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Invisible disabilities in the workplace

Hidden disabilities are more common than you might think. In fact, millions of people work with a long-term health condition or an impairment they hardly talk about.

74% of those with disabilities - or identify as disabled - don’t use a wheelchair or anything else that might visually signal their long-term health condition or impairment to the outside world.


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What is classed as a hidden or invisible disability?

A hidden disability is one that affects the individual in ways others can’t physically see or immediately identify, or means society has less obvious disabling barriers placed in the way of them living a full life. They can hinder a person’s ability to work, as well as impacting on their home and social life.

Symptoms include debilitating pain, fatigue, dizziness, cognitive dysfunctions, brain injuries, learning difficulties, mental health disorders and hearing or vision impairments. Crohn’s disease, diabetes, dyslexia and autism would all be examples of invisible disabilities.

It's important to note, though, that increasingly progressive attitudes to disability mean that many will see these as not medical issues to be solved within the individual, but social matters to be resolved in their environment. Especially in the workplace.

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The impact of hidden disabilities in the workplace

Unfortunately, if people can’t see evidence of somebody’s illness or condition, the reality is they’re more likely to misunderstand and form judgments about the individual which are not necessarily true. The individual may be led to feel embarrassed, uncomfortable or unhappy at work. 

For example, someone with chronic fatigue may be perceived as lazy when they take time off work, or need rests during the day. Or someone with autism may communicate differently, and be misunderstood by their peers. As well as affecting the individual concerned and creating an unnecessary barrier to social inclusion, this type of situation can impact the dynamics among teams and peers in the company – lowering productivity, engagement and morale.

So, creating a supportive and inclusive environment at your company is not only important for your employees, but for your business too. We’ve come up with some tips to help. 

How to support employees with hidden disabilities in the workplace

1. Encourage open conversations

Potential stigmas and judgment can prevent employees from being open about their situation. Recent research by Chron’s & Colitis UK suggests that over half of employees with a long-term health condition feel they must downplay their condition at work, and a third will lie about the reason they’re off sick.

Making a standard company policy for all employees and managers to have regular 1-2-1 meetings means that nobody feels singled out by asking for support, and everyone is treated the same, whilst giving them a confidential way to discuss their workplace needs, and any challenges they may be having.

2. Educate other employees on hidden disabilities

Making other employees aware and better educated on common hidden disabilities can help to create a more understanding, open and supportive environment for everybody. Without the knowledge of common disabilities, symptoms and how they might manifest themselves in the workplace, employees can form unfair judgments or perceptions of those suffering – and this can impact peer dynamics at work.

3. Encourage a feeling of job security

Re-assuring employees with hidden disabilities that they’re valued by the company regardless of their condition will help encourage them to be honest about the support they need.

Showing recognition and rewarding hard work can both be effective ways to boost their sense of job security and motivation.

4. Be flexible where you can

Of course, it’s compulsory for any employer to make reasonable adjustments in order to ensure all employees can carry out their jobs properly and maintain good wellbeing at work. If adjustments aren’t in place and the employee faces any barriers which could force them to move on from their current role, the employer risks facing a complaint of constructive dismissal.

However, going the extra mile and offering flexible working hours or a working from home policy can significantly improve employees’ quality of life. If somebody’s suffering from chronic fatigue for example, they may need regular breaks throughout the day and struggle to travel far.

5. Provide access to professional support

Offering access to external professional support, for example through an Employee Assistance Programme, can be really valuable for employees who may have anxiety or worries regarding their condition at work. With Benenden Healthcare for Business, a full EAP comes as standard, and gives employees 24/7 remote access to qualified professionals, for a wide range of issues.

Implementing some of these suggestions will not only be good for employee’s with hidden illnesses, but for the organisational culture too – and above all, it’s simply the right thing to do. Every business needs a happy and healthy workforce to thrive, and providing the right employee support is key to this.

If you’re looking at ways to support the wellbeing of your workforce, download our free guide to developing a bespoke health and wellbeing strategy that’s tailored to your company’s needs.

Benenden Health has produced a coronavirus hub, with more tips and information about how to stay healthy as a business and individuals during the COVID-19 outbreak. It also outlines any changes or enhancements to our services in response to the global pandemic.

Visit the COVID-19 hub for more information.


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Benenden Healthcare for Business provides an affordable, high quality, private healthcare solution to support all your employees. With easy setup and no exclusions on pre-existing medical conditions, we want to help make healthcare a standard of employment for everyone, rather than just a perk for the few. See how we can help you develop a healthcare solution that works for your whole business.

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