Accommodating Parkinson’s at Work

By Jackie Hunt Christensen and Julie Steen Nov 30, 2012
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​Question: What do employers need to know about Parkinson’s disease?

Answer: Parkinson’s disease (PD) is no longer a condition of the elderly; more than 15 percent of people diagnosed are 40 or younger. Employers must know how to accommodate employees with PD, therefore, so they can remain productive during their prime working years.

When it comes to the number of people with chronic progressive neurodegenerative diseases, Parkinson’s is second only to Alzheimer’s. While there is no definitive test for Parkinson’s, physicians look for four hallmark signs of the disease: tremors, muscle rigidity, slowness of movement and poor balance. Other signs include a soft voice with little expression, problems swallowing and cramped handwriting. For some people, memory loss, depression, loss of the ability to multitask and to make decisions quickly, sleep problems, and dementia are also factors.

Most people with Parkinson’s do not tell their employers about their condition. Misinformation and stereotypes prevent employees from coming forward, as do fears of job loss, pity and loss of opportunities.

The symptoms of Parkinson’s can impact employee performance and relationships with colleagues. For example, while every case of PD is different, it is common for people with the disease to need more time to share a thought. Rigidity in facial muscles may cause a blank or masked appearance so that “reading” people with PD becomes difficult. Voices might become softer, and handwriting could shrink or become illegible.

People with PD suggest that employers:

  • Provide information and training to employees (or at least people managers) about Parkinson’s symptoms and accommodations.
  • Offer flexible work breaks and work hours; allow telecommuting where possible.
  • Make water, paper cups and straws available throughout the building. Cups and straws can prevent choking when taking medication.
  • Offer “reserved” parking spaces close to the building entrance, in addition to those designated as “handicapped parking.” Many people with PD do not consider themselves to be disabled and do not seek to obtain the license plates necessary to use those spots. However, they will use reserved spaces on days they need to do so.
  • Offer onsite exercise facilities or subsidize health club fees. Research has shown that exercise is very beneficial to people with PD (as well as other degenerative conditions like multiple sclerosis), allowing them to maintain flexibility and movement longer.

The HR department of any company or agency can play a major role in the length of time employees with PD can contribute to their organizations. Since people with Parkinson’s do not all have the same symptoms and are not impacted to the same extent, a one-on-one discussion about potential accommodations is especially important.

In general, the HR department will learn about an employee’s PD when and if an employee decides to disclose the diagnosis. Fostering an atmosphere of trust and commitment to employee satisfaction will increase the likelihood that an employee will come to HR before work is affected. Through open communication and a positive environment, an employee’s individual needs can be accommodated while ensuring that the organization’s needs are met as well.

The National Parkinson Foundation Minnesota’s Patient Advisory Board recently developed a Parkinson’s-Friendly workplace scorecard, which is available on the NPFM website, www.parkinsonmn.org.

Jackie Hunt Christensen is a longtime member of the National Parkinson Foundation Minnesota’s Board of Directors. She was diagnosed with PD at age 34. Julie Steen is executive director of the National Parkinson Foundation Minnesota.
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