A new survey has uncovered a significant disconnect between supportive community attitudes towards co-workers with health conditions, like MS, and the reality of poor experiences within workplaces.
Commissioned by MS Australia and released for World MS Day 2022 (May 30), the findings show that while the general community overwhelmingly agree (83 per cent) that people with health conditions in the workplace are ‘just as capable’ as anyone when it comes to working, more than half (52 per cent) of those with MS reported missing out on work opportunities due to their condition.
More than a quarter (28 per cent) of those with MS were uncomfortable in the workplace because they felt people labelled them.
The results also show that while eight out of ten (85 per cent) in the general community believe workplaces are now more receptive to adapting roles to better fit employees, supportive action following disclosure is low.
The findings showed one in five (17 per cent) of those living with MS had their job description adjusted after telling their employer about their condition and one third (32 per cent) saw physical changes made to their work environment to support them fulfilling their duties.
The Employment and Workplace Survey gathered insights from 1748 Australians aged 18 and over, including 525 people living with MS.
It provides the first-ever comparison of our community attitudes with actual workplace reality for those with health conditions including MS, diabetes, arthritis, cancer, asthma, anxiety and depression.
Importantly, the findings reiterated a wide-held belief that meaningful work is a critical part of enjoying a good quality of life – with seven out of ten (70 per cent) Australians feeling more connected to people and community because of their employment.
This increased to over three quarters (77 per cent) among those living with MS.
“Overall, this survey shows many workplaces are not keeping pace with community expectations by failing to support employees living with physical or mental health conditions,” Associate Professor Desmond Graham, president of MS Australia, said.
“This is a real concern because MS is a progressive disease often diagnosed in the 20s and 30s and most commonly in women, at a time when establishing a career and consolidating an income are important goals.
“The disadvantages for Australians with MS of not being able to find and keep suitable employment across their working life are well quantified.”
Of concern, 3 per cent of those living with MS, had their position terminated after disclosure to their workplace.
On a positive note, three quarters (75 per cent) of those living with MS and four out of five (80 per cent) in the general community agreed that said flexibility and working from home have introduced a more level playing field for everyone.
Disclosure of a health condition in Australian workplaces is challenging, with the research uncovering more than two out of five (41 per cent) living with MS who chose not to disclose their condition at work saying it would ‘change people’s opinion’ of them and one in four (25 per cent) that it would ‘jeopardise career prospects.’
Experts in MS and employment, Associate Professors Pieter Van Dijk and Andrea Kirk-Brown from the Monash Business School, Monash University say although early and effective symptom management (for MS) is helping people to stay at work longer, there are a growing number of employees who feel vulnerable and insecure in their employment.
“Fear over stigma and loss of employment remain significant concerns for employees with MS, leading to higher stress levels and perceptions of vulnerability,” Van Dijk said.
Fueling these concerns were nearly two thirds (62 per cent) of those with MS not wanting to be viewed as likely to take more sick days and one in two (48 per cent) thinking they won’t be seen as a ‘long-term team member to invest in and promote’.
Melbourne-based disability advocate/actor Sonia Marcon, 40, has been living with MS since 2002.
“Outdated misunderstandings about MS and subsequent actions by employers, can result in those with MS being too fearful to disclose their condition,” she said.
“In turn, remaining silent can exacerbate their condition through overwork, or injury from an inaccessible workplace.”
When it comes to finding and retaining a job, nine out of ten (88 per cent) Australians believe it is harder for those who have a physical or mental health condition to find a job.
In addition, four out of five Australians (79 per cent) believe they will also have issues retaining a job (80 per cent of those living with MS agree).
While positive intention was demonstrated in three out of four (73 per cent) workers living with MS who disclosed any health condition, areas for improvement were identified.
For those living with MS, these included a desire for greater investment in built infrastructure (eg. ramps and accessible facilities) for 71 per cent.
A need for better and more education and information was also apparent, with four out of five (82 per cent) of the general community in agreement that knowing more about a person’s health condition would make it easier to work alongside them.
“This survey shows we really need to be doing a much better job empowering those living with health conditions and providing more equitable work conditions and career advancement. Putting it bluntly, employers need to go further, faster,” Rohan Greenland, CEO of MS Australia, said.
“Naturally we’re concerned those with MS and other health conditions are being disadvantaged, but also that employers are missing out on valuable talent, at a time when skilled staff are in short supply,” he added.