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21.10.2022 Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI)

Invisible disabilities in the workplace

Invisible disabilities in the workplace

When thinking of disabilities, we tend to think of what’s visible. But many disabilities aren’t visible at first sight. That doesn’t mean they’re less serious or don’t affect an individual (or their performance at work) just as much.

Studies estimate that 30% of employees cope with an invisible disability of some sort. But often, invisible disabilities aren’t taken into consideration as much as other disabilities, just because they’re less visible.

However, visibility shouldn’t equal attention. Some visibilities might be slightly more hidden, but they can seriously impact an employee’s (mental) health, well-being, and performance. Below, you can find out more about what hidden disabilities there are and how you can support your employees that struggle with unseen issues.

What are invisible disabilities?

Invisible (or hidden) disabilities are disabilities that are not clearly visible. In some cases, you might not even realise someone is suffering from an invisible disability until they open up to you about what they’re going through.

Invisible disabilities can come in many forms. Some will be more obvious and noticeable than others.

Here are some of the most common hidden disabilities:

  • Mental health conditions, ranging from stress and burnout to severe depression
  • Neurodivergence from the majority of people, such as autism or ADHD
  • Learning disabilities or similar impediments such as dyslexia
  • Illnesses, whether autoimmune, migraine, fatigue, or something else
  • A physical disability that might not be that obvious at first sight, from deafness to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)

But how do you recognise, acknowledge, and help with employees’ disabilities that you cannot see? Let’s find out.

Invisible disabilities statistics

Studies estimate that around 30% of employees suffer from some form of invisible disability. A study in the United States found that almost 10% of all Americans suffer from an invisible disability. And of people with disabilities, Forbes estimated that as much as 96% are considered invisible or hidden.

Even common and well-known hidden disabilities (such as dyslexia, which might affect as much as 20% of the population) are often not recognised or treated appropriately.

And yet, too often, these disabilities are left untreated or not taken into consideration by employers just because they’re not always that obvious on the surface.

Why employees might prefer to keep their disabilities hidden

One of the biggest obstacles for employees with invisible disabilities is the lack of common understanding and acceptance. When a disability isn’t clearly visible, unfortunately, many people are quick to judge or downplay the seriousness of the condition.

And that makes the threshold to open up about a hidden disability much higher than it should be. Furthermore, not everyone feels comfortable sharing such a personal part of themselves with their colleagues, let alone their employer. But luckily, there are steps you can take as an employer to support employees with hidden disabilities.

How to support employees with invisible disabilities

Below, you’ll find a list of 8 actions you can take to support your employees that might suffer from an unseen disability.

1. Encourage a conversation

It all starts with openness, transparency, and communication. In some cases, employees might appreciate it when the entire organisation is aware of their condition.

For example, autistic employees might benefit from a work environment where their neurodiversity is taken into consideration and respected. But someone suffering from irritable bowel syndrome might feel uncomfortable when the entire team knows their condition.

That’s why the first step is to talk to your employees and show them they are in a safe space where they are not judged, regardless of whether they have a disability or not. Be open and understanding, and be willing to implement adaptations in the workplace based on the individual needs of your employees.

Also read: How psychological safety drives high-performing teams (and fosters inclusion)

Bear in mind, it can be worth also offering the option of anonymity in case this is what your employee prefers. Nobody should be forced into disclosing any such personal information about themselves.

2. Educate the rest of your team about (invisible) disabilities

Acceptance goes further than just you and the layers of management. To help employees with invisible disabilities, it’s important that everyone on your team understands and empathises with the difficult situation that someone might be in.

That’s why the second point on this list is to educate all your team members on any hidden disabilities that might exist. Providing an informational presentation or introduction to the topic can seriously help improve awareness and acceptance.

Explain the importance of inclusive, “people-first language” to ensure employees with disabilities aren’t stigmatised or not taken seriously. It will also help you remove discrimination and bias among your team, further strengthening your diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) effort.

3. Review the accommodations you offer for people with disabilities

Now you have a better understanding of the possible invisible disabilities and have opened up the dialogue with your employee, it’s time to take action.

As mentioned, you might have to provide different accommodations for different people. For some, a long commute to the office might be a tiring or anxiety-inducing experience. Offering the option to work remotely can greatly help in this case.

For others, the discomfort of their disability might come at unexpected times. In this case, flexible working hours and hybrid work options can make their lives much easier.

However, remember that in some cases, it might mean making physical adjustments to your office space. For example, if your employee is visually impaired, installing ramps and lifts, providing braille signage, and adding tactile flooring can all be of great help to make your office more accessible.

4. Consider suggesting an employee resource group

Joint experiences often help form a bond. That’s why some of your employees with invisible disabilities might find comfort and strength in starting an employee resource group (ERG).

An ERG can provide them with a space and platform to discuss their issues openly in a safe environment. It also gives them a larger voice within your organisation and can help them advocate for required policy changes or workplace adaptations more easily.

For you as an employer, an ERG can be a great tool for receiving valuable feedback from your employees. And externally, showing that you support your employees with hidden disabilities this way can give your employer branding a great little boost.

5. Take invisible disabilities into consideration when evaluating performance

Studies have shown that employees with disabilities see more of their ideas ignored than those of employees without disabilities. The same study found that 57% of employees with disabilities feel stalled in their careers, compared to only 44% of employees without a disability.

That’s why it’s extra important to take unseen disabilities seriously and ensure that someone’s disability doesn’t (unconsciously) cloud your judgment regarding their work performance.

6. Reevaluate your existing benefits and adapt to everyone’s needs

You might offer a bunch of employee benefits at your company, which is great! But have you ever considered if all these benefits are equally useful or beneficial for all your employees?

For example, you might think your best perk is that cycle-to-work scheme you offer. But someone suffering from bone disease or an inflammatory disease like multiple sclerosis (MS) probably won’t be able to access this benefit.

If an employee can’t enjoy employee benefits like the rest of the team, it might make them feel more alienated or different from others. That’s why it’s important to evaluate your benefits package and consider making adjustments to be more inclusive towards employees with unseen disabilities.

Of course, we’re not suggesting you cancel your great cycle-to-work scheme (it’s an awesome and healthy benefit, after all!). Still, you might want to ensure you also offer benefits more suitable for employees who can’t access this particular perk.

7. Ensure your team events are inclusive

The same logic applies to the team-building events you organise for your employees. Laser tag and paintball can be a lot of fun for most employees, but not for someone with epilepsy. An obstacle course can be an exciting challenge, but not so much for an employee with asthma or chronic fatigue syndrome.

Instead, try to find team-building activities that are accessible to everyone. This could be something as simple as going out for dinner together or organising a board-game night in the office.

Also read: Planning enjoyable team building activities for introverts

8. Get help from a professional

Lastly, if you are not completely sure about how to best handle supporting employees with invisible disabilities, or if you would prefer to have some extra help, it might be an idea to consider seeking a professional.

If you run a large organisation, this could even be in the form of hiring a dedicated professional, such a therapist or job coach specialised in helping people with disabilities, to strengthen your team.

For smaller businesses, a more feasible alternative might be to offer professional help services as a company benefit. This could be in the form of a monthly budget, or giving access to an employee assistance program (EAP).

Need more help supporting your employees?

Being inclusive and accommodating to the needs of somehow underrepresented, marginalised, or unseen individuals should be the default, but unfortunately, this is still not always the case.

By providing the support described above, you can help more of your employees feel welcome, included, and a part of the team. And this will help you as an employer get closer to building a diverse, equitable, and inclusive workforce.

Do you need more help supporting your employees? Then check out these suggested reads:

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