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Blue @ Work

How to support your employees with autoimmune diseases

What you need to know.

You may think it’s easy to tell when one of your employees is sick. A run-of-the-mill cold or flu virus can produce symptoms like coughing, sneezing, fatigue, and general malaise for a few days as the body’s immune system works to fight off the foreign invaders. However, autoimmune diseases — where the immune system starts attacking otherwise healthy cells in the body — often don’t produce any visible symptoms.

Recognize autoimmune diseases

According to the American Autoimmune Release Diseases Association, there are more than 100 External Site autoimmune diseases that affect a wide range of body parts including the joints, nerves, intestinal lining, lungs, and the thyroid gland. Some of the most common are rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, Type 1 diabetes, Graves’ disease, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, and psoriasis.

Doctors don’t yet know what causes autoimmune diseases, but have determined that genetics, diet, weight, serious bacterial or viral infections (like E.coli, Hepatitis C, and measles), smoking, or exposure to chemicals may play a role in their development. Autoimmune diseases are also becoming increasingly common External Site, and are estimated to affect anywhere from 24 to 50 million people in the United States — the majority of them being women in their childbearing years. It is also the third most-costly disease category behind spending for diabetes and cancer, according to data from the IQVIA Institute External Site.

The impacts on the workplace

With many autoimmune diseases, your employees don’t have to look sick to be sick. They may suffer from symptoms like fatigue, brain fog, joint pain, swelling, unexplained weight loss, inability to concentrate, rapid heart rate, abdominal pain, poor coordination, and more for a sustained period of time before realizing they need to see their doctor. Symptoms may also come and go at random, causing them to have days where they feel well and days where they can barely get out of bed.

Autoimmune diseases are usually chronic conditions that severely impact quality of life, and long-lasting symptoms can cause both absenteeism and presenteeism (where your employees are physically present but mentally absent.) Some people have symptoms that are so severe they end up leaving the workplace altogether.

Accommodate employees with autoimmune diseases

Choosing whether to disclose an autoimmune diagnosis is up to your employees. If they choose to share, federal laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provide protection from job-based discrimination and allow for extended time off, if necessary, to manage disease symptoms.

The ADA also requires you to provide reasonable accommodations for employees who have disclosed an autoimmune diagnosis. These accommodations are typically low cost and easy to implement and can go a long way in helping your employees continue to be productive at work and stay in the workforce long-term.

Accommodations will differ depending on the disease and symptoms an employee is experiencing. For example, someone with lupus may benefit from a flexible schedule, ergonomic equipment, grip aids, and screen magnification software. Someone with ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease may request a workspace closer to the restroom and a modified break schedule.

You can find a wealth of information on accommodation ideas based on limitations or work-related functions specific to each disease or disability through the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) External Site, which is part of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy. In general, when asked to provide reasonable accommodations for your employees, consider:

  • The limitations they’re experiencing
  • How these limitations affect them and their job performance
  • Specific job tasks that interfere with these limitations
  • What accommodations could reduce or eliminate these issues
  • If the employee’s manager or immediate coworkers need training on accommodations

At the end of the day, a little empathy may be in order. Put yourself in your employee’s shoes and imagine how small changes to their work environment can greatly increase their quality of life while working. It can only stand to benefit your company as well — as employees who feel their employer cares about their well-being are three times more likely to go the extra mile.

Help from your health insurer

Autoimmune diseases can be incredibly difficult for your employees to manage without reliable information and constant support. If you’re a Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield member, your employees have access to two major (and free!) resources to help manage an autoimmune condition.

  • Advanced Care Nurse team

    Wellmark’s team of Advanced Care nurses works closely with your employees to develop care plans for chronic health conditions. Available for free and completely confidential, these clinically skilled registered nurses Opens in a new window can:
    • Help your employees make better health choices related to their diagnosis
    • Offer tools and education to help them better understand work through health concerns they might have related to their diagnosis
    • Connect employees to the right resources and people who will deliver the best care
  • myWellmark®

    helps your employees see and engage with their health care in real time. They can check in on recent claims, see recent Explanations of Benefits, view covered benefits, estimate costs for care, and find in-network doctors and specialists. All they have to do is go to myWellmark.com Opens in a new window.

Questions? Contact your authorized Wellmark account representative, or email us at blueatwork@wellmark.com Send Email.