three women sit at desks with computers talking to each other looking happy
Unlimited International Selection Panel 2017 Photo by Rachel Cherry

Access: Staff with autoimmune conditions

Within the Unlimited team, we have a number of staff with autoimmune related conditions, so at a recent meeting Jo Verrent, Senior Producer (who is one of them) offered to do a bit of research around best practice for employers and employees, prompted by our trainee Becky Dann (another one of them). So how can we best support both personal and organisational needs?

I detailed my own tips for flexible working last year, so was keen to see if I could find out more that specifically linked to working with people with autoimmune related conditions – where risk of infection is an issue and variable fatigue and pain may create barriers. As with any piece of research it was reassuring to be reminded of stuff I already knew and useful to find new tips to improve practice. Two areas where most arts organisations might be able to improve are around preventing transmission of germs and dealing with fluctuating work patterns. For the former, I was surprised how much simple stuff is not yet common practice.

Hygiene:

  • Provide hand sanitizer and antibacterial soap in all bathrooms and kitchens
  • Also provide it at group meetings – the times you are most likely to pass on bugs. If it’s in the centre of a table, most people are likely to use it, especially if they see others doing so
  • Provide proper hygiene training for all staff – it should be part of all inductions

Work environment and equipment:

  • Provide regular cleaning of work environments including dusting, washing, and vacuuming of hard surfaces, and check this includes cleaning door handles/panels and areas many people touch each day with an antibacterial cleaner. Ideally this should include desks and not just floors – perhaps try starting ‘clean your desk’ Friday?
  • Ensure office layouts can easily accommodate wheelchairs, braces, canes, or other assistive devices as needed
  • Check annually with Access to Work in case new technological solutions to repeating issues have become standard
  • Allow employees to have their own (not shared) equipment (phones, keyboards, tools, etc.) to minimize exposure to germs
  • Provide good ventilation – ideally using HEPA filters, air-purification systems and ionizers
  • Allow employees to have their own mini fridge if needed to avoid cross contamination

Exposure:

  • The number one rule was to have and enforce a policy that sick employees and sick dependents of employees should not come to the workplace – apparently that’s how most infections are spread (two thirds of staff still go into work when feeling ill). Offering working from home as an option for those not well enough to be at work but not ill enough for sick leave is good practice
  • In addition, many people are sensitive to scent – so ensure fragrance and smoke-free policies are in place and enforced and use alternatives to chemicals in cleaners, soaps, pest control, and construction and maintenance products where possible
  • Some people are sensitive to different lights – so why not check staff and guests are ok with the lighting on offer and have alternative lighting available on request
  • If you can, filter ultraviolet radiation from lighting, computer, television, telephone screens, windows, and skylights and shield electronic devices to reduce electromagnetic exposure

Dealing with fluctuating work patterns is more complex, with the need to balance both an individual’s requirements and those of the organisation, but there is still lots of good practice out there…

Promoting flexibility:

  • Enable employees to balance their own work priorities and utilise their best times to work on specific tasks, for example, many people have more energy and focus in the morning
  • Provide a flexible schedule to allow employees to leave and work from home if being exposed to germs (for example, from other staff who are working whilst ill) – use of online tools can make this more successful
  • Allow flexible scheduling for medical appointments and allow additional breaks to rest, take medication, do treatments, and lower stress levels – allowing staff to catch up time lost by elongating the working day or catching up from home
  • Allow flexible scheduling around sick days/days lost to fatigue, enabling staff to choose whether to reassign the time or take as sick leave (each company determines their own policies in this area and whilst the average employee only takes between one to two sick days a year, sick leave of over one day a month may mean companies can argue that their business is being adversely affected)
  • Consider out-of-office issues affecting work, such as commuting – travelling at off-peak hours for example, might help
  • If more flexibility is required than an employer can offer, consider if any of the work could form a freelance contract that could be delivered at a different pace

Flares (sudden, severe onset of symptoms):

  • If you sense a flare coming on, take a day or two off to manage it early rather than waiting until you’re in a full-blown episode
  • Aim to stay a week ahead of deadlines at work so that days off are less disruptive
  • Work additional hours when well in order to build up a buffer of time to use when experiencing flares – with the aim of hours balancing out across the year
  • Make judicious use of vacation time – ensure days off after periods of intense work to recover to avoid over exertion
  • If experiencing a period of ill health, explore the option to work part time (or reduced hours) until the situation improves (and ideally explore this before it becomes necessary)

In general, it’s important to plan and to be assertive, proactive and solution focused, as there may be times when you need to delegate or to change deadlines. If options are planned in advance, employees won’t create a record of bad performance.

It’s well worth knowing the details around the existing laws that protect your right to keep working, the employers need to make reasonable adjustments and also the employers requirements and rights to maintain their business.