Insights for Organisations

Supporting Invisible Disabilities in the Workplace

Paul Brown
30.11.23

Not all disabilities are visible but that’s not to say they do not exist or do not have an impact on the individual. In the UK, it is estimated that one in five people have a disability, 80% of which are hidden or invisible disabilities. Hidden disabilities can pose silent challenges that, while not immediately apparent, significantly shape the experiences of many individuals in professional settings. Unfortunately, only a small fraction of people with disabilities disclose this to employers, around just 4%! As such, in many cases, individuals do not get the support they need and face unique challenges that may hinder their performance or happiness at work.

From the intricacies of disclosure dilemmas to the imperative role of supportive policies, let’s shed a light on the prevalence and challenges of hidden disabilities in the workplace, and the crucial importance of fostering an inclusive environment.

What’s in this article?

Summary

Invisible disabilities encompass health conditions not immediately apparent. Examples include anxiety disorders, diabetes, chronic pain, ADHD, and autoimmune diseases. Despite appearing healthy, individuals grapple with daily challenges, necessitating understanding and accommodations, especially in the workplace.

Fear of judgment, discrimination, and stigma often lead individuals to keep their invisible disabilities private. However, they will often face challenges at work that can be further exacerbated by workplace cultures that focus on productivity without considering individual needs.

It’s important that organizations take the appropriate steps to supporting employees with invisible disabilities. This could involve raising awareness, implementing inclusive policies, providing training for managers, encouraging open communication, offering reasonable accommodations, and implementing mental health support programs.

What is an invisible disability?

Invisible disabilities, also known as hidden disabilities, are health conditions that are not immediately apparent to others. These can include mental health disorders, chronic illnesses, and cognitive impairments. Examples include anxiety disorders, diabetes, chronic pain conditions, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, and autoimmune diseases. While individuals may appear healthy, they may face daily challenges and limitations. Hidden disabilities often require understanding and accommodations in various settings, such as the workplace, where awareness and support play crucial roles in fostering an inclusive environment.

Why do people often not speak up about their invisible disability?

There are several factors that contribute to individuals with invisible disabilities to often choose not to speak up about their conditions, especially in a work environment. This includes the following reasons:

What challenges can individuals with hidden disabilities face in the workplace?

People with hidden or invisible disabilities face specific challenges in the workplace, often related to the lack of visibility and awareness of their conditions. Some common challenges include:

  1. Lack of understanding
  2. Disclosure dilemma
  3. Stigma and discrimination
  4. Inadequate accommodations
  5. Workplace culture
  6. Mental health challenges
  7. Hidden struggles
  8. Communication difficulties
  9. Career advancement
  10. Networking challenges
  11. Limited awareness programs

1. Lack of understanding

Colleagues and supervisors may lack awareness and understanding of invisible disabilities, leading to misconceptions, skepticism, or an underestimation of the challenges faced by individuals.

2. Disclosure dilemma

Individuals may grapple with the decision of whether to disclose their hidden disabilities to their employers. Fear of potential discrimination or stigma can impact their choice, and also cause added stress.

3. Stigma and discrimination

Stigma surrounding certain conditions, such as mental health disorders, can contribute to discriminatory attitudes in the workplace, affecting hiring, promotions, or day-to-day interactions.

4. Inadequate accommodations

Obtaining necessary accommodations can be challenging, as employers may not be aware of the specific needs associated with certain invisible disabilities, leading to a lack of support.

5. Workplace culture

Workplace cultures that emphasise productivity without considering individual needs can be particularly challenging for individuals with invisible disabilities. The pressure to conform to traditional work expectations may exacerbate their difficulties.

6. Mental health challenges

Individuals with invisible disabilities, including mental health conditions, may face additional stressors due to workplace expectations, potentially impacting their well-being and job performance.

7. Hidden struggles

Colleagues and supervisors may not recognize the daily struggles and challenges faced by individuals with hidden disabilities, leading to a lack of empathy and support.

