Dementia Action Week – 20 May 2019
As a nation we are far more likely to engage in discussion about health issues impacting on the mind and its health than in years gone by. With a wealth of information at our disposal on the internet, and high profile figures publicly supporting charities and causes to raise awareness, there has never been a better time to explore these issues. With ‘Dementia Action Week’ starting on 20 May, now seems like a good time to home in on the particular challenges of dementia. The aim of this important week is to raise the profile of dementia – whether in our workplaces or communities – and remove some of the ignorance surrounding the condition.
So what is dementia and how widespread is it?
Dementia involves a decline in mental ability with varied symptoms including memory loss; difficulties with thinking, problem-solving or language and changes in mood or behaviour. It occurs a result of the death of brain cells or damage in parts of the brain that deal with our thought processes (Mental Health Foundation). Symptoms can be mild to start with but will typically decline insidiously over time. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia and one that most of us have heard of or come across. There are around 850,000 people in the UK with dementia – predicted to increase to 1,000,000 by 2025. One in 14 people over 65 will develop dementia. It is inevitable that for many sufferers, symptoms of dementia will begin to appear whilst the person is still at work so employers have to plan for this and be able to supportively accommodate changes in mental capacity.
What do employers have to consider?
The impact of dementia is far reaching. It affects the sufferer and their carer(s). We should all be familiar with the Equality Act’s (EA) requirement for reasonable adjustments to be introduced at work for those with a disability, but it’s also worth reminding ourselves of the protection which carers of those with a disability receive under the EA, and the need to flexibly accommodate employees with such responsibilities wherever possible. Yet, a study published in late 2018 in the journal ‘Occupational Medicine’ found that employees who developed early onset dementia between age 30 and 65 were not being offered the reasonable adjustments that could have helped them to carry on with their jobs. There was evidence of poor management styles in dealing with dementia, low levels of co-worker support and in some cases “no real will” to find individuals suitable roles for their remaining skills level.
The role of employers in supporting employees with dementia is likely to be complex. For example, has there been a diagnosis which the employee readily shares with their employer? Or maybe there is a referral to occupational health for vague symptoms of declining capacity which results in investigations and ultimately a diagnosis of dementia? What about team colleagues – should they be informed and how? How do employees cope with witnessing the impact of dementia on a valued colleague? How should short or longer term absences be tackled? What kind of information would support employees, their family members or carers? Occupational health professionals have a pivotal role in advising on the practical, emotional and physical implications of an employee living with dementia.
A thought to finish
Dementia doesn’t change a person completely overnight. It’s a progressive disease. Being able to work and make a contribution has been shown to be hugely positive in terms of our mental health and therefore retaining employees with residual capacity to undertake some work is important. We as employers need to plan proactively to do this and not regard dementia as some sort of cliff-edge over which people suddenly fall. We must confront our own fear and lack of understanding about the condition and begin to consider our strategies for supporting employees with dementia in the workplace.