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Chronically ill workers often need extra time to deal with their afflictions. And time constraints create the greatest tension between such workers and their employer. One of the fastest-growing ways to give people more autonomy in their schedules is by creating a "flexible workplace," according to Karol Rose of LifeCare.com a global provider of workplace-management services. A flexible workplace can range from a part-time arrangement (though this can have salary and benefit implications) to very specific accommodations agreed upon between the employer and an individual employee. Some employers favor what is known as flexplace, or working by electronic extension from someplace other than the office. Other approaches include the compressed schedule, which packs more work hours into fewer days, and flextime, which lets employees adjust the start and end of their workday to their needs. Eve Elberg, 51, of Brooklyn, N.Y., has been back to work since February 2000 after a year-long hiatus because of cancer. The Web and graphics designer was pleased to find that her new employer, a national bank, was open to the idea of her working a few days a week. "They had a lot of faith in me," she says. "My re-entry has been a constant growing experience."
Larger companies can afford on-site health care, which provides them with a better understanding of the limitations illness can bring to the workplace. American Home Products, a global pharmaceutical and health-care manufacturer, has an on-site health-care service that provides blood screenings, allergy shots and diabetic care. "An on-site physician can consult with the employee's personal health-care provider and find good accommodations without the person's having to share the reasons with his or her supervisor," says AHP's director of employee relations, Nancy Konta. "The physician has the trust of our management."
Employees who are out of the workplace for extended periods of time often are worried about job tenure, not to mention making ends meet. One practice that is proving to be a dramatic stress reducer for chronically ill employees is the "sick bank," where healthy employees can donate sick days to a colleague. Second-grade teacher Raquel Allen, 47, of Imperial Beach, Calif., is currently recovering from a double mastectomy. Even though her job with the school district entitles her to only 13 sick days a year, so far she has received 72 anonymously donated days that have allowed her to maintain her salary. Common among unionized governmental agencies, sick banks and similar donation policies (some employers allow people to donate cash in lieu of vacation or sick leave) have grown significantly since they started about 15 years ago.
Help provided by co-workers isn't always formalized. In 1993 Joan Frier, now a public relations manager for SHARE, a national breast- and ovarian-cancer advocacy group based in New York City, started a new job as a legal text editor while recovering from breast cancer. Her bosses sometimes had unrealistic expectations, and it was her co-workers who gave her day-to-day encouragement. "They would take on some tasks for me, cover for my mistakes and help me with new things," she recalls. "I couldn't have done it without these people."