Adjusting the workplace pays off.

SW – 11/2019

About a quarter of the working population in the European Union (EU) reports suffering from a chronic disease. This represents an increase of eight percentage points from 19% in 2010 to 28% in 2017, a trend that will be exacerbated by demographic change, with workers over 50 more than twice as likely to have a chronic disease than people under 35. However, according to the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Eurofound), the proportion of younger workers aged 16-29 who report having a chronic illness has also increased, from 11% in 2010 to 18% in 2017.

In a policy brief, Eurofound examined the extent to which adjustments in the workplace contribute to making the work of employees with chronic illnesses more sustainable, that is, help them cope with their illness. Sustainable work means that people can continue to work despite their illness or, if after a period of absence due to illness, they can return to work.

Chronic illness impacts the sustainability of work, as affected people are more likely to leave the labour market and become inactive. More than 40% of workers who report having a chronic illness say that they will not be able to continue working until they are 60.


Adapting the working environment to the needs of workers with chronic illnesses could have a significant impact on their job quality and the sustainability of work. One fifth of workers with a chronic illness report that their workplace or work activity has been adapted to their health problem. Among those whose daily activities (including work) are limited due to their illness, only 30% benefited from adjustments to their workplace. Two-thirds of workers with impaired health do not receive such support.

Adaptations can be physical in nature, such as accessible workstations, a height-adjustable desk or other technological aids such as voice-recognition software. However, workplace accommodation can also include adjusting working times or providing the option to work from home.


The most common chronic diseases are musculoskeletal disorders, followed by cardiovascular diseases, cancers, chronic respiratory diseases and mental illnesses. It should be noted that chronic diseases may or may not be caused (or exacerbated) by work. Prevention therefore also plays an important role in reducing the development and impact of chronic diseases in the workplace.

The growing number of people with chronic illnesses increases the urgency to address how those affected can work sustainably. This is all the more true if the cost of absenteeism and early retirement are taken into account. As poor health is one of the main reasons for an early exit from the labour market, a holistic, lifecycle approach is needed to prevent chronic diseases and to ensure effective retention and reintegration of chronically ill people in the labour market. This should cover the policy areas of health, OSH, social protection and employment, as well as be integrated into labour law and non-discrimination legislation in an overall strategy that manages demographic change.


The Social Questions Working Party is currently working on a set of draft Council conclusions on a new EU strategic framework on health and safety at work.


The draft conclusions note that current work practices and methods often do not make it possible or attractive for older workers and people with partial disabilities or chronic illnesses to continue working or return to work. A longer career must be promoted in order to make use of all available workers, including a growing number of older workers. Member States should be encouraged to maintain and improve the ability to work through national health and safety policies and measures in order to achieve a working life that is inclusive for all ages and for people with health problems and disabilities.