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Examining Multiple Sclerosis in the Workplace

When looking at the financial challenges that people living with multiple sclerosis face, the numbers speak for themselves.

Approximately 60 per cent of Canadians living with MS are unemployed, while the minority who are working face the potential of having to decrease their workload or leave their positions. This reduction of labour accounts for approximately one-third of the overall economic burden of MS.

These statistics – and many more – are highlighted in the latest report from the Conference Board of Canada, developed in partnership with the MS Society of Canada. Multiple Sclerosis in the Workplace: Making the Case for Enhancing Employment and Income Supports, explores how MS affects Canadians’ ability to (re)enter the workforce, and discusses options to make the workplace more accessible. As demonstrated throughout the report, the benefits to the economy through increased labour force participation underlines the significance of building a workforce that is accessible to people living with MS.

With symptoms of MS including, but not limited to, fatigue, depression, pain, and cognitive impairment, people with MS can face many barriers when entering or remaining in the workplace. Since MS is an episodic disability, accommodations in the workplace may not be regular or foreseeable, which can pose its’ own challenges.

In 2011, the health care costs for individuals 20 years and older living with MS was an estimated $16,800 per year, a number expected to drastically increase in the coming years. This number does not include extra costs associated with managing life with MS, such as home modifications and accessible transportation. To cap it off, the demand for informal caregivers continues to rise, indicated by an average spending of an extra $1,300 per year from individuals living with MS.

Improvements needed for already existing programs

Currently, the Employment Insurance (EI) Sickness Benefit Program supports people who are incapable of working or can only work reduced hours because of their illness. This program provides valuable financial support for Canadians, however, it’s binary functions – not working and being on benefits or working and being off benefits doesn’t account for an episodic disability like MS where the situation isn’t so black and white.

By expanding the EI Sickness Benefit Program from 15 to 26 weeks (to match the compassionate care benefit) or decreasing the required insurable employment hours, the program could benefit more individuals living with MS. The expansion itself would benefit approximately 129,000 Canadians.

In addition to the El Sickness Benefit Program, the report explores the impact of modifying the Disability Tax Credit (DTC) from being non-refundable to refundable. Expanding the EI Sickness Benefit Program and making the DTC refundable would allow approximately 11,400 people to remain in or re-enter the workforce and boost economic activity by an estimated $1.1 billion annually.

Benefits to the MS community

Economic benefit aside, these changes would alleviate some of the financial burden and stress that comes with living with MS. Consequently,this would improve the quality of life of those affected by MS, financially, mentally, and physically, while promoting a more inclusive society. Educating employers and individuals across organizations about MS can rid the stigma that often surrounds the disease, thereby fostering an open culture where people feel empowered to talk about their diagnosis.

“For many people living with MS, the ability to work means greater freedom and independence,” says Benjamin Davis, President, Atlantic Division and National Vice-President Government Relations, MS Society of Canada. “The Multiple Sclerosis in the Workplace report shows that providing people living with MS financial and employment assistance, allows people to remain in the workforce and provides great economic benefit across the country. These findings help strengthen our work to press for the renewal of Canada’s income, disability and policy framework on behalf of all Canadians dealing with chronic illness and episodic disability such as multiple sclerosis.”

Learn more about improving life with MS by reading the Conference Board of Canada’s full report, Multiple Sclerosis in the Workplace: Making the Case for Enhancing Employment and Income Supports or by emailing cripps@conferenceboard.ca to sign up for their webinar on September 13. 

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