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1 in 4 adults in the United States have a disability. And, in fact, the highest percent of adults with disabilities live in the South.

6 in 10 adults in the U.S. have some type of chronic disease or illness, like cancer, heart disease, or diabetes.

And now, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 100 million adults in the U.S. are experiencing the effects of long COVID.

For the millions that live with disabilities or chronic illnesses, navigating the world is often made more difficult, as infrastructure and protocols are too often made without diverse needs in mind.

So, as you begin to develop your return to office plans, consider how you can make inclusion a fundamental pillar of your workplace. Not only does it signal to your workers with disabilities or chronic illnesses that they are cared for both as individuals and as fundamental members of your team, but it helps you to retain the best talent.

Below, we’ve outlined some of the benefits of flexwork for creating a workspace that thoughtfully includes the needs of all your employees, informed by our conversations with professionals in the disability and chronic illness space – Kate Brady, PhD ABD, Deputy Director of Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities (GCDD) and Mitzy Sharp Futro, Executive Director of Atlanta Cancer Care Foundation (ACCF).

Building a flexible work strategy that honors inclusivity can take many forms:

  • flexible scheduling
  • compressed work weeks
  • the option to telework
  • flexible paid time off

The most comprehensive and customizable workplaces will be the ones that include a combination of these flexible options! Both Brady and Sharp Futro stress that all these strategies working in tandem offer the best chance to create inclusive space for employees. Brady says that, during the pandemic, we have all learned that full access to telework and flexible schedules and nimble and abundant leave time are key strategies for retaining talent.

Flexwork Allows Employees to Better Navigate Life Changes

Person reviewing a diagnosis with a patient, image from CDC

Another consideration for employers is how to leave space for employees with new disabilities or diagnoses to navigate the changes in their own lives. Brady notes that, for individuals with life-long disabilities or illnesses, they may be better versed in their own needs and what works best for them. However, for those who have only recently become disabled or sick, they may need room to figure out what works best for their new normal. Flexible work arrangements can help employees find that new normal by allowing them to go to doctor’s appointments using a flexible scheduling option or by removing the mental strain of having the get to a jobsite by allowing telework.  

Importantly, Sharp Futro mentions that flexwork in light of a new diagnosis or disability can allow employees to stay employees, rather than feeling like they need to leave the workforce entirely. This is important not only to maintain immediate earnings, especially when finances may be impacted by medical bills, but it also helps to stave off the difficulties of finding a new job after a hiatus for medical needs.

This is especially important for employers to consider as we enter the third year of the pandemic. Now, there are more employees who are experiencing the debilitating effects of long-COVID and will be working to find ways to manage this new experience.

Flexwork Creates an Additional Layer of Safety

In light of the ongoing pandemic, flexwork can help to keep your immunocompromised employees safe. Compressed work weeks or telework can both be good options to reduce the potential exposure level for employees who may be more vulnerable to COVID-19. Not only does this help cut down on the risks to your employees’ physical health, but it can also help to reduce the stress that they may be feeling about the potential exposure they would be subjected to if they had to work in-person every day. For employers, this also means keeping your workforce healthier, leading them to need fewer sick days and reduced absenteeism.

Flexwork Supports Caregivers

Entrepreneur Nandi Isaac (left) and their caregiver (right), image from GCDD

Not only can flexwork support your employees with disabilities or chronic illnesses, but it can also support your employees who act as caregivers for others with disabilities or chronic illnesses. Their spouse or sister may not be able to drive themselves home from an appointment, or they may need extra care at home. Flexwork can give caregivers the ability to telework while caring for a loved one or arrange their schedule so they are able to attend appointments.

By offering flexibility for all of your employees, you give them the space to make choices that work best for themselves and their families, while not making people feel as singled out. When flexwork is an accepted part of your work culture, you can reduce stress and burnout among employees because they don’t have to worry as much about changes resulting from their disability or chronic illness because adaptive measures are already in place.

Flexwork Levels the Playing Field

For employees with disabilities or chronic illness, Brady and Sharp Futro note that traditional workplaces and schedule structures can create barriers that impede an employee’s ability to balance their personal needs with their professional life. These barriers can range from physical barriers, such as access to disability-friendly transportation or experiencing fatigue at the office because of cancer treatments, to psychological barriers, such as experiencing unconscious biases from peers and bosses or from worrying about balancing a stressful treatment schedule and financial pressures. Often, these barriers make it such that the employees experiencing them must take on the additional emotional labor of figuring out how to develop a schedule that works for them and then approach their employers about constructing it.

Person using a braille screen reader

As employers, creating an environment with flexible work schedules that provides as much wiggle room as possible for employees to make the best decisions for their own lives can cut down on some of the barriers that they may be facing.

For example, flexible paid time off not only gives employees the time they need to be able to go to radiation or physical therapy, but it also does not force them to attribute their absence to their disability and or illness. Similarly, the option to telework can address the issue of fatigue by allowing employees to be adaptive to their needs and work where they can perform best on a given day or reduce the difficulty of carrying assistive technology between home and the office.  

By lowering restrictions and increasing flexibility, it levels the playing field. Overall, flexwork allows your employees to work when they are at their best.

Continue to Leave Space for Accommodations

While a robust flexwork program allows employees to better meet their needs, Brady and Sharp Futro both stress that it is critical to remaining responsive to additional accommodations. There may be times where flexible work arrangements don’t cover all the needs of an individual employee, so it is important to continue to encourage employees to seek out additional accommodations, as needed.

Want to learn more about flexwork? Click here.

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