Chronically ill need a sense of empowerment

Give your employees permission to be sick’

The key to helping chronically ill employees obtain maximum productivity is at once both simple and complex: They must be given "permission" to be sick. So says Dorothy Leone-Glasser, RN, HHC, a chronic illness management therapist at the Wentz Wellness Center for Women in Alpharetta, GA.

"Employees who learn they have a chronic illness immediately feel out of control because their body is out of control," says Leone-Glasser. "The mind-body-spirit connection is out of balance. It is important that we give them permission to be sick." This "permission," she says, is surprisingly empowering.

"Until we give them permission, they can’t give it to themselves, and they need that to have a chance to get well," she notes. That’s because permission to be ill removes the denial, and what remains is the chronic illness, she explains.

"As soon as you admit this might be forever, you have the chance to make all the wonderful changes in your life; you have the opportunity to change things because this illness is demanding that. Out of this, you will gain the control to be a well as possible despite being ill."

This is not just a theory Leone-Glasser espouses; it is grounded in her own personal experience. When she was 20, she was diagnosed with systemic lupus erythematosus, and given three years to live. In 1987, she was treated for cancer and given five years to live. This year, she was one of 50 national "Heroes Overcoming Arthritis" chosen by the Atlanta-based Arthritis Foundation.

Her own experiences led her to develop a program called the Living Well With Chronic Illness program, which she started in 1984. While designed for individuals and families both inside and outside the workplace, it led to speaking engagements and seminars at corporations such as IBM and Kimberly Clarke.

Employers and employees have a special stake in chronic illness, she notes. "Part of the problem is awareness. Employees are afraid to tell their bosses; with the health care system changing so drastically, it could be a problem for the company and the managed care contracts they have. But if they had a wellness program available for these employees it would help keep them as well as possible, so they can be as productive as possible. Also, employers themselves suffer from chronic illness, and their own illness could be overlooked."

The most common chronic illnesses affecting employees, she says, are arthritis (more than 100 forms); cardiac disease; and cancers that were once invariably fatal but are now curable. "They have now turned into chronic illnesses," she explains. Lung disease is also on the rise among women, because more of them are smoking.

Focusing on stress

Stress is a key focal point of her workplace presentation, because increased stress can exacerbate symptoms. "In the workplace it’s very important to address stress management and the side effects of negative stress on the body," Leone-Glasser says. She begins her sessions with a video from the Arthritis Foundation that includes interviews with chronically ill employees who have successfully continued their careers. Next, she teaches the employees meditation and stress reduction techniques. These include guided imagery and visualization, where the employees are taught to visually go into their own DNA and RNA at the cellular level. "Once you learn this, you can close your office door, and do this for 10 minutes anytime during the day," she says. Then, she discusses other coping methods for creating a healthier balance encompassing their personhood,’ their career, and their health maintenance.

"Employees with chronic illnesses must create a balance between rest and activity — between the hours they must be at work and their personal time," she says. Key strategies include meditation, stress management techniques, nutrition, sleep patterns, social and personal interactions, journaling activities, keeping a food log, and looking for a correlation between what you do and how your symptoms are at those times.

"During your break or lunch hour you must meditate or perform stress reduction techniques," Leone-Glasser advises, "because what you need to do is get through the rest of the day, whether you’re dealing with pain, or with chronic fatigue."

Physical conditioning is also very important. For employees who cannot do a full aerobics program, t’ai chi, yoga, or stretching programs can be very beneficial. "They introduce endorphins into the bodily system, giving a sense of well-being, and that reduces the pain cycle," says Leone-Glasser.

Finally, she recommends, examine the employee’s work environment. "This is where they spend most of their time," she notes. "The area should be kept clear of any triggers that might exacerbate their systems. For example, for anyone with cancer or autoimmune diseases, getting incandescent lights is important, because fluorescent lights trigger all autoimmune diseases."

If it is too expensive to change the light bulbs, inexpensive clear fiberglass tubes can be purchased that slip right over a long fluorescent bulb, says Leone-Glasser.

"Some employees have heightened allergies, and the air in the office can literally make them sick," she adds. "Such employees should have air filters, both at home and in the workplace."

[Editor’s note: For more information, contact: Dorothy Leone-Glasser, Wentz Center for Wellness, 2365 Old Milton Parkway, Suite 300, Alpharetta, GA 30004. Telephone: (770) 521-2140.]