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Chronically ill and a professional career? It is possible!

  • Pilot project Activ84worK enables new way of working through telework

With the support of the patient association “Crohn- en Colitis Ulcerosa Vereniging” (CCV vzw), AbbVie, Mensura, Proximus, SD Worx and the Leuven University Hospital (UZ Leuven) have joined forces to help people suffering from a chronic illness keep active at work. On the eve of the national Crohn and Colitis Day (22 October), Activ84worK partners present the results of the pilot project today. Activ84worK focuses specifically on people with chronic inflammatory bowel disease and concludes that home and teleworking can indeed improve labour participation of people suffering from this disease.

Of the 71 patients who signed up, 19 were eligible to take part in Activ84worK, and 14 completed the full programme. Over a period of six months, this group enjoyed tailored and flexible working conditions thanks to the option of working from home. The aim of the project was to improve the well-being of the patient, their employers, and society at large by focusing on the workability of people with a chronic illness.

Activ84worK focuses specifically on employees with Crohn’s disease and Ulcerative Colitis, chronic illnesses mainly affecting people of active working age (15 to 40) – about 35,000 people in Belgium alone. The main symptoms – frequent diarrhoea, stomach ache, fever and tiredness – make it difficult to commute and spend entire days at the office during particularly during a flare-up of the illness. The pilot project has shown that working at home can be a good solution and offers a range of benefits for both employee and employer. Concretely, the study shows that this solution makes employees feel more at ease with regard to juggling their work and care. In most cases this results in fewer days of sick leave. In turn, this leads to a higher degree of workability of employees, and a decrease in costs of absenteeism for employers.

Activ84worK: a win-win situation for everyone involved

In concrete terms, Activ84worK removes a number of work-related stress factors. Simply having a toilet nearby can be reassuring for patients with an inflammatory bowel disease. Not having to worry about that, and being able to arrange the working day in a flexible manner, makes it easier to concentrate on the actual work.

The Technical Services department at KU Leuven was among the first employers to take part in the pilot project. “Thanks to the pilot project, my employee is more motivated. He has been able to develop his skills thanks to a specific package of tailored tasks that allow him to make full use of his computer skills. This enabled him to put himself and his capabilities in the picture much more. Even now that the pilot project has ended, we are carrying on with the agreements we made with regard to working at home. This has been beneficial for both sides, so why not continue.”

The pilot project also provides a concrete response to a hot topic in Belgian politics: the shift towards sustainable healthcare and ‘workable work’. In assessing the success of Activ84worK, the main focus of the evaluation was the well-being of the patients. The effects for employers and employees, in terms of job attendance and socio-economic impact of sustainable employment of people with a chronic illness, were also evaluated. The Activ84worK partners are using the conclusions of the project to inspire policy- makers and employers in order to gain a maximum support for the chronically ill eager to work.

Dr Marie-Noëlle Schmickler, Chief Medical Director of Mensura, emphasises that, in very concrete terms, simplifying the principle of flexible working hours can help. “Employees are able to determine their own starting and end times as well as their breaks, while the employer decides on the set periods of time during which they must be present. This way, employees can continue to work and employers can continue to rely on a motivated worker. All in all, a flexible arrangement ensures a win-win situation for both sides.”

Lifting taboos

According to a survey, nearly 40% of patients with chronic inflammatory bowel diseases have changed jobs at least once due to their illness, and 59% feel their illness stands in the way of professional growth. The Activ84worK pilot project has also highlighted the major taboo surrounding illness on the work floor, and the particular stigma with relation to these specific bowel illnesses. Moreover, working from home is far from common in large companies in Belgium. It is therefore essential that employee and employer have a relationship of trust.

As one participating employee puts it, “Over the course of the project I gained confidence. My illness had become a heavy burden like the Sword of Damocles. I was very concerned that, whenever I was unable to come to work, it would lead to an end of our collaboration. But thanks to my talks with my coordinator, among other things, I came to see that they understand my situation and that I don’t need to worry about having to stay away. That feels good.”

The biopharmaceutical company AbbVie is one of the Activ84worK partners. General Manager of AbbVie Belgium & Luxemburg Thibault Massart emphasises the fact that living with chronic illness is not easy, and that every patient can benefit from solutions and initiatives going beyond treatments to simply keep their illness under control. “Activ84worK is a good example of how traditional and non-traditional partners can work out a project together to create added value for patients and society. AbbVie wants to play an active role in developing fresh solutions towards a healthier society. Together we achieve more than alone!”