Struggling to access workplace supports
By Uyen Vu
Young people who have potentially disabling chronic health conditions need the same types of workplace supports as older people with these conditions. But due to their age and their status in the workforce, they face distinct barriers to accessing these supports, according to a new study by the Institute for Work & Health (IWH).
The study, led by IWH Associate Scientist Dr. Arif Jetha, probed for similarities and differences in the workplace needs of people with arthritis at different ages and stages of their careers.
Reasons for differences
Having arthritis at a young age made it difficult for some study participants to reveal their condition to supervisors and co-workers. Some young study participants said they faced disbelief among co-workers who thought arthritis only affected older people. Many participants said they feared jeopardizing their career advancement if they disclosed their condition, especially as they had little job tenure. Also, many of the young participants worked in part-time, short-term contracts where benefits and accommodations were simply not available.
This study suggests that, on the one hand, workplaces don’t have to offer young workers with arthritis different workplace supports. The same supports can meet the needs of people with arthritis across different ages, says Jetha. On the other hand, workplaces might want to pay special attention to young people and people who are new to their jobs, as they may perceive more barriers to accessing those supports and, therefore, be more susceptible to work disability.
Work supports not a first recourse
Also common across different age groups was a reluctance to turn to workplace accommodation as a first recourse. Instead, participants reported changing and adapting their lives outside work as a strategy to stay in their jobs. Some reported reducing their social roles and cutting out social activities to sleep and preserve their energy for work. Many said they preferred making these adjustments over having to disclose their health needs at work and request support.
However, the study found young people faced an additional barrier when it came to the issue of disclosure: lack of public awareness. Some young study participants said they were often met with disbelief. As one young study participant described it: “I think there’s always the misconception that people don’t get impairments until later in life, and so [having an impairment when you’re young] can always be something very difficult either to convey to your employer or to your colleagues [who think] maybe you’re getting special treatment or you’re just a big complainer.”
Job tenure and work status also played a role. The short-term, entry-level jobs in which many young participants worked were characterized as offering few resources and little support. While few young participants had worked in their jobs for more than two years, those who had done so reported more support and greater access to workplace resources that helped them sustain their employment.
Likewise, the middle-aged and older workers who had longer tenures said the time spent at their workplaces gave them an opportunity to build supportive relationships with supervisors and peers. Those who had worked less time at an organization tended to describe a less supportive workplace. We sometimes don’t think about challenges faced by young people who live with potentially disabling chronic health conditions, and often lack the knowledge to support them as they enter the labour market, says Jetha.
An important first step may be to strengthen communication practices between supervisors and young workers to enable a dialogue on employment needs and the identification of relevant support strategies.
Uyen Vu is a Communications Associate at the Institute for Work & Health. The Institute is a Toronto-based not-for-profit, independent research organization focusing on work-related injury and disability prevention.
Excerpted with permission from the Institute for Work & Health.
For more information, visit iwh.on.ca.