Understanding invisible disabilities in the workplace

February 28, 2022 - 11 min read

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What are invisible disabilities?

How many people have invisible disabilities?

Why do employees keep invisible disabilities silent?

How to support employees with invisible disabilities

When I was newly pregnant with my daughter, I was exhausted and nauseous all the time. I was tired to the point of dysfunction, often skipping meals to get a few extra minutes of sleep. I slept about fourteen hours a day, but it never felt like enough.

I wanted to keep the pregnancy secret for a little while, but I quickly realized that wouldn’t be possible. I needed help, but no one could tell. After all, I didn’t “look” pregnant yet, so no one was exactly rushing to give up their seat on the bus.

I was grateful for my round belly when I finally started to show. Somehow, even though I had much more energy in the second trimester, people were more inclined to help. I learned that people are quick to dismiss what you’re feeling if they can’t see it for themselves.

My children are older now, but I still have a condition that no one can see. My depression and anxiety can sometimes make it hard to get through the day. It’s not a unique experience, though. Some sources estimate that as many as 10% of people in the United States — and up to 30% of working, college-educated professionals — have an invisible disability.

There are few workplace interventions that have the potential to positively impact a third of your workforce, but disability inclusion at work is one of them. Learn what invisible disabilities are, how they affect your employees, and what leadership can do to increase empathy toward those with hidden disabilities.

What are invisible disabilities?

When leaders think of a person with a disability, their minds often go to visible examples. After all, it’s hard to conceptualize what we can’t see. For that reason, we tend to think of items that symbolize disability in our minds, like wheelchairs and other means of mobility support. 

But not all disabilities are readily apparent. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) describes a disability as any mental health or physical condition that causes considerable impairment when performing major life activities. Many people have hidden disabilities that qualify for support and accommodation under this definition. However, because their conditions aren’t visible, they’re forced to disclose them in order to ask for help.

Yes, invisible disabilities are “a thing” — and no, they’re not “faking it.” But because they’re not visible, many people have been socialized to think of them as less serious or inconsequential. Relatively few people know they can or feel comfortable asking for accommodation for a hidden disability at work.

How many people have invisible disabilities?

It’s hard to say for sure how many people have hidden disabilities. That’s because, as the Center for Disability Rights (CDR) explains, “Unless it is disclosed, no one knows for sure whether someone has an invisible disability.” Because the definition of disability provided by the ADA is (necessarily) vague, it’s hard to determine exactly how many people would “count.”

According to a study by the Center for Talent Innovation, only 39% of employees have disclosed their conditions to their manager. Even fewer have told HR or their teams, and only about 4% have told clients. The National Organization on Disability (NOD) cites “increasing disability self-identification rates among new and existing employees” as a priority for many organizations. 

Self-identification is critical, since employees with invisible illnesses face a paradox. They are entitled to protection and accommodation under the ADA, but only if they disclose their condition. Lack of disclosure makes it difficult for even the most well-meaning organizations to support their employees adequately.

In order to improve self-identification rates, companies have to turn their focus to disability inclusion. Creating workplaces that feel safe enough for employees to self-identify must become a priority. 

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First, it helps to understand the reasons why employees so rarely disclose their medical conditions.

Why do employees keep invisible disabilities silent?

There are several reasons why employees choose not to share their disabilities with their teams:

  1. They’re afraid of being discriminated against
  2. They may consider their disability to be a “relatively minor” part of their lives
  3. They may worry about making their disability “visible” by asking for accommodation
  4. They may feel like support isn’t available, so there’s “no point”
  5. They may worry about being seen as less capable or “crazy”
  6. They think that their coworkers won’t believe them
  7. They believe it’s unprofessional to share personal information

Although you can’t force someone to disclose their health information, you can share the benefits of doing so. It’s also important to help people feel safe enough to ask for help. Many of these reasons stem from a lack of psychological safety at work.

invisible-disabilities-person-with-neck-pain-at-computer

How to support employees with invisible disabilities

Don’t wait for your employees to ask for help. Statistics show that a strong majority of your workforce probably has an undisclosed disability. Even if you don’t know who they are, creating more inclusive policies at work will undoubtedly benefit your teams. 

Here are some ways that your organization can support employees with hidden disabilities:

1. Educate your employees on disabilities at work

Many people with disabilities don’t know that their conditions are supported, or may be afraid to ask. Create regular lunch-and-learn seminars to educate all employees on their benefits and rights. You can talk about health conditions, like chronic pain, learning disabilities, and sleep disorders, that are often overlooked in conversations about disability. Be sure to ask for feedback around what topics (in a general sense) would be helpful to review.

Consider providing separate learning opportunities for your managers, who may not be sure how to support their team members with invisible disabilities. Be sure that they feel empowered to grant accommodations to a team member who requests them.

2. Provide flexible work arrangements

A simple way to provide support to your employees is to offer flexible and hybrid work arrangements. Whenever possible, allow them to set their own schedules and work from home as desired. Eliminating the commute can go a long way towards making work more accessible for people with chronic conditions.

3. Be transparent

You don’t have to go overboard with the sharing, but being transparent with your own well-being is a powerful example for your team. Make a habit out of taking vacation time and encourage others to do the same. If you take a mental health day, be honest about it so that others know that they can ask for time off, too. Even something as simple as changing your Slack status to “Doctor’s appointment — be back in an hour!” can help normalize bringing your whole self to work.

invisible-disabilities-patient-and-doctor-in-appointment

4. Make it easy

Put together a list of resources for employee well-being, and include a section for those with chronic illnesses. Create a streamlined way for employees to request, order, and pay for assistive devices, like prosthetics, hearing aids, and software. 

Make sure that a broad range of health conditions are included. These may include psychiatric conditions, like bipolar disorder and ADHD. It may also extend to other physical conditions, like Crohn’s disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, multiple sclerosis, and epilepsy. While this isn’t an exhaustive list, providing some examples of conditions that are eligible for additional support may make people feel comfortable asking if their needs are covered, too.

5. Ask for feedback

You won’t know if you’re making a difference unless you ask. While your efforts at improving inclusion will likely impact your company’s productivity, they will also have far-reaching benefits for employee morale. As people become more comfortable and trust that you genuinely care about their well-being, they’ll come forward to help guide future initiatives.

Understanding invisible disabilities

You may not be able to see it, but odds are good that disabilities have a huge, hidden impact on your organization. Invisible illnesses are all around us, yet you don't see them plainly. And statistically, your employees are probably using a lot of emotional labor to seem “fine” when they get to work. 

People who disclose their disabilities to their managers are more than twice as likely to report that they were happy with their jobs. That’s a tremendous difference to belonging. Employers can’t afford to overlook employees with invisible disabilities if they want to build a psychologically safe, thriving workplace.

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Published February 28, 2022

Allaya Cooks-Campbell

BetterUp Staff Writer

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