Woman with chronic illness calls out Ministry of Social Development over double standard

By Eleisha Foon for RNZ

A former public sector worker says she is disappointed with her employer as she battled to be understood in the workplace, after being diagnosed with a chronic illness.

Just seven months into her new job, Abby Malcolmson's life changed when she was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a chronic illness causing long-term muscle pain and fatigue.

She was employed by the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) in Wellington in October 2018, helping people to apply for welfare support and learned she had fibromyalgia in early 2019.

However, she has since resigned due to work-related stress and is now on the sickness benefit. She said as a woman with a chronic illness, she felt she lost the battle to be fully supported in the workplace.

Over this period she had to learn how to live with extreme back pain and adjust her lifestyle including the way she worked which required her to ask for extra time off and the option to work from home.

"Stress really affects the condition and if managers are a lot more open and kind to speaking about it, it makes the whole process a lot easier."

As time went on, she said her workplace became stressful and challenging, and the requests for flexibility were not fully supported.

She said it was hard to balance work and learning to cope with a chronic illness, but felt her employer could not fully accommodate her when she needed it most.

"I asked to be set up at home a few times because with my condition ... a lot of the time I wasn't able to put on work attire, but I wasn't able to work at home, they kept telling me there was too much cost involved."

In a statement, Ministry of Social Development group general manager for client service support George van Ooyen said: "This was a really sad situation, and we worked very hard to support Abby over the 18 months she worked for us. We're sorry to hear that she didn't feel supported."

However, they felt she had been supported and requests for flexible working hours were "generally met".

Abby also required surgery and took a three-month break at her doctor's request. Upon returning to work, she worried her job was at risk and felt threatened by her manager.

She said her doctor required a worksite assessment which was supposed to be done the day she returned to work after taking months of leave after surgery, but was only completed a month later, the delay causing her condition to worsen even further.

In response, van Ooyen said: "Abby filed a report through our health and safety tool on 21 August 2019 saying she had pain and discomfort and needed a new workstation. She was on leave until 26 August, and an occupational therapist assessment of her work set up was done within a week of her returning to work. Following the completion of that report, a sit/stand desk was available for use by 16 September."

Abby said the delay for a more suitable desk set-up, workplace-related stress and fear of disappointing her manager caused her condition to worsen.

She spent a year fighting to be understood and supported by the government agency. Her union PSA were also involved, a settlement was made and she was advised not to proceed to court. With no option to work from home - she resigned and was paid out.

PSA declined to comment.

Most chronic illnesses are considered a disability because it causes a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity.

Disability Rights Commissioner Paula Tesoriero said all government agencies must work to increase the number of disabled employees hired.

Disability advocates said the most common complaints were to do with the workplace, and this had to change.

The Human Rights Commission said 20 percent of employed disabled workers were under-utilised and wanted more work.

"We get a lot of complaints made around employers not making reasonable accommodation. Disabled people currently have twice the unemployment rate of non-disabled people," the commissioner said.

About 4.8 percent of MSD staff self-identify as having a disability.

"We take seriously our obligations to be a good employer. That means meeting all our legal obligations like the Human Rights Act, Employment Relations and State Sector Act. We hire people on merit, we don't discriminate and we value diversity," he said.

They are now developing an improved flexibility approach, including options like working from home for their employees, he said.

Abby said she wished she had the option to work from home like some of her colleagues did but resigned before the option to work from was offered to some MSD staff.

"Honestly it was just shattering. I was so angry and I felt so let down MSD saying there is nothing we can do and now it is clear, within a week COVID hit and our entire office was set up and working from home and they couldn't do it for one person."

Abby hopes her story encourages employers to improve their flexibility and options to work from home for people living with chronic illnesses.

She also hopes that when hiring, employers approach situations with kindness and understanding for people living with disabilities in the workplace.