Ep 225 – How to Support Employees with Autoimmune Disease

As we’ve responded to the COVID-19 crisis, safety precautions, remote working logistics, managing furloughs and layoffs, and protecting essential workers has been top of mind for HR leaders for the past two months. As we enter six weeks of stay at home and shelter in place mandates, we’re also thinking about phased reopening, as well as our essential employees. One group we’re focused on is those who have high risk of contracting the novel coronavirus, as well as a higher risk of dying from it. How can we protect employees with health conditions such as autoimmune disease when we have regulations against asking for personal health information under HIPAA? 

Episode 225: How to Support Employees with Autoimmune Disease with Holly Bertone (@PinkFortitude)

 

Today I’m joined by Holly Bertone, PMP, CNHP, and the author of Thriving in the Workplace with Autoimmune Disease: Know Your Rights, Resolve Conflict, and Reduce Stress. A highly sought-after speaker and wellness expert and the leading authority on Autoimmune Disease in the workplace, Holly is the President and CEO of Pink Fortitude, LLC, and founder of Fortitude Academy and the health and wellness website pinkfortitude.com. As a breast cancer and Hashimoto’s survivor, she turned these two significant health challenges into a passion to help transform lives for women with chronic illness. Holly, welcome to the Workology Podcast. 

There are an estimated 23.5 million Americans who have an autoimmune disease spanning all ages, sexes, races, and backgrounds. These people are in our workplaces and are clocking in and doing the work with us in most case completely unaware of their disease. Holly says that there are more than 100 diseases that are considered auto immune diseases which is why it makes it a challenge to navigate in any environment but especially in our current pandemic with coronavirus and COVID-19.

How We Can Protect Employees Who Have Autoimmune Diseases 

 

Holly says individuals and most employees with auto immune disease actually don’t know that they are considered having a legal disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act, as most employers, managers in HR professionals aren’t aware of this as well. And but in this current situation, at risk is a very common lexicon. So whether, you know, there’s not an understanding of, OK, you know, this this person’s covered under ADA. She says if the employee has an auto immune disease, they understand they are at risk. And, as employers we need to take extra special care of keeping them safe. However, if you don’t know the individual has an auto immune disease, this presents its whole whole set of problems because or you may suspect someone has an auto immune disease.

As employers, we need to assume all of our team is at risk and to create processes and find ways to protect them right now and moving forward.

 

Can We Ask Employees If They Have an Autoimmune Disease?

 

This is common question I am seeing from business leaders and HR pros in this current pandemic crisis. According to HIPAA we are not allowed to seek out certain health information. However, this pandemic crisis has changed a great deal especially with employers not allowed to check employee temperatures in the workplace. I’ve included some resources below that provide managers and HR leaders information on how to navigate sensitive healthcare information and guidance on temperature checks and if we can share with team members if someone has an autoimmune disease or a COVID-19 diagnosis. The short answer is no, we cannot ask if an employee has an autoimmune disease and we should not be sharing with coworkers sensitive healthcare information including their diagnosis. However, if the employee chooses to share with their colleagues that is their decision and is not consider a HIPAA violation. Holly shares her own experience in asking for accommodation and flexible scheduling for an employer. I appreciate her candid honesty which I hope will help educate managers on autoimmune diseases and open the conversation to how we can protect, accomodate, and support them right now and moving forward. 

Conclusion

This pandemic crisis has turned our economy on its head and created a lot of confusion for companies and human resources in particular. There’s no guide or playbook for responding to a crisis like this one; most of us have never experienced anything like it in our lifetimes. We all want to ensure that our employees are healthy and protected, whether that looks like making accommodations for essential workers or extending remote working for our most vulnerable population. I appreciate Holly joining us today to give us insight into how we can better support employees with Autoimmune Disease.

Connect with Holly Bertone on LinkedIn

 

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Jessica Miller-Merrell

Jessica Miller-Merrell

Jessica Miller-Merrell (@jmillermerrell) is a workplace change agent, author and consultant focused on human resources and talent acquisition living in Austin, TX. Recognized by Forbes as a top 50 social media influencer and is a global speaker. She’s the founder of Workology, a workplace HR resource and host of the Workology Podcast.

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