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Managing chronic illness and career – at 32

03:15pm October 12 2018

Kathleen Kelly says flexibility and being open with colleagues have helped her succeed in her career despite the challenges of rheumatoid arthritis.

Kathleen Kelly is like any young 30-something building her career. Apart from one thing: she’s doing it with rheumatoid arthritis, and all the joint pain and fatigue that comes with it.

“People think about arthritis and think about their grandparents…there’s actually around two million people in the workforce who struggle with arthritis,” says Kelly, 32.

According to the Productivity Commission, arthritis – which can take many forms – was among several diseases and conditions in 2014 where there was a more than double digit percentage point deficit in labour force participation between affected and non-affected people aged between 25 and 64.

The finding formed part of the PC’s landmark “Shifting the Dial” report last year, which put a $4.2 billion figure on potential long-run gains to the economy from improving the health of Australian workers.

“Poor health status represents one of the largest brakes on an economy’s labour supply, and thereby successful preventative health measures can potentially have significant positive economic effects,” supporting papers to the inaugural five-year productivity review of the nation say.

“Ill health and disability also restricts the productivity of those in the workforce.”

The $4.2bn figure is the potential 20-year “workforce impact (as a GDP gain)” from following the PC’s recommendations to better the health of Australians, compounding over time: the gain after five years was tipped to be $400m.

While paling in comparison to the potential $33.4bn “health expenditure dividend” over 20 years of changes to spending, the link between health and work may well be in for more investigation after the government on Sunday tasked the PC to have a specific look into the impact mental health is having in the economy and funding arrangements.

On the PC’s figures, around four million people are afflicted with mental and behavioural problems, or 17.5 per cent of the population in 2014-15 -- more than the combined sufferers of other chronic conditions including diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and heart, stroke and vascular disease. Treasurer Josh Frydenberg claimed the federal, state and territory governments would spend around $9bn on mental health this year.

But the impacts of any work limitation, disability or ill-health condition are clearly profound.

For one, the PC found participation in the jobs market was lower, markedly so in some cases. In June 2014, only around 40 per cent of people aged 25-49 years with a “profound or severe disability” participated in the labour market, compared to about 90 per cent for people with no disability or health condition. The divergence was larger for the more elderly cohort of workers.

Unemployment and underemployment is also higher, while hours of work are shorter. Bringing to life higher absenteeism rates, the PC noted that someone with “generally poor health” had about 50 per cent more sick days than the average in 2014.  

Kelly, who works in corporate affairs at BT Financial Group, a division of Westpac, says flexibility and being open with colleagues have helped her succeed in her career despite the challenges.

Kathleen Kelly at Westpac’s Sydney offices.

“I think the biggest thing that’s really important is to be transparent and open about what your limitations are, what it is you’re up against, so they know why I do work from home one day a week, why I might work flexible hours or why I can’t stand up at an event all day,” she says.

Aimee Willis, group manager safety and wellbeing at Westpac, says as work-life boundaries have become more blurred, businesses have had to think differently about their workforces to extract maximum value and reduce the costs from illness and injury.

In August, Macquarie Group’s environmental, social and governance equity analysts found a link between “Human Capital Management” – metrics including health and safety, and absenteeism – and returns, claiming listed Australian companies with high scores outperformed others over five and 10 years due to better productivity and efficiency.

“I think organisations are recognising the importance of focusing on health and wellbeing, not just for the sake of obviously demonstrating genuine care about their employees, but also (because) it is a value proposition and people want to work at a place that does genuinely care about them,” Ms Willis says. 

Michael Bennet was inaugural Editor of Westpac Wire from June 2017 to December 2021. He joined Westpac after more than 12 years in journalism, most recently at The Australian as the national newspaper’s banking reporter based in Sydney. Michael has worked at various News Corp publications and other media companies covering industries including financial services, resources, industrials, markets and economics. He is originally from Perth, Western Australia, where he also wrote across magazines covering the arts with a focus on music.

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