Supporting employees with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) at work

Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) is also known as Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME), and is a condition where you have long-term disabling tiredness (fatigue). Most people with CFS also have one or more other symptoms such as muscular pains, joint pains, disturbed sleep patterns, poor concentration, headaches, low mood. The cause is not known. Treatments that may help in some cases (but not all), include a programme of graded exercise therapy (GET) and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

CFS is a condition that causes marked long-term tiredness (fatigue) and other symptoms which are not caused by any other known medical condition. A diagnosis of CFS is generally made once other medical conditions have been ruled out.

The following factors are thought to make CFS worse: recurring infections with viral or bacterial germs; not being active enough, or even being too active, stress, poor diet, being socially isolated and/or feeling frustrated and depressed; and environmental pollution.

There is no cure for CFS and treatment is aimed at managing the symptoms as well as possible. It may take an individual a number of months to learn how to pace themselves and find out what works for them. Fatigue is the main symptom, which is often described at an overwhelming feeling of mental and physical exhaustion that is not relieved by rest. In order to support someone at work with fatigue, a rehabilitation plan needs to be set out with a very gradual increase in hours over a number of weeks or months. There will be times when the symptoms fluctuate in severity and may flare up for a period of time. In this case, an individual may need to reduce their hours temporarily before they can get up to thier full hours.

Managing symptoms can involve medication to ease joint pains, anti-depressants to lift the mood, pacing activities by managing sleep, rest and relaxation time, as well as a good diet and good stress management strategies. Graded Exercise therapy (a rehabilitation programme of progressively increasing exercise) can help in some cases. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help develop effective coping strategies and lift mood.

The severity varies, and for some individuals the symptoms resolve, for others they can have long periods with no or mild symptoms followed by flare ups where the symptoms are worse for a number of weeks or months. Following a setback the individual should usually be able gradually to return to their previous activity level. Each individual varies in their reponse to the condition and the longer-term outlook is variable.

In order to support an individual at work with CFS, a number of temporary or permanent adjustments could be considered. These would include reduced hours, a later start time or earlier finish time, and a reduction in the time spent on the more physical aspects of the role or remove these aspects completely. For tailored adjustments to suit the specific individual and the specific Organisation/working environment, an occupational health assessment is recommended. Pick up the phone to call us for advice on how to manage CFS or similar conditions in your workplace.