Are you supporting your employees with non-visible disabilities?

Posted on 10th July 2019

I am currently sat outside the British Library in the sunshine using my time before my meeting to put this blog together for you.  The reason I mention my location (other than to rub in how pleasant it is!) is that from my seat at the cafe, I can see ramps for disabled access but not a lot else.  I suppose it’s the same in the buildings we work in, office’s, factory’s and shops ‘usually’ have considered access for those with a physical disability or mobility issues.  However, what do we do about the estimated 3.8 million people in employment with an invisible disability.

We have covered a lot recently, and quite rightly about mental health and it’s impacts.  We speak regularly about reasonable readjustments such as changes to equipment or furniture and we talk about inclusion and diversity.  However, in reality we live in a world where some companies will ask an employee to disclose any disabilities.  Rightly or wrongly there is still a lot of negativity around hidden disabilities.  As with most things, it’s difficult for us to understand something that we can’t see, we struggle to understand the impact on the individual.

I would suggest that the first avenue to supporting those who are impacted with a disability is to create an environment where they can tell you about any difficulty or any support that they might need, without being treated differently to how they have been.  Any support that they are provided with should ensure that they are on an equal footing with their peers.

Once you have opened up the communication and accepted that the employee might need some support then we are looking at reasonable readjustments. Now this can be the tricky part.  There is no definition of the word reasonable. Reasonable for one organisation would not necessarily mean reasonable for another.  Often when companies consider what is reasonable, they consider only cost to them of the install, purchase or time.  The other side to that coin (no pun intended) is the cost to the organisation of not making the adjustment.  I’m not talking about if the individual feels that they have been discriminated against and goes to Employment Tribunal.  I am however talking about, what happens if that individual leaves.

Consider this, invisible disabilities often, because of their nature can take a long time to be diagnosed.  Your employee could have been with you for a number of years before they are diagnosed.  In those years, they have built up a knowledge of your business, they have become skilled at what they do, you have invested time and money into their development.  Imagine them taking that somewhere else or even to a competitor! Then imagine you need to fill their role with someone as skilled and pay the agency you hire to find the right person for you too!  The costs could be huge just not necessarily in visible cash.

Be aware that not all requests for adjustments may be what you are used to.  You may receive what seems like a simple request to move desks.  Be aware that there may be a reason behind the request for a change of working location in an office.  For those individuals with brain injuries, learning disabilities or other cognitive impairments, working in the middle of your open plan bustling office could prove to be far too much stimulation, and could negatively impact their mental health.  For those who are impacted by conditions such as Chron’s disease or Fibromyalgia, a reasonable adjustment may be required in relation to their sickness levels.  Adjustment of the levels at which you take action would be reasonable in cases where there is likely to be a ‘flare up’, which may result in the individual needing a period of time away from work.

Communication around these disabilities and their impacts can also have a massive impact.  Remember that the individuals are in charge of who has their information.  Obviously if there is a need for others in the organisation to be aware due to health and safety or just appropriate management then that’s fine.   However, don’t just say ‘Jim has …’  find out from Jim what it means to him, what can help, what he doesn’t want to be public knowledge and ensure that whoever has been given the information knows what the disability is and isn’t.  Often with invisible disabilities there is an assumption that a certain condition needs a certain adjustment.  As with all things people, the resulting adjustment will ‘depend’ on the individual affected.

I would always advise that you take medical advice, though be that from the individuals GP but otherwise and sometimes more effectively an Occupational Health Adviser.  If an individual is newly diagnosed, or if there have been changes in the condition, you may not be the only party who requires additional support.  Look to Occupational Health, the medical knowledge combined with knowledge of working environments is invaluable for managing employees and ensuring that you are meeting your duty of care to the employee.  They can signpost the individual to support mechanisms and services which could be the difference between your employee being at work or not.

Overall though talk to the employee. Talk to all of your employees about support that you have in place for anyone.  Advertise your Employee Assistance Scheme, display that you have a cash back scheme, or health insurance, or whatever you do to help open up those conversations.  The more you know the more proactive you can be.

These situations are not always easy, and they are not always straightforward; however, if you need any help or support please call us on 01536 215240 or email info@gatewayhr.com and we will be happy to help.

Lindsay Baker Character
Written by:
Lindsay Baker
Head of HR