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Brain circuits

7 ways leaders can support chronically ill employees

Published 22 September 2021 in Brain circuits • 3 min read

As the chronic health effects of COVID-19 permeate the global headlines, organizations are starting to authentically consider how best to support employees affected by chronic illness. Even prior to the pandemic, studies show that up to 60% of people currently live with at least one chronic illness, meaning it’s likely you are already dealing with this in your workplace on some level. Based on recent research regarding chronic illness at work, here are some suggestions for leading employees who have chronic illnesses with more empathy.

Don’t ask, but allow them to tell

Health issues are incredibly personal and private so not everyone is comfortable even discussing what’s happening. As a manager, do not directly ask an employee if they are sick but create the space for dialogue.

Manage your own response

This is an emotional issue, but if you are feeling sad, worried, fearsome, or helpless make sure you take care of these emotions on your own and don’t look for reassurance from the employee.

Understand what underlies envy

Sometimes people in the workplace, including you, may experience jealousy at perceived “perks” someone is receiving such as longer breaks, flexible hours, or working from home. Understand that these perceived benefits are necessary for that person, not you, and look at what is going on with your own energy and balance in order to take better care of yourself at the office.

Evaluate your expectations

Just because you may think a person should be able to accomplish a certain task within a certain time frame, doesn’t mean they can. You don’t know what they are actually going through, so you need to be flexible and cultivate understanding of their experience.

Do not presume to tell them how to manage their illness

Some people may do this believing that they are truly helping the individual with the illness, but you need to remember that you do not actually have any idea what they are experiencing.

Consider what your company values as good work

Is your office one that celebrates being accessible to answer professional inquiries 24 hours, 7 days a week? Do you admire people who work 60–70 hour weeks? You may want to rethink that for a lot of reasons, but especially when it comes to someone with a chronic illness, this message can be deadly. What are better achievements to celebrate in the office?

Ask and learn

Once an employee has revealed a health condition to you, ask them what they think you need to know about it. Do research and really work on learning what specific ways you can be of assistance in making their time at work comfortable.



Alyson Meister - IMD Professor

Alyson Meister

Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at IMD

Alyson Meister is Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior and Director of the Future Leaders program at IMD Business School. Specializing in the development of globally oriented, adaptive, and inclusive organizations, she has worked with of executives, teams, and organizations from professional services to industrial goods and technology. She also serves as co-chair of One Mind at Work’s Scientific Advisory Committee, with a focus on advancing mental health in the workplace. Follow her on Twitter: @alymeister.


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