Four ways to support employees with non-visible disabilities
What do you picture when you think of employee disability?
A wheelchair user? Someone walking with a white cane? While visible conditions tend to be our go-to image, ‘disability’ covers a wide range of conditions that are typically not so obvious. These can include chronic physical impairments like Crohn’s disease, diabetes and multiple sclerosis; neurodiversities like autism and dyslexia; and mental health issues like obsessive compulsive disorder and bipolar disorder.
Non-visible disabilities can be just as life-affecting as visible ones, but they are often overlooked or misunderstood by employers and line managers. An employee with a non-visible disability may be well and coping one week, and have difficulties that impact their wellbeing and productivity the next. Without knowing a disability is involved, line managers are likely to assume that poor or inconsistent performance or problems with certain tasks accurately reflect that person’s ability to do their job. Unfortunately, this can lead to the exclusion of qualified, motivated employees who may simply require adjustments in the way they work.
‘But you don’t look sick’: Stigma around non-visible disabilities at work
Employees are under no obligation to disclose their conditions at work, and there are several reasons why someone with a so-called ‘invisible’ disability might be hesitant to tell their manager. Even if protected by law from discrimination, employees may worry about being treated differently by their employer and dealing with the stigma associated with disability. Last year it was reported that 59% of adults with a disability felt disclosing it to a potential employer would negatively affect their chance of securing a job.
Disclosure of a non-visible disability at work can also raise questions about whether someone who doesn’t ‘look sick’ has a legitimate disability. This is an all-too-common issue, reinforced by employers and co-workers who may be less willing to accommodate someone’s needs without tangible evidence of disability. This burden of proof means that employees with invisible disabilities may understandably fear being viewed as unfairly seeking special treatment.
The business case for supporting employees with disabilities
People’s wellbeing at work is increasingly being recognised as a major factor in employee performance and productivity, and therefore in organisational effectiveness. The UK’s spend on employee wellbeing has been increasing year-on-year, with growing numbers of businesses viewing wellbeing as a strategic imperative. These workplace wellbeing strategies are seriously compromised when managers act in a way that undermines employee engagement. Aside from it being a legal responsibility to make reasonable adjustments for disabled employees, workplaces that accept and support employees’ differences benefit from adapting to people’s needs rather than attempting to force square pegs into round holes.
ACAS has a useful fact sheet on employers’ disability obligations, which is a good place to start when considering how your organisation manages disabled employees. Below are four ways to help you better support employees with non-visible disabilities at work.
- Make it easier to disclose
Employees must formally disclose a disability in order to receive reasonable adjustments at work, but they need to feel protected from discrimination and stigma to do so. People are more likely to disclose an issue in a climate where people feel comfortable sharing personal information. Other factors that increase the likelihood of a disclosure include a supportive line manager relationship; evidence of active recruitment of people with disabilities; a belief that disclosure won’t impede new opportunities; and a disability-related employee resource group within the organisation.
- Offer support, but don’t pry
Disabilities are personal matters, and if someone chooses not to disclose, it’s inappropriate to ask them about an issue directly. However, if their behaviour is affecting their professionalism or performance, share your observations and ask if there’s any way you can help. As a manager, it’s helpful, but not essential, to know the specifics; if they feel uncomfortable discussing their disability with you, remind them they can turn to HR. As long as you know what reasonable adjustments your employee needs you can support them in doing their job effectively.
- Give support after a disclosure
To treat people fairly, sometimes you have to treat them differently; reasonable adjustments remove barriers for disabled people, allowing them to perform as well as other employees. Small changes in ways of operating can make a huge difference to someone’s wellbeing and productivity at work. For example, an employee with autism might have problems understanding inferred meaning or metaphors, but simple changes like providing clear written instructions with defined expectations could help them in doing their job.
- Get your team on board
It often takes a team effort for a reasonable adjustment to work well. To get your team on board, it may be helpful to share limited information with team members to enlist their support and avoid resentments. Discuss the facts of the adjustment, not the disability itself, and address any uncertainties that may exist. This will help prevent backlash if adjustments for one employee inconvenience other team members. Assess the impact of the adjustment not just on the individual, but also on the team, and review at regular intervals.
Workplaces that are willing to shape themselves around people’s behaviours and needs can earn big returns in employee wellbeing and productivity.