On World MS Day, advocates are calling for practical measures and education to make good intentions a reality. A new survey has uncovered a significant disconnect between supportive community attitudes towards co-workers with health conditions, such as MS, and the reality of poor experiences within workplaces.
Commissioned by MS Australia and released for World MS Day 2022 (Monday 30 May), the findings show that while the general community overwhelmingly agree (83%) that people with health conditions in the workplace are ‘just as capable’ as anyone when it comes to working, over half (52%) of those with MS reported missing out on work opportunities due to their condition.
More than a quarter (28%) of those with MS were uncomfortable in the workplace because they felt people labelled them.
The results also show that while 85% 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 17% of those living with MS had their job description adjusted after telling their employer about their condition and 32% saw physical changes made to their work environment to support them fulfilling their duties.
First survey of community attitudes vs workplace realities
The ‘Employment and Workplace Survey’ gathered insights from 1,748 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 70% of Australians feeling more connected to people and community because of their employment. This increased to 77% 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,’ said Associate Professor Desmond Graham, President of MS Australia.
‘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,’ he said.
Of concern, 3% of those living with MS had their positions terminated after disclosure to their workplace. More positively 75% of those living with MS (and 80% in the general community) agreed that 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 41% living with MS who chose not to disclose their condition at work, saying it would ‘change people’s opinion’ of them and 25% 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,’ said Associate Professor Van Dijk.
Fueling these concerns were nearly two thirds of those with MS not wanting to be viewed as likely to take more sick days and one in two 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.
She said, ‘Outdated misunderstandings about MS and subsequent actions by employers, can result in those with MS being too fearful to disclose their condition. 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 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 believe they will also have issues retaining a job (the same numbers of those living with MS agree).
While positive intention was demonstrated in 73% of 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 (e.g. ramps and accessible facilities) for 71%.
A need for better and more education and information was also apparent, with 82% 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,’ said Rohan Greenland, CEO, MS Australia.
‘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,’ added Mr Greenland.