HR's guide to workplace dementia support
Claire Muir, December 24, 2019
What employers can do to assist employees with a dementia diagnosis
As we live longer we generally work longer. So the chances of employing someone with dementia are higher than ever.
According to Alzheimer’s UK, 850,000 people have been diagnosed in the UK and 42,000 of them are aged under 65. These numbers are set to rise to more than a million by 2025, so it is crucial to create dementia-friendly workplaces. While some individuals with advanced dementia won’t be able to work, many people with early-onset dementia can.
And yet a YouGov survey in April showed that 30% of people assume those with the condition will have stopped working.
Charles Alberts, head of health management at Aon, says employers need to put in place support for staff now and “not wait until their hand is forced when presented with an employee diagnosis.
“Equally, it’s important to think holistically as this is already affecting employees who may have caring responsibilities for family members diagnosed with dementia,” he says.
This is about being a socially responsible employer but also makes business sense by way of retaining valuable staff, says Emma Bould, programme partnerships manager at Alzheimer’s Society – and the Equality Act 2010 gives staff with dementia legal protection from discrimination.
Here’s how HR can create a workplace that supports employees with a diagnosis.
People with dementia need others to show awareness and understanding of the challenges of living with the disease, says Hilda Hayo, CEO and chief admiral nurse at Dementia UK.
“Particularly when an employee reveals a diagnosis, it’s important to be open, respectful and empathetic,” she says. “Employers can then work on devising an action plan with the support of an occupational health service.”
It is crucial to recognise that everyone’s experience of the illness is different, so employees should be treated as individuals, says Cheryl Lythgoe, senior matron at Benenden Health.
“There are more than a hundred specific types of dementia – Alzheimer’s being the most common – so it’s important to consider each employee’s case independently and take time to understand their unique needs and situation,” she says.
“The symptoms of dementia can be frustrating for the sufferer. Ensure they know you’re there for them,” says Lythgoe. “Increased stress exacerbates dementia so aim to tailor a low-stress environment and offer regular breaks and a safe place to unwind.”
Disclosing a diagnosis can be frightening, with many fearing they will lose their job or that colleagues will treat them differently. So it is important to establish if an employee wants their peers to know.
Alberts advises having clear policies and procedures that articulate the business’ approach, and ensuring that the right suite of benefits is in place.
Other practicalities include investing in online training or workshops on how to reduce the risk of developing dementia, its impact, and how to support those suffering. Fundraising events and charity collections can also encourage more open conversations around the condition at work.
Hayo adds: “Workplace clinics with dementia-specialist nurses can bolster awareness of the condition, giving everyone the practical and emotional advice to work without fear or stigma.”
Making small adjustments in the workplace can make a big difference to many with early-onset dementia.
Lythgoe advises introducing lunchtime exercise classes or running clubs, given that breaking a sweat can ease dementia symptoms. She also emphasises the positive impact of flexible working, so that duties can be scheduled around the effects of medication, and anxiety can be alleviated for those who find it difficult to drive or use public transport during peak times.
She warns that new working styles such as bright and noisy open-plan offices could adversely affect dementia sufferers. Implementing soundproofing or visual barriers can help minimise distractions, she advises.
New technology can also offer significant support. Voice-recognition software could help those who have difficulty typing but can still communicate verbally, while time-management tech can aid organisation. Meanwhile, the introduction of memory aids, labelling systems and ultra-clear signage can be highly effective.
Depending on the job, switching roles or amending duties is another possibility. But attention must be paid to avoid patronising employees with dementia by assigning them menial tasks.
Communication skills are often affected by dementia, so Lythgoe recommends organisations avoid stress-inducing impromptu meetings. Instead she advises sticking to regular days and times and finding a dementia-friendly space that takes background noise, light quality and comfortable seating into consideration.
“Set aside enough time not to rush the employee, maintain eye contact, listen carefully and check they’re understanding you,” she says. “Avoid finishing sentences for those with dementia if their speech is affected as it can cause frustration and stress. Follow up in writing or a voice note if they have difficulty remembering things.”
Staff should be supported fully if they decide to leave work because of their diagnosis. That means ensuring they don’t feel pressured to leave prematurely, but also discouraging them from staying longer than is healthy for them.
This piece appears in the December 2019 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk