Bana Jobe

Destigmatizing Invisible Illness, Part 5: Autoimmune Diseases

It’s been called the invisible epidemic, but for those living through it, it can be hard to understand why the rest of the world doesn’t see it.

Autoimmune conditions — a broad family of diseases that occur when a person’s own immune system attacks their body — affect some 23.5 million Americans, mostly women. The list of autoimmune diseases stretches from lupus and multiple sclerosis to rheumatoid arthritis, celiac disease and Type 1 diabetes.

Getting Familiar With Autoimmune Disorders

No matter which autoimmune disorder someone might have, the symptoms can interfere with normal daily activities, from eating to work. In a recent employee health study, researchers found that staying employed was a top concern for people with lupus — and that the symptoms and “invisibility” of the disease made it hard to keep a job.

Autoimmune disorders commonly cause fatigue, dizziness and fever, but depending on the condition, there are many more, in varying degrees of severity: celiac disease’s digestive issues; rheumatoid arthritis’s joint deformity and pain; and the tremors, speech trouble and paralysis associated with multiple sclerosis.

Despite their prevalence, autoimmune disorders tend to be misunderstood. Because there are so many different kinds, isolating symptoms in search of a single diagnosis can be a long and difficult process. As a result, autoimmune problems often go undiagnosed for an extended period while people endure pain, immobility and other symptoms.

As an employer, you can help — not only to generate awareness of autoimmune diseases and the importance of routine health care, but by offering relevant benefits and resources that can support those struggling with an autoimmune condition.

Generating Awareness in the Workplace

Employers have an opportunity to demystify autoimmune disorders and remove the stigma from affected employees. For example, the employee health study mentioned above reported that some employees felt their colleagues didn’t believe they really had an illness in the first place, which made them feel less secure and confident on the job.

So, what can you do? Including autoimmune-related health content in your benefits communications is a good place to start. Alongside important messages related to cancer screenings and cholesterol testing, consider pointing employees in the direction of credible sources of information so they can learn more about the symptoms and experience of living with an autoimmune disorder, such as the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, the U.S. National Library of Medicine and the Office on Women’s Health.

Because of the struggles with diagnosis, encourage employees to be their own health advocate. If they experience symptoms, they should see a specialist and be persistent about getting to the bottom of their health concern. Seeking a second, third or even fourth opinion is always an option.

Also aim to reinforce positive conversations among management and foster a supportive mindset about autoimmune diseases. Remind managers that just because they can’t see the signs doesn’t mean an employee isn’t suffering and doesn’t need extra support or accommodations to perform their duties.

Designing Benefits for All Employees

Supporting employees with autoimmune conditions involves more than health care, but nevertheless, offering a comprehensive and affordable health insurance package is a great start. Solid coverage can help them access the care they need, from specialist visits and medical tests to prescriptions.

Along with a well-rounded health plan, consider adding these offerings to your benefits package to help employees living with an autoimmune disorder:

  • Mental health services, like telemedicine, that support employees through the emotional challenges of living with an autoimmune disorder.
  • Employee assistance programs that can connect employees with resources like support groups.
  • Flexible spending accounts to cover medical expenses and alternative treatment options that some people may choose, like chiropractic and acupuncture.
  • Wellness programs that can be customized and made more relevant for employees depending on their needs.

Along the way, keep in mind that autoimmune diseases can be unpredictable. Symptoms that seem under control one day can flare up the next. Ensure that you’re accommodating your employees with the support they need to do their job on the good days and the bad, whether that means offering flexible schedules, work-from-home days or personal days to recharge.

These small efforts matter a lot for employees with autoimmune disorders, and they’ll go a long way toward bringing visibility to an otherwise unseen condition. The rest — boosted morale, higher productivity, better engagement — follows when employees have the right tools to do their job well.

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