When Memory Loss Affects the Workplace

What do Pat Bowlen, Gene Wilder, and Glen Campbell have in common? In addition to being names we recognize, they all experienced memory loss.

There are many different types of memory loss, cognitive impairment, or dementia. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type, creating changes in brain cells that eventually result in loss of memory, thinking, and other brain functions. These changes are not a part of normal aging.

The terms “early-onset” or “younger-onset” refer to memory loss occurring under the age of 65, which can develop during the height of a person’s career—in their 40s and 50s.

It’s estimated that 200,000 Americans currently have early-onset Alzheimer’s, so it’s possible this disease affects someone in your workforce. Five percent of those over age 65 have dementia, and another 10 to 15 percent have cognitive impairments that affect their day-to-day work. For more information, see the Mayo Clinic website.

While some forms of memory loss are curable—for example, problems caused by medication interactions—most types can only be slowed, but not cured, by medication.

When an employee has memory loss

How can you recognize memory loss or cognitive impairment in someone you work with? You may notice behaviors that are uncharacteristic for that person, like consistently missing deadlines, forgetting assignments, or needing extra time to complete assignments. Other signs can be challenges in planning or solving problems, difficulty completing familiar tasks, confusion with time and place, problems with words in speaking or writing, withdrawal from others, trouble understanding spatial relationships and visual images, and changes in mood and personality. Difficulties with concentration, flexibility, and abstract thought can also occur.

What can an employer do?

Approach the situation with compassion. You’ll want to make sure safety is not a concern, either for the employee in doing their job, or in their ability to comply with safety protocols or provide rapid response if their role requires it, such as for first responders, or air traffic controllers.

Engage the employee by initiating a discussion of performance issues. Express concern for them, and point out the impact of their mistakes on the organization. You’ll want to have the performance issues documented. Don’t jump to the conclusion the performance issues are being caused by cognitive issues.

Memory loss may or may not be a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act, depending on the severity. Contact Employers Council if you want to discuss whether the ADA applies to a specific employee’s situation. If the employee freely discloses they are having cognitive issues, follow the ADA interactive process to determine what accommodations to provide. The Job Accommodation Network has suggestions on potential accommodations.

When the employee is a caregiver

Nearly 15 million Americans provide unpaid care for people with memory loss. The average caregiver is 49 years old and spends 20 to 30 hours per week doing caregiving activities. The average duration of caregiving is 4.6 years. While more females are caregivers than men, 40 to 45 percent of caregivers are male. Caregiving for parents typically comes at the height of an employee’s career, when work duties may be at their most demanding. Employees who are unable to juggle their career and caregiving responsibilities may simply quit working, incurring a drastic hit to their own financial stability and ability to save for retirement.

There’s also an organizational cost of caregiving—40 percent of employees rearrange their schedule, 36 percent miss work days, and 12 percent take leaves of absence. Caregiving can raise an employee’s stress level, cause an inability to focus on their own health, and lower productivity. Caregivers are four times more likely to file a long-term disability claim for themselves.

How can an employer assist?

Caregiving employees state their top two needs are access to information and resources, and to feel supported by their employer. Employers can support caregivers through flexibility, understanding, and providing resources for support services for elders. Check with your Employee Assistance Plan to see what they offer. Support organizations, like the Alzheimer’s Association, can be helpful for employees. Employee caregivers may be entitled to leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act. Flexibility in work schedules can also help caregivers.

Pat Bowlen continued his work with the Denver Broncos for five years after announcing he had short-term memory loss. Glenn Campbell recorded his final album and allowed his final tour to be documented in a film showing the impact of Alzheimer’s on his family and work. With assistance from employers and caregivers, those in the workforce experiencing memory issues and those caring for them can continue to contribute while dealing with these complex diseases.