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Stephen  Bevan

Soccer star’s health concerns illustrate the plight of thousands

Authors: Stephen Bevan Professor Stephen Bevan

14 December 2011

The Manchester United and Scotland star Darren Fletcher has announced an extended break from football while he receives treatment for Ulcerative Colitis – a form of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). His case illustrates starkly the impact that this condition can have on the working lives and careers of young people – an issue addressed in a major study conducted in conjunction with The Work Foundation earlier this year. 

The two main types of IBD are Crohn’s and Ulcerative Colitis (UC). Both are chronic autoimmune conditions in which the body’s immune system attacks itself. The conditions affect men and women equally, with diagnosis occurring most commonly in children and adults between the ages of 10 and 40; key educational and working years. The overall prevalence of IBD in the UK is estimated to be 240,000, which equates to around 400 in a population of 100,000. Crohn’s affects approximately 60,000 people (approximately one  in a thousand) and UC affects up to 120,000 people (approximately one in 500).

Both Crohn’s and UC are sometimes associated with other inflammatory conditions affecting the joints, skin and eyes. The majority of IBD presents as a fluctuating disease, with the severity of the symptoms varying unpredictably over time, generally following a pattern of remitting and relapsing, with patients likely to experience flare-ups in between intervals of reduced symptoms.

IBD has a significant impact on the working lives and wider wellbeing of individuals with the condition, affecting people from career start to end, impacting aspirations and career choice through to premature retirement. But by working together, employers, healthcare professionals and policy makers can help people with IBD reach their full potential in the workplace. IBD need not hinder a person’s work potential. By making reasonable adjustments, employers can help people with IBD achieve their potential and be productive at work. Changes to the welfare system need to ensure that people with fluctuating symptoms, such as in Crohn’s and UC, are adequately supported financially during intermittent and unpredictable periods of incapacity for work.

The study mentioned above included a large survey of people with IBD. Worries about losing work were prominent within responses, particularly during periods of economic recession. However, also prominent was the finding that employees with IBD have a high work ethic, with the majority of people with IBD continuing to work, despite feeling ill, and admitting that they work harder to make up for any shortcomings as a result of their condition. However, due to the fluctuating nature of IBD symptoms, there may be times when working is not an option. If we are to avoid causing fear and even more worry amongst those who with IBD, it is vital that state benefits are made available to them during periods of ill-health and that such benefits are made well-known and easily accessible.