Around a quarter of companies are failing to provide access to emotional and practical support for staff that are suffering from serious illnesses.

Research from GRiD, the industry body for group risk sector, identifies that almost a quarter of employers (23 per cent) are failing to offer emotional or practical support to workers that have serious illnesses.

Regarding the employers that do choose to offer support, almost half of this comes in the form of a phased return back to work plan (43 per cent) and emotional support such as counselling (42 per cent).

Around a third (35 per cent) also offer access to practical support such as rehabilitation (35 per cent) and just under three in 10 (28 per cent) offer line manager training to better assist with support seriously ill employees.

Just over a quarter (27 per cent) give their employees access to medical specialists whilst 23 per cent give their staff the support to find a second medical opinion on their condition.

Promisingly, a fifth of employers (21 per cent) actually pay for their staff’s medical treatment if they are seriously ill. Additionally, just over one in six (17 per cent) businesses allow staff to access physiotherapy.

Katharine Moxham, spokesperson for GRiD, states the commonplace nature of serious illness in the UK workforce and how various levels of support are needed.

Using British Heart Foundation statistics** as an example, around 7.4 million people are living with heart and circulatory disease in the UK, 1.4 million alive today have survived a heart attack and over 900,000 people in the UK are living with heart failure. Life doesn’t suddenly return to normal for these individuals – they may well require support on many fronts for a significant period of time, be that help in getting a second medical opinion, accessing treatment, specialists and consultants, rehabilitation, physiotherapy or counselling.

The needs of those with serious illnesses are complex and multi-layered, with one medical issue often leading on to other secondary problems, mental health concerns and financial worries.

Additionally, Ms. Moxham identifies several areas that HR should focus on when deciding what support to offer and the importance of communicating the benefits to employees. This comes after previous research from GRiD showed that less than half of employers believe that their staff understand all the benefits available to them through their company.

Sarah Evans, Employment Partner at Constantine Law, outlines what legal obligations HR have if an employee has a serious illness:

Where a serious illness strikes an employee, the first port of call for any HR adviser will usually be to seek to understand the impact and prognosis of that illness, through gathering occupational health and expert medical advice, and engaging with the employee as far as is possible or appropriate.  This should give an early indication of any likely obligation under the anti-discrimination legislation as to practical reasonable adjustments that the employer is obliged to make.  In the early days of a diagnosis, the picture may not be clear and as any illness, effects, and treatment plans evolve, so does medical advice and the obligation to put in those adjustments.

However, meeting stark legal obligations is just one element: equally important is recognising that if an employee is going through a terrible experience, providing the “softer” support is priceless.  Making sure that the employee is fully aware of any benefits such as private medical insurance, counselling support or signposting to charities specialising in the illness will be the most useful to the employee.  There is no legal obligation to do this, but HR teams are the best placed representatives of the company to support the employment relationship at times of personal crisis, and a genuinely supported employee, as opposed to one who feels ignored or simply “processed” though referrals and form filling, will be engaged and positive about an employer who stands by them, when hopefully recovery and return to work is on the cards.

Ms. Moxham continues:

The good news is that such support is often readily available, embedded within the products for employer-sponsored life assurance, income protection and critical illness benefits, so employers need to investigate these when looking to support their workforce.

Some of these benefits may well be included within existing health and wellbeing benefits that employers already have in place, so employers should review what they have. It’s equally important that the detail of current benefits is communicated to staff, so they have a good understanding of the support available and know how to utilise it.

*This research was carried out in January 2020 by Opinium on behalf of GRiD amongst 500 HR decision makers and 1,165 UK employees.





Monica Sharma is an English Literature graduate from the University of Warwick. As Editor for HRreview, her particular interests in HR include issues concerning diversity, employment law and wellbeing in the workplace. Alongside this, she has written for student publications in both England and Canada. Monica has also presented her academic work concerning the relationship between legal systems, sexual harassment and racism at a university conference at the University of Western Ontario, Canada.