How employers can support people with multiple sclerosis to stay in employment

By Dr Elizabeth Goodwin, Health Economics, University of Exeter

Researchers from the University of Exeter have worked with the UK Multiple Sclerosis Register to explore how people with MS make decisions about their working lives. In December 2017, 2350 members of the MS Register completed a survey that asked them to imagine choosing between two jobs. The results have now been published and they provide interesting insights into how employers can support people with MS who want to stay in employment.

We wanted to investigate the factors that influence the decisions that people with MS make about their working lives. This seems important because people with MS report higher rates of unemployment, higher rates of part-time working, and lower incomes, compared to the general population. Previous research has shown that paid employment can have a positive impact on people’s wellbeing. However, not everyone with MS who wants to stay in employment is able to do so. We were interested in factors that employers could change, making it easier for people with MS to make the decisions that are right for them as individuals.

We used the results of previous research studies to produce a list of factors that influence the decisions that people with MS make about whether to stay in work or leave, reduce their hours or change jobs. We then worked with a group of people with MS to select the five most important factors from this list. By choosing a small number of factors, we could use them in a type of survey called a Discrete Choice Experiment. The results from this type of survey show which factors have the greatest impact on people’s decisions.

The factors that the group of people with MS chose with us were: 

In the survey, members of the MS Register were shown two jobs, which were described using the factors shown above. They were asked to choose which of the two jobs they would prefer.

The graph below shows the results of the survey. We found that the most important factor was the impact that working had on other aspects of people’s lives. Among the factors that employers could do something about, the most important was workplace culture, ie having understanding and supportive managers and colleagues. The least important was the availability of physical adaptations in the workplace.

The graph above shows the results for everyone who took part in the survey. However, we also found that the whole group could be divided into three smaller groups, each of which had a different view of how important they thought each factor was. This seemed to be connected to the type of job (managerial/professional or intermediate/manual) and the type of MS (relapsing-remitting or progressive) that people had.

These results suggest that employers should focus on learning about the effects of MS on people’s lives and work, and on developing and maintaining a workplace culture in which people with MS feel supported by managers and colleagues. A ‘one size fits all’ approach is not helpful for supporting people with MS in their working lives. Managers need to listen to employees with MS, in order to understand their needs and meet them in a way that suits the individual. This involves thinking about the physical and mental demands of the job, and how these relate to the symptoms and the type of MS experienced by the employee, in order to ensure that the support offered is relevant. For example, physically-focused adaptations may be a high priority for jobs that are physically demanding and for people with physical limitations, whereas greater flexibility may be more important for mentally demanding jobs and for people with relapsing-remitting MS.

This study sheds light on the factors that influence the decisions of people with MS about their employment and the support required for them to remain employed, and shows how much this varies between individual people with MS. We hope that these findings will help to inform employers and policy-makers about the steps that they could take to enable people with MS to remain in the workforce for longer if they choose to do so.

You can read the published article about this study by clicking on the link below:

http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10926-020-09952-5