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Workplace chronic health conversations are awkward: A new tool is here to help

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April 21, 2023
By Todd Humber

Photo: Panitan/Adobe Stock

There’s no getting around it — discussions between workers and managers around accommodating chronic and episodic health conditions can be uncomfortable and awkward.

Supervisors might be unsure about what questions they should, or are even allowed, to ask. Employees might not want to disclose specific health issues for fear of stigma or gossip.

With that in mind, the Institute for Work & Health (IWH) has launched a new evidence-based and self-serve tool — the Job Demands and Accommodation Planning Tool (JDAPT) — to make the process easier for everyone.

“For workers with chronic health conditions, the fear of not being able to work during flare-ups or as they age often looms large,” said IWH senior scientist Monique Gignac, the director of the Accommodating and Communicating about Episodic Disabilities (ACED) partnership project that developed the tool. “Yet, with the right supports and accommodations at work, many of these workers can continue in their jobs for many years. The JDAPT aims to help them do just that.”


Many workers with chronic conditions — estimates range anywhere from one-quarter to one-half — haven’t shared any information about it with their supervisor, she said. And the numbers are significant: 3.8 million Canadians aged 15 and over have an episodic disability, according to a 2019 report from Statistics Canada.

“Even a bigger proportion haven’t talked to HR or a disability manager or a union representative, so we know there will continue to be this reluctance to share,” said Gignac.

How it works

The online tool gets people to focus on four big job domains — physical demands; cognitive/thinking demands; working with others; and job conditions. It has 24 questions and takes about 10 to 15 minutes to complete. It spits out a personalized report of the areas that are challenging, along with a “whole range of support ideas,” she said.

Gignac said the worker version of the tool starts with broad questions.  “For example, does your job involve concentrating for long periods of time?”

Chronic conditions include mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety, Crohn’s disease, colitis, multiple sclerosis, migraine, rheumatic diseases like arthritis and lupus, chronic fatigue syndrome, many musculoskeletal conditions such as low-back pain and tendinopathies, HIV/AIDs, as well as many forms of cancer and rare diseases. They’re often invisible to others and best understood by the individual experiencing them, she said.

“Organizations don’t know what that’s like on a day-to-day basis, and it might not be a specific task that is always the problem,” she said. “It’s just, over time, a person gets more fatigued or it becomes more difficult.”

Employers might be able to tell something is off, but won’t be able to identify the root cause without help from the worker.

“We can certainly identify that this is not going well, that there’s a problem with this particular task. But the reason for it, we need to actually hear from the worker,” said Gignac.

The tool gives workers personalized strategies, ranging from things they can do on their own to ones that might require support and formal accommodation from their employer.

“It might be to use a stool or foot rest to help you change positions,” she said, and the worker can go through and click the ones that are most likely to be applicable in their job.

Free to use, and confidential

There is no charge to use JDAPT, and workers can rest assured that their privacy is safe, she said. The tool is available across Canada, in both English and French.

“We don’t ask for any information about who the person is or where they work. We don’t know who fills it out,” said Gignac. “Once you leave the site, we don’t save any information. We don’t email any information to people.”

Instead, they can save a PDF of their results. While some users did say it would be more convenient to have the results emailed, or to be able to save progress and continue later, a decision was made to not allow that in order to ensure privacy and confidentiality, she said.

Employer version in the works

A worker can use JDAPT for themselves to try and be more proactive, and not so crisis focused, said Gignac. Employers, on the other hand, can use it to get ideas about where they might be able to be more open and inclusive in how they organize work with the goal of helping to sustain a worker in a role or help them return to work.

A version of JDAPT, designed specifically for use by employers, is in the works. “The organizational version is coming in a couple of months, and it’s about a 95 per cent overlap (with the worker version),” she said.

It will be useful for supervisors who see a worker who is struggling in silence, not saying anything or reaching out for help.

“They could go through (the tool) thinking about the job itself in the same way that a worker would,” said Gignac, flagging areas where they are seeing issues and using it to help form a plan.

And IWH plans to adapt the tool on the fly based on feedback it gets on how employers and employees are using it.

“We’re trying to make it as flexible as possible and we’re wanting to learn from organizations,” she said.

The tool launched on March 21. For more information, visit https://aced.iwh.on.ca/jdapt.

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