t push them to share anything they may not be ready to.
“I don’t believe that employees should have to talk to their employers about their health,” said Fahed. “What I think employers should do is anticipate the [future] needs of their employees, and make solutions available ahead of time.”
Offer Strong Benefits
For people seeking intensive treatment for a medical condition, filling out paperwork and calling insurance companies can feel like a full-time job. According to research from Gallup, six in ten Americans have anxiety about affording health insurance, and 30 percent of surveyed adults avoided seeking medical treatment in the past three months due to costs.
“Insurance just sucks,” said Janek. “There’s no insurance circumstance that anyone goes through and thinks, ‘Oh, this is fun.’”
“You need to make sure you offer insurance that won’t screw your people over.”
For employers, offering medical insurance is non-negotiable. However, insurance is only helpful if it’s easy to navigate and actually offers comprehensive coverage.
“You need to make sure you offer insurance that won’t screw your people over,” Janek said.
Insurance coverage is only one part of the healthcare equation. Often, employees are left alone to manage their own care, and finding the right doctor can be a lengthy process of trial and error. Instead of leaving employees in the lurch, Gianoukos said companies can leverage online tools and resources to help employees find providers and access appropriate treatment.
Alongside insurance benefits, a strong and flexible PTO policy gives employees permission to take care of themselves. Legal requirements regarding sick leave vary from state to state, but it’s in your employees’ best interest to offer generous sick days so they aren’t forced to work through fatigue or a flare-up.
“Some of the benefits I love are flexibility around what time off is used for, set health days, and other benefits outside what we’re able to purchase from an insurance perspective,” Janek said.
Managing chronic or sudden illness can be isolating. Without a strong support network, your employees may feel left alone to figure out all the answers, said Janek.
We aren’t taught about negotiating with health insurers in school, so it’s confusing to a lot of people, Janek said. In this area, hosting regular office hours with your benefits team will help direct employees through the ins and outs of your company’s insurance plans. But more generally speaking, employers should make it clear they’re ready and willing to answer questions, listen to concerns and advocate on behalf of their employees.
It’s tough to share when we’re struggling. If you want your employees to feel comfortable doing so, the best way is to lead by example. Janek is not interested in hiding her emotions — when she’s having a difficult day, she lets her team know. She hopes this shows them that they can be honest about how they’re doing too.
“When leaders express that vulnerability themselves, it allows people to feel they can be vulnerable as well,” she said. “Personally, if I’m having a bad day, I’d rather have those tears come out on a call with people that can be supportive, instead of feeling trapped all by myself.”