The misconception that dementia is something that only affects older people can mean those of working age who suffer from early-onset dementia can be misdiagnosed, ignored or fall through the net when it comes to support. Yet there is actually much that employers, with the help of occupational health, can do to keep valued employees with early-onset dementia in the workplace and thriving, argues Marcus Beaver.
It is a common misconception that dementia is a condition of older age. This is despite the fact there are many people in the workplace living with early-onset dementia, while thousands more been misdiagnosed with depression or menopause symptoms.
Dementia and work
There are cases of people being performance-managed out of the workplace as a result of this. The sad fact is many employers have no idea that dementia is something that they need to look out for.
According to the Alzheimer’s Society, there are currently 850,000 people living with dementia in the UK and 45,000 are under the age of 65; women and men. It is another misconception that only women live with dementia.
Couple this with an ageing workforce, and it’s clear that most, if not all, workplaces will have to consider how they deal with employees with dementia in the not-too-distant future.
Bear in mind, too, that dementia is likely to fall within the definition of disability discrimination under the Equality Act, meaning an employer has a legal duty to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ for the employee (of which more later).
What is early-onset dementia?
The word dementia is used to describe a group of symptoms – often including memory loss, confusion or mood changes that are severe enough to affect day-to-day life. There are many causes of dementia, with Alzheimer’s disease being the most common.
Although often thought of as a disease of older people, around 5% of people with Alzheimer’s disease are under 65. This is called early-onset or young-onset Alzheimer’s. It usually affects people in their forties, fifties and early sixties.
Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of early-onset dementia. However, there are other causes in younger people such as frontotemporal dementia and vascular dementia.
As the number of people living with dementia increases, the benefits to employers of being ‘dementia friendly’ are clear.
You will retain staff with skills that they can pass on to their colleagues, the culture is likely to attract higher quality job applicants and, equally importantly, it shows you care about your employees.
Initial practical steps
The first message occupational health practitioners should be communicating to employers is to recognise that the early signs of dementia are not always apparent and aren’t always what we think of as ‘typical’ symptoms, such as missing appointments or forgetting words.”
The first message occupational health practitioners should be communicating to employers is to recognise that the early signs of dementia are not always apparent and aren’t always what we think of as ‘typical’ symptoms, such as missing appointments or forgetting words.
Many people with dementia, especially in the early days, either don’t want to acknowledge that there is anything wrong or develop coping strategies to deal with specific problems.
They may have colleagues who are prepared to cover for them, or they may have a job where the symptoms have less of an impact.
In today’s increasingly fluid workplaces, some managers rarely meet their staff face to face. Home working, flexible working, conference calling and managing by email have revolutionised the way we work.
But these innovations also mean it can be more difficult to identify when employees are in need of support, especially if they are reluctant to raise it with their managers.
Six tips to help employers embed ‘dementia awareness’
- Develop trusting relationships. The most important thing is to ensure that employees feel able to approach them on any health-related issue.
- Recognise the fear. Managers need to understand that employees who have been diagnosed with dementia will be fearful about the future as they will not know how their symptoms will progress. They may fear the stigma that unfortunately still attaches to mental illness.
- Do something positive. Employers can help to tackle this by having a dementia-friendly workplace, perhaps by using the Alzheimer’s Society’s guide Creating a dementia-friendly workplace.
- Offer ‘Dementia Friends’ training to employees. This can be accessed here.
- Give managers confidence. This can include offering training to managers in how to have what can be very difficult conversations with their staff.
- Be prepared to adjust roles or tasks. With an employee’s agreement, you may need gradually to change their role so there are fewer complex tasks to undertake. This is, naturally, something where occupational health can and should lead.