Chronic illness in the workplace: One company’s success story

“The measure of a society is found in how they treat their weakest and most helpless citizens.” -Former US President Jimmy Carter

Living with multiple sclerosis can indeed make us feel helpless sometimes.  It can wear down our physical abilities and our personal agency to shape and take control of our lives.  Sometimes in more progressive manifestations of the disease, a person can quite literally become physically weak and helpless.  MS can deprive us of the peace of mind that predictability and security bring. It can steal the simple joy of play. It can erode the satisfaction that comes with working on something we love – the feeling of a job well done.

We are fortunate to live in a society where many people and organizations do in fact treat our vulnerable citizens with dignity and respect. Individuals are recognized and celebrated for their intrinsic humanity and are valued members of society.

There’s always room for us to improve, however. A dedicated team of community-based researchers are currently working towards that very goal. The team is conducting a study on the daily experiences of people living with health conditions that result in unpredictable periods of health and illness, like MS. The information collected will be used to develop resources to improve employment opportunities for people with episodic conditions.  You can participate online here.

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MEG Energy — a company based in Calgary, Alberta — are leading by example when it comes to workplace flexibility and adaptability. Coriann lives with MS and is an employee there:

I was diagnosed with MS in August 2015. I had some initial anxiety about informing my employer so I reached out to a colleague first for support and guidance. She reminded me that we work for a good company and that I would be supported. I suppose I could have kept it a secret but felt that eventually the doctor’s appointments and need for accommodations would give it away. I also wanted to see what kind of support was available to me through my company.

With her encouragement, I decided to tell my supervisor, Charles. As it turned out Charles’ own supervisor, Steven happened to come into Charles’ office at that moment, so I told them both at the same time. I feel lucky that they were immediately so understanding and accommodating.

This employee-focused approach is echoed throughout my organization. When I told the Senior Vice President of Resource Management about my diagnosis, he responded, “How can we help? Whatever you need, let us know”.

One of the challenges of living and working with MS is the episodic nature of the disease. Relapses come and go with no warning making it difficult, if not impossible, to abide by a rigid schedule. A few months ago I had a relapse that lasted nearly two weeks. Not only were my feet and hands numb, I was also numb from the waist down. All my muscles tightened and it was difficult to walk. It was tough walking from the C-Train to the office. I told one of my supervisors about my relapse and he told me to take it easy. He offered some extra help if I needed it. I was also experiencing neck pain at the time and was able to adjust my office furniture so it didn’t put so much strain on my neck.

Our company has a flex-time policy for its employees, so I’m able to start and finish my day according to when I feel strongest and healthiest. I still have to put in my eight hours, but I can schedule the time that works best for me. Organizations can really support employees with chronic illnesses like MS when they allow some flexibility.

I was fortunate to have my first private MRI costs covered by the company benefits program. The sooner my neurologist could get a clear picture of my MS, the sooner I was able to work with my healthcare team to choose a treatment plan. My plan also covers the cost of my disease-modifying therapy — an expense which can amount to $1,500-$1,600 per month. I can also take advantage of physiotherapy and massage through my benefits. Additionally, I can take advantage of physical fitness options through a GetFit account.

MS is by no means limited to the workplace, it follows me home from the office too. The Alberta Aids to Daily Living (AADL) program allowed me to make some necessary modifications to my house. My corporate benefit program would also have covered a portion of the costs that were not covered by AADL had it been needed.

If society is measured by how well, or how poorly, it treats its vulnerable citizens, how does an organization score when it supports not only the individual but the causes that individual cares about in the community? My employer knows that I care about supporting the MS Society. In fact, I recently joined the board of the Alberta & Northwest Territories Division.

Through their Community Investment Program, my employer celebrates and supports a volunteer commitment by a staff person by making a donation to the staff person’s charity of choice. Last year, MEG Energy donated $1,500 to the Calgary & Area Chapter of the MS Society as a result of my volunteer hours. And I am hoping to do even more this year.

The flexibility and accommodations offered by my employer have been so central to my well-being and quality of life. I know that my story does not reflect reality for so many others who are affected by MS. I wish other employers could see how easy it is to offer support to their employees the way MEG Energy has supported me. There is value in valuing your employees. My story is an example of that.

— Coriann, diagnosed with MS in 2015

How has your experience working and living with MS measured up? Leave us a comment letting us know, or better yet – fill out the online survey!

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