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Employer's attitude is key

28th April, 2014

In work that received seed funding from MS Research Australia, Drs Pieter van Dijk and Andrea Kirk-Brown have previously showed that disclosing a diagnosis of MS in the workplace is associated with improved retention of employment. This work was published in December 2013 and we reported on it previously (See the earlier article here).

Now the same researchers have delved deeper into the possible reasons for this and revealed how an employer’s responses to a person’s disclosure of MS can profoundly affect their sense of self-worth and their intentions to stay in the workplace. The new work has been published in the Multiple Sclerosis Journal.

Drs van Dijk and Kirk-Brown conducted a study of 40 people with MS regarding their experiences in the workplace following disclosure of their MS diagnosis to their employer. Through individual interviews and focus groups, the researchers examined the responses of the employer or organisation and the resulting impact on the individual’s sense of trust and respect in the workplace (psychological safety) and their belief in their ability to succeed (efficacy).

The resulting data revealed that following an employee’s disclosure of MS two key categories of organisational responses emerged - a focus on ability or a focus on disability.

Where the focus was on disability, there tended to be a paternalistic attitude, in which the employer re-allocated tasks or adjusted working arrangements without consultation with the employee with MS. Even in circumstances where a clear statement of job security was made by the employer, these people with MS experienced a reduced sense of trust and respect, reduced confidence in their own abilities and made considering reducing or leaving employment more likely.

Where there was a focus on ability from the employer, combined with a process of including the employee with MS in decisions about workplace support and adjustments, there was a much more positive perception by the person with MS. They had increased feelings of trust and appreciation and a stronger belief in their own capabilities, resulting in reduced intentions to leave the workplace.

Other studies have shown that employment is a strong factor determining quality of life for people with MS, not only due to economic security, but in areas of self-belief and life satisfaction.

Therefore, this data helps to strengthen our understanding of how people with MS may be supported to retain employment and how organisations may be trained or assisted to provide the most appropriate support for employees following disclosure of a diagnosis of chronic illness.

View the abstract here