As a sufferer of a severe, disabling chronic pain condition, I know first-hand the impact that a proactive, innovative employer can have on one’s long-term health and well-being. Every workplace and every job description is different, but I believe that there are a number of things that employers can do that can have a huge impact on the happiness and productivity of employees with unique physical needs. I’ve outlined some tips below. Employers play a significant role in helping their most vulnerable employees live productive lives. Here’s my story, and what you can do to mirror these ideas.

I am responsible for technical documentation and content management with iovation. Due to my condition, I have been unable to sit or walk more than a few minutes here and there for three years or so. Because I have been exceedingly fortunate to work for a compassionate company that prioritizes employee well-being, I’ve remained more active and connected to my normal life than I thought possible.

(Photo Credit: Jim Hendrie)

Nothing Prepares You for Illness and Disability

Emotionally, confronting long term illness and disability is an awful experience. In addition to the immediate loss of mobility, we face a lot of fear about the future. Can I continue to work? Will I maintain a social existence? What are the side effects of treatment options? Employers can help a great deal.

1. Provide Physical Accommodations

It’s surprising how adaptable we can be once we get past any self-consciousness about our bodies. Years ago after I decided that I would make appearances at work despite my inability to sit, I established a sort of bed under my desk, rolling out an REI foam pad with some strategic pillow arrangements. Later on I determined that there are zero-gravity recliners than can accommodate me, and iovation invested in one that worked perfectly for a year or so. At no point did iovation take issue with the relative professionalism of lying down. Coworkers quickly got over the sight and even had a good time joking about it with me.

Clearly, this doesn’t work for every job. Were I required to travel, or to do any lifting or walking, I’d have had to find new employment. I am fortunate enough to be a desk-worker and therefore have the flexibility. But employers can ask themselves: beyond standard access, how can you think outside the box to help your employee be physically capable? How can you reconceptualize what a “work environment” looks like away from a standard cubicle and chair?

2. Support Remote Work

One of the greatest innovations of the internet age is the ability to work remotely. It’s not welcomed by everyone, of course, but for a person with significant physical limitations who can only occasionally leave the house, it’s been essential to my wellbeing and productivity. This is especially true when recuperating from medical procedures, where I am literally confined to bed for weeks at a time. By Skyping in to meetings and logging into our suite of cloud-based development tools, I have been able to contribute as much from home as I ever have from a cubicle.

I know that remote work is sometimes controversial, and I understand why. However, for employees with special needs, it is a lifeline and employers who support the option will find that these employees will reward them with loyalty and productivity.

3. Help Overcome Isolation with Technology

Chronic illness isolates people. Because I have primarily worked remotely for years now, I tend to retreat into a quiet corner of the house with very little or no physical social interaction. Illness breeds depression, and social isolation feeds into that. Very little helps hold this at bay more effectively than direct interaction, whether over Skype or even just texting. My peers at iovation have made a point of reaching out consistently, using conference tools, phone, even just an abundance of email. Anything to steer me towards positive social events. This helps quell the fear of being left-out, a problem all remote workers deal with, but that is especially challenging on top of mobility and other physical limits. It’s important to foster this outreach at a department or company level. What are ways that your remote employees can be regularly integrated using technology? Thinking of ways for employees to communicate in addition to email can foster team camaraderie, and keep all your employees engaged with one another.

4. Identify Tangible Milestones

The final thing that I have observed is that it is much more difficult to maintain a sense of accomplishment when I am not part of a physical, social work environment. To solve this, I identify and drive toward specific objectives on a daily basis, and validate these objectives with coworkers. By focusing on concrete tasks that I believe contribute positively to the company’s mission, I reassure myself that I am productive. I have never been one to fixate on productivity as a measure of success, however it really can help stave off the imposter-syndrome that can overtake a person with special needs. So what are some ways your company can incorporate milestones that signal success? Too often we think solely of number-based goals, but what other measures can you add to your review cycles that keep all employees motivated, and able to demonstrate progress? These goals can be critical to the emotional well-being of employees working through chronic illness or disability.

I am grateful to iovation for the flexibility to survive this experience. Ultimately, however, I want to join the chorus of voices who advocate for the disabled by trying to influence corporate culture at large. We put too much emphasis on butts in seats. We have the tools to support even the most physically vulnerable contributors, and all employers should strive to do so.