In Focus: Vulnerability  

How to support hidden disabilities in the workplace

How to support hidden disabilities in the workplace
Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

Employers large and small need to pay more attention to disabilities that are 'invisible', if they are to provide an inclusive and supportive environment.

This is the view of leading wellness and employee benefits specialists, who have said managers need to do more to nurture a culture whereby staff suffering from 'hidden' disabilities, such as epilepsy, chronic fatigue, mental illness and many others, feel supported.

When employees are supported, the overall business benefits, according to Darren Michel, claims manager at Generali UK Employee Benefits.

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Michel said the key for businesses was to "nurture a culture of wellbeing and support; where employees feel they can be open when and if they want to be – to share information with colleagues and managers and ask for, or seek, support where needed". 

He said in the absence of such a workplace culture important warning signs that the employee is struggling could be missed and they’re unlikely to proffer any information.

When this happens, everyone suffers: the individual, the colleagues and the end consumer, so it is important that "warning signs" are not repeatedly missed, he said.

He added: "Where there isn’t an open and honest dialog between the struggling employee and their line manager or HR employee experience obviously takes a hit. Absences are likely to become unnecessarily protracted.

"Any opportunities for insurer-funded early intervention services are missed, because the underlying reason for the absence isn’t clear. Additional anxiety can be felt by all parties concerned."

Eventually, Michel warned that communications between employer and employee might break down completely and any motivation to return to work disappears - a situation that helps nobody. 

His comments were echoed by Vitality360's Amanda Mason, career and employment consultant with the company. 

She said it is vital for employers to "create an open, supportive and healthy working environment. This can help people feel more confident in disclosing their disability.

"In such an environment it is more likely that someone can take the steps they need to manage their health or disability within the workplace, even if they choose not to disclose.

“With regards to the question of employees sharing information with HR or line managers about how their disability – or any medication associated – might impact on work, as a guiding principle, unless there is something relating to the specific job function, then it is the individual’s choice whether to disclose."

A safe space for disclosure

But when it comes to disclosure, it can be hard for employees to offer personal information to their managers or to the HR department.

Some managers are wholly approachable and supportive; others do not present themselves in that way, and so hidden disabilities can often stay hidden - and that can cause problems further down the line.