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Ways employers can support their employees with chronic conditions

Chronic health conditions—like high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity—reduce employee productivity, costing U.S. employers $36.4 billion a year because of employees missing days of work.1 This single statistic underscores that employees with chronic conditions need extra support to build resilience and regain productivity. While offering high-quality health insurance is a direct way to support these employees, employers can add pillars that reinforce support for employees with chronic conditions.

Understanding common chronic conditions in the workplace

To add the right supports, employers need to understand the risks they need to mitigate. This might seem overwhelming, but according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the risks that contribute to many chronic conditions include behaviors that employees can change2:

  • Using tobacco and being exposed to secondhand smoke
  • Eating a diet deficient in fruits and vegetables and abundant in sodium and saturated fats
  • Not being physically active
  • Consuming too much alcohol

Many of these behaviors are leading risk factors for heart disease, which is among the list of chronic conditions that are the leading causes of death and disability in the U.S.3 Others like cancer and diabetes are also on this list and are driving the nation’s $4.1 trillion in annual health care costs.4

Employers must also manage the impact of a rather new chronic condition—long COVID. Long COVID can occur when people are recovering from COVID-19. Long COVID may present as new, returning, or ongoing health problems. It joins the list of chronic conditions impacting employment outcomes.5

Michael G. Risbano, MD, MA, who helped launch the UPMC Post-COVID Recovery Clinic, has seen how this emerging chronic condition affects workforces. “The health effects of long COVID trickle down and impact different areas of people’s lives, including their ability to work,” he said.

Dr. Risbano said that people who have long COVID may feel run down or tired, and it takes them time to fully bounce back. Resources offered through the clinic aim to help people reach this goal. “When patients have a long COVID diagnosis, we use interventions, such as neurocognitive rehabilitation, cardiopulmonary rehabilitation, or physical therapy to help resolve the specific issues they present with to support their recovery,” he added.

The UPMC Post-COVID Recovery Clinic offers a comprehensive care path for every patient who needs support, regardless of their diagnosis. Dr. Risbano said, “We do our due diligence to find out what other health issues might be going on, help develop a treatment plan, and coordinate with other UPMC specialists to get people the care they need to resume as much of their prior life as possible, including returning to work if they can.”

How employers can improve chronic condition management

Many employers offer benefits or incentives to support employee well-being. Health insurance is the modality that likely tops the list for most companies, but support does not have to end here. High-quality health insurance includes health coaching to support employees in achieving their wellness goals and digital tools to help employees build and maintain better health. Employers can also bolster support for employees who have a chronic condition or are caring for someone else with one. These initiatives help companies show their commitment to supporting employees with chronic conditions.

  • Build a culture of health in the workplace. Emphasize stress management and mindfulness, encourage stretching and moving throughout the day, and promote good nutrition.
  • Offer flexible work arrangements. Consider ongoing telework accommodations that help employees meet their work requirements and allow time to attend planned care visits and to do whatever else is needed to manage their condition.
  • Supportive programs. Think about implementing workplace programs, such as an employee assistance program (EAP), and elevate the programs’ visibility to get more employees engaged in using them to help manage their chronic condition. Top-quality health plans offer access to teams that can provide education, action plans, and coaching that focuses on empowering employees and families to regain control over their lives, health, and health care.

Helping employees manage chronic conditions can improve your business and culture

Good health is good for your business and your bottom line because healthier employees are more productive.6 According to the CDC7:

  • Healthier employees are less likely to call in sick or use vacation time due to illness.
  • Companies that support workplace health have a greater percentage of employees at work every day.
  • Because improved employee health often carries over into better health behaviors in the employee's family, employees may miss less work caring for ill family members.

Three ways to actively support employees with chronic conditions

Managing a chronic condition can involve scheduling tests, going to appointments, and keeping track of prescriptions, which can further strain people who are already struggling. Managers can lend extra support to employees in these ways:

  • Lead with empathy. Practice active listening to help you “walk in their shoes” and understand employees’ needs and how you can help meet them.
  • Proactively build motivation. Create a positive environment to empower those with complex conditions to navigate their day-to-day stressors and help them better manage their health.
  • Prioritize health. Encourage employees do their best to stay healthy by sharing tips to help improve wellness while at work.

How UPMC Health Plan can help

UPMC offers supports to help our members with long COVID and other chronic conditions better understand their symptoms and create a treatment plan to meet their needs. Together, we can help you provide the following benefits and more to your covered employees:

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[1] Workplace health promotion. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Reviewed June 9, 2022. Accessed May 17, 2023.

[2] About chronic diseases. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Reviewed July 21, 2022. Accessed May 17, 2023.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Memorandum on addressing the long-term effects of COVID-⁠19. White House. Issued April 5, 2022. Accessed June 13, 2023.

[6] Increase productivity. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Reviewed Dec. 4, 2015. Accessed May 19, 2023.

[7] Ibid.