The Nowsta Blog

Management tips and labor market insights to help you run your business

How to Accommodate Part-time Staff with Medical Limitations

By Josh Burnett on January 22, 2019

Every employee needs something a little different to do their best work. That was our thesis when we broke part-time employees down into five categories and provided management tips for each, based on Federal Reserve survey data on why people say they work part-time as opposed to full-time. Over a series of posts, we’re going to take a deeper dive into each category and explore how managers can better manage, motivate, and accommodate each type of part-time employee.

In this post, we’re going to cover staff who work part-time due to medical issues. 

Medical issues in the workforce

12% of part-time employees surveyed by the Federal Reserve say they don’t work full-time due to medical problems, but that number may not tell the whole story. In 2014, researchers at the National Health Council found that approximately 40 million Americans -- roughly one quarter of the U.S. labor force -- deal with a chronic medical condition that leaves them “limited in their usual activities.” Even worse, the issue is growing. The researchers estimated that by 2020, 133 million Americans will have a chronic condition, with 81 million suffering more than one.

The obvious conundrum for people managing these conditions in the workplace is whether or not their medical issues affect their ability do their job. Some conditions may make it more difficult for staff to complete routine tasks or force them to seek accommodations from their employer. But that’s only half the battle -- there’s an emotional side as well. Staff with debilitating medical issues face a great deal of uncertainty, as they don’t always know how receptive or helpful their employer will be in accommodating them. No one wants to be seen as a problem, so as a manager, you need to help these employees feel comfortable asking for the help they need to be effective.

Employers also need to realize that they have legal obligations to staff with medical issues. We’ll explore some of those below, as well as strategies for helping these employees stay productive and happy.  

The legal side

There are two key laws you need to be familiar with if you have employees with medical limitations: The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The former allows employees to take up to 12 weeks off each year for medical issues, requires companies to keep these employees’ jobs available to them when the leave period ends, and demands companies impose no negative consequences on employees for taking medical leave. The FMLA does not, however, require companies to pay employees during leave. It’s also worth noting that the FMLA only applies to employees who have worked at least 1,250 hours in the last year (an average of 24 per week) and companies who employ at least 50 employees at a single location. However, some states impose more requirements.

The ADA meanwhile outlines the do’s and don’ts of working with disabled employees. Since we’re focusing on current employees, we’ll forego discussing hiring and selection practices, although you should be aware that there are significant regulations in those areas. A disability is defined as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities” and covers a wide range of ailments. These can be intensely personal to discuss, so an affected employee is only required to provide reasonable medical documentation describing the employee’s physical or mental limitations, such as restrictions from lifting more than 25 pounds -- they don’t need to reveal the condition itself, so you shouldn’t ask if employees don’t volunteer that information.

When an employee discloses a disability, employers are required to make reasonable accommodations to allow them to continue working. These can include things like modifying parking or transportation arrangements, making existing facilities more accessible, providing necessary equipment to disabled workers, and restructuring job responsibilities as required to meet the employee’s needs.

Keep in mind, however, that you’re not required to compromise work standards. Employees with chronic conditions must still be held to the same requirements of productivity and behavior as other employees. You don’t have to excuse substandard performance or violations of employee conduct policy -- these remain the same regardless of disability status. You simply need to give disabled employees the same opportunity as their coworkers to make an impact.

The human side: Managing employees with medical issues

Employees with chronic medical conditions often face tremendous mental and emotional uncertainty. The New York Times poignantly explored this in a profile of a woman named Natasha Frenchette, who continued to work after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at 27 years old. While Natasha had a supportive boss who made all the necessary accommodations following her diagnosis, she still felt a need to prove herself at work, telling reporters, “I’m careful. I don’t want my disease to be seen as a cop-out.”

Natasha’s story illustrates that even when managers make it clear they support disabled employees, those employees may still worry how they’ll be received in the workplace. When managers don’t make that clear, it gets even worse -- disabled employees may not even disclose their health issues. That’s the worst possible outcome, as managers will only notice the employee struggling and have no idea what the true cause is. The New York Times article describes such a situation, in which a recently-disabled employee (not a coworker of Nathasha’s) began missing work without ever disclosing the illness to their employer, leading their boss to speculate drug abuse may have been the cause.

As a manager, you need to take action before any employees actually disclose medical issues to you. Make a big deal out of letting staff know that your company will accommodate any medical issues that arise -- you can do this in your employee handbook and during onboarding for new hires. More generally, you also need to maintain open and honest relationships with your employees, so that they know your promises aren’t empty -- otherwise, they may not be willing to come to you when medical issues arise.

Accommodating employees with health issues isn’t just the right thing to do or a pesky legal requirement you have to fulfill. It can also get you better business outcomes, especially when it comes to retention. After all, if you’re willing to go out of your way to work with employees who report health issues and take the necessary steps to help them stay productive, why would these employees ever look for a new job, knowing that other employers may not be as helpful? Plus, by being proactive in telling staff that you’re willing to accommodate health issues, you can up your whole team’s morale.

Not to mention, research suggests that employers can accommodate their staff’s medical issues without hurting their bottom line. The Job Accommodation Network recently surveyed over 2,000 companies on the steps they’ve taken to help disabled employees succeed, and found that most of them were able to make the necessary accommodations at no monetary cost. Meanwhile, most accommodations that did require a financial investment cost below $500. In addition to retaining disabled employees for longer and avoiding the costs of replacing them, these companies also reported indirect benefits like heightened attendance and productivity among staff.

The bottom line

Everyone knows that treating your staff well goes a long way toward driving increased retention and motivation, but this is especially true when it comes to employees with chronic medical conditions. While it might require a few adjustments, there’s no reason why these employees can’t be key contributors to your company’s success.

Josh Burnett


Josh Burnett

Josh is a freelance writer based out of Corvallis, Oregon. If he isn't writing his own words, he's reading someone else's, spending time outdoors, or playing with his kids.

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