How could cognitive function changes affect me in the workplace?

Cognitive changes, such as memory lapses, concentration problems, difficulty making decisions, and slower information processing, can make it more difficult to do your job. Cognitive changes and fatigue are the two main reasons why people with MS leave their jobs.

The impact of cognitive changes in the workplace depends on the nature and severity of the changes. If you think you may have cognitive changes, see your doctor. Your doctor can identify what the specific cognitive problems are so that you and your health care team can come up with a management plan.

Often, compensatory techniques such as organizers, day planners, alarms, and reminder notes are enough to let you continue your usual activities. In other cases, it may be necessary to ask your employer for specific workplace accommodations.

Workplace accommodations are reasonable changes made by an employer to an employee's working environment and responsibilities that make it easier for the employee to continue work in the face of illness or disability. An employer must provide these accommodations as long as they do not cause "undue hardship" (measured by financial cost and health and safety issues) to the employer, or interfere with a "bona fide occupational requirement" (a practice or rule that is justified because it is based on skills or abilities that are required for the job).

Accommodations that may be helpful for cognitive changes include the following techniques:

  • reducing noise and distractions by moving to a private office
  • using room dividers or noise-cancelling headphones
  • organization aids such as day planners and PDAs (personal digital assistants)
  • providing written instructions
  • allowing regular rest breaks
  • offering flexible work hours or providing more structure
  • decreasing job stress

Asking for workplace accommodations means letting your employer know that you have MS. It is up to you to decide whether or not to do this, and if so, when to do it. You have no legal obligation to tell your employer you have MS unless you need workplace accommodations or time off because of the medical condition. Before disclosing your condition to your employer, get professional advice, ask for moral support from friends and family, and familiarize yourself with the rules and regulations affecting you, including your health coverage.

If you do decide to disclose your condition, plan what you will say and how you will say it. When you speak with your employer, describe specifically how MS is affecting your ability to do your job (the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada offers a booklet for employers entitled "MS in the Workplace: An employer's guide"), explain that symptoms may fluctuate over time, and offer suggestions of workplace accommodations that will help you continue to perform your job (you can consult an occupational therapist or the MS Society for suggestions).

Your employer cannot fire you simply for having MS. Firing can only be justified if you are unable to perform your job even with accommodations. Even in this case, your employer must put the specific problems in writing and discuss them with you first. You have the right to respond in writing to these concerns, stating whether you agree or disagree, and to challenge the firing as a wrongful dismissal. If you want to challenge the firing, seek legal advice. The same holds true if you are thinking of leaving your job because you were refused workplace accommodations.

If you have decided to leave the workforce completely, there are a number of financial support options open to you. Your employer may provide some health coverage and disability benefits. If you subscribe to a private health and disability coverage plan, this can also help. If neither of these situations apply, some assistance may also be available through the Canada Pension Plan, the provincial government, and Employment Insurance (EI). These plans may require proof that your illness is preventing you from doing any job, and may also require that you have worked or contributed to the plans for a specified period of time. Your doctor, local MS society, or service clubs may be able to assist you in finding sources of financial support in your area.

If you are concerned about the risk of physical or cognitive disability and how they can affect your job, talk to your doctor. You can work together to find ways to live with MS.

All material copyright MediResource Inc. 1996 – 2021. Terms and conditions of use. The contents herein are for informational purposes only. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Source: