How workplace support needs differ for younger and older adults with chronic disease

In brief

  • When it comes to workplace supports, people with chronic disease have similar needs, even at different ages and career stages.
  • However, young people face unique challenges related to accessing workplace supports.
  • These challenges include a lack of available workplace resources (as perceived and reported by respondents) and difficulty overcoming preconceptions around youth and chronic conditions.

Published: August 2018

Why was this study done?

Most studies on the working lives of people with chronic disease have focused on older workers. As a result, little information exists about how workplaces can support employees with chronic disease at different ages and stages of their lives. This study aimed to help fill this gap, focusing on people living with arthritis—one of the most common causes of work disability in Canada.

How was the study done?

Forty-five people with inflammatory arthritis, osteoarthritis or another type of rheumatic disease were asked in focus groups or one-on-one interviews (and in a follow-up questionnaire) about the impact of arthritis on their employment, career progression and social roles. The 45 people included young, middle-aged and older adults who were either working or had worked in the previous 12 months.

What did the researchers find?

Regardless of their age or career stage, all participants said they needed a variety of workplace supports and accommodations. These included extended medical/drug benefits, adaptations to their work environment, job modifications, a supportive work context and, most of all, flexible working hours. Participants also said they preferred adapting their activities and roles outside of work in order to keep working, rather than asking for workplace support.

When comparing age groups, one difference researchers found was that young workers were more likely to report a lack of workplace supports. They reported more difficulty in accessing workplace supports, partly due to the part-time and short-term contracts common in this age group, and partly because they faced the common misperception that young people are not affected by arthritis.

Discussion of implications

Workplaces can offer similar types of resources and supports to all workers with arthritis, no matter their age or career stage. Aligning with other research conducted by IWH scientists, offering flexible working hours may be a particularly useful support for workplaces to offer. It’s a relatively low-cost strategy that can benefit people both with and without health conditions and lead to improved staff loyalty.

What are some strengths and weaknesses of the study?

This study was one of the first to examine how people at different life and career stages need and access workplace supports for their arthritis. As a qualitative study, it was focused on discovering as broad a range of experiences as possible and did not try to find out how common the different experiences are. A strength of the study was the diverse viewpoints it captured. A limitation of the study was that it was not longitudinal in design and, therefore, could not shed light on how the use of workplace resources affected long-term labour market participation over time.