8. Communication difficulties

Conditions that affect communication, such as certain cognitive disorders, can create difficulties in expressing needs and navigating workplace interactions, potentially leading to misunderstandings.

9. Career advancement

Individuals with invisible disabilities may face barriers to career advancement, as their conditions may not be taken into account when considering promotions or leadership opportunities.

10. Networking challenges

Networking and socializing in the workplace can be challenging for individuals with invisible disabilities, as they may struggle with social interactions or sensory sensitivities.

11. Limited awareness programs

Companies may lack awareness programs or training initiatives to educate employees about invisible disabilities, contributing to a lack of understanding and empathy in the workplace.

How to support employees with invisible disabilities

Supporting employees with invisible disabilities requires a combination of awareness, understanding, and proactive policies. Here are several strategies for creating a supportive workplace:

  1. Raise awareness
  2. Implement inclusive policies
  3. Provide training for managers
  4. Encourage open communication
  5. Reasonable accommodations
  6. Mental health support programs

1. Raise awareness

Conducting training sessions to educate employees on invisible disabilities can help foster a better understanding of the challenges faced by their colleagues. By doing so, you can help reduce stigma and encourage open conversations about invisible disabilities.

2. Implement inclusive policies

Develop and communicate clear policies that support employees with invisible disabilities, including flexible work arrangements and reasonable accommodations, and a commitment to diversity and inclusion. By doing so,  you can foster a workplace culture that prioritizes inclusivity and support. These policies help encourage teamwork, empathy, and understanding among colleagues, and create an overall better workplace for everyone!

3. Provide training for managers

Offer training programs for managers to equip them with the knowledge and skills needed to support employees with invisible disabilities, including effective communication and accommodation implementation. Investing in this type of training will ensure that employees with hidden disabilities have the support they need and regular check-ins to help them flourish in their roles.

Leadership should set an example by actively promoting an inclusive workplace culture. As part of this, they should demonstrate understanding, support employees, and actively participate in diversity and inclusion initiatives.

4. Encourage open communication

It’s crucial that you create a culture that encourages open communication. Let employees know they can discuss their invisible disabilities with supervisors, managers, or HR in a safe space without fear of judgment or negative consequences. This way, you can learn what accommodations they may need to make their working environment more comfortable for them. You can work with employees to create individualized support plans to address the unique challenges they face, as everyone will be different.

5. Reasonable accommodations

You should make it clear that reasonable accommodations are available to anyone who needs them. Research shows that 58% of accommodations for employees with disabilities don’t cost anything, so there’s no excuse! This could include things like ergonomic adjustments, modified workspace, or any other additional support for employees with specific needs. It should also include accessibility initiatives to ensure that physical and digital spaces are accessible to all employees, such as making facilities wheelchair accessible and ensuring that digital content is compatible with assistive technologies.

6. Mental health support programs

Implement mental health support programs, such as Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) or counseling services, to provide resources for employees dealing with mental health challenges. Employees dealing with mental health challenges may experience reduced productivity and engagement. Mental health support programs, such as counseling services, can provide the tools and resources needed to cope, leading to improved performance and focus at work.

Similarly, knowing that their employer cares about their mental health can significantly boost employee morale. feeling supported and valued contributes to a positive work environment, fostering a sense of loyalty and dedication among the workforce.

FDM’s support for hidden disabilities

At FDM, we are dedicated to fostering an inclusive and supportive workplace for all employees, recognizing the diverse needs of individuals, including those with hidden disabilities. That’s why we have multiple initiatives set up to support those who need it, including Mental Health First Aiders and a number of employee networks.

We believe that diverse teams are the key to a successful workplace, which is why we place great value on hiring from diverse backgrounds and help other organizations do the same. We partner with esteemed clients across industries, providing them with expert-trained consultants who are ready to join their internal teams and make meaningful contributions.

Learn more about FDM’s dedication to diversity and inclusion and find out how your organization can tap into our diverse talent pool.