How to improve support for employees with invisible disabilities

In the UK, 1 in 5 people have a disability, of which 80% are classed as an invisible disability.1 This means that there is a possibility that someone you work with will be impacted. The trouble is you might not know. Either that, or you – or the employee concerned – might not feel comfortable talking about it.

And therein lies the problem right now. There seems a distinct lack of confidence in all quarters. This can obviously make providing the right support a challenge. In fact, over half (54%) of attendees at our recent HR-facing webinar with Vitality360 said they thought their Line Managers were ‘not confident’ in supporting employees with invisible disabilities. And only just over a fifth (22%) said they themselves were confident in this regard.*

So, what signs should you look out for? And how can you help? First, let’s get back to basics.

What is an invisible disability?

The Equality Act 2010 defines disability, but not invisible disability.2

For the latter, US not-for-profit organisation Invisible Disabilities Association, has the following definition: ‘a physical, mental or neurological condition that is not always visible from the outside, yet can limit of challenge a person’s movements, senses or activities.’ 3

There is no official list of disabilities – whether invisible or not. As per the Equality Act definition of disability, we’re referring here to any impairment that has a ‘substantial’ (more than minor or trivial) and ‘long-term’ (12 months or more) negative effect on a person’s ability to do normal daily activities.2

An employee has the right to request reasonable adjustments – from physical changes to the workplace to doing things another way – and the employer has a duty to consider them.4

What does good support look like?

Unfortunately, people are often unsure about discussing their disability – and the impact it has on their life and work – with an employer. This might be due to a perceived sense of stigma and fear about their job security.

In order to counteract this, employers should aim to start as they mean to go on by making support for employees part of the induction process for all new members of staff, checking with new starters whether they need any adjustments because of health / disability. And then ensuring that such transparency and support is lived and breathed from thereon in.

Amanda Mason, Career & Employment Consultant, at Vitality360, said: “To support employees with invisible disabilities, it’s vital that employers are encouraged to create an open, supportive and healthy working environment.”

Craig Duncan, Solicitor and Managing Director at OctoberLaw, who also suffers from an invisible disability, adds: “Some companies are better than others at managing their managers with regard to implementing their equality policy.

“From my experience, as a disabled solicitor with a hidden disability, it does not matter if the company is large or small, international or local – it all comes down to the manager and the leadership.

“An employee should feel comfort in the protection the law offers, but also there is an element of bravery needed at times to reach out…they should, however, feel that the HR team will support them with whatever they need”.

Even if people do disclose their invisible disability, many still feel it is not accommodated, or that they face unfair treatment. Creating a work environment where needs, challenges and solutions can be discussed openly is important. Perhaps even more so during – and post – pandemic. The challenge of ensuring all employees needs are met is ever increasing in this remote work climate.

Vanessa Latham, Partner at BLM Law, comments“When contacting HR, the employee should be clear about what information can be shared with others and manage their expectations accordingly. For example, if an employee doesn’t want HR to share information about a mental health problem with their Line Manager, they should make that clear to HR but also understand that will restrict what HR can do. It is unlikely HR would be able to change working practises if they cannot explain to the Line Manager why the change is required.”

5 top tips to better employer support:

  • Improve understanding in the workplace. Take part in awareness days and use signage such as ‘Not all disabilities are visible’. This will also help to encourage a culture of openness and wellbeing.
  • Use a flexible and collaborative approach to making any adjustments. A one-size-fits-all approach to absence and sickness policies will not be useful or appropriate with the vast array of needs.
  • Be mindful of how you communicate – open and understanding is best. Plan regular progress reviews. Employ a solution focused approach in all communications.
  • Consider arranging one consistent point of contact (either manager or colleague) to provide support if needed. This can help employees in gaining confidence to discuss needs in progress reviews.
  • Seek support from rehabilitation specialists, Occupational Health or organisations such as Access to Work.

In summary, in the absence of an open and understanding workplace culture, warning signs can be missed. In turn, employee experience can be affected, absences can be protracted, and opportunities for early interventions missed. Some disabilities may be hidden, but the individual needs they create and adjustments that people require to get through the working day should not be.

*To request a recording of Generali UK and Vitality360’s workshop for HR & Line Managers ‘Invisible disabilities in the workplace’ please email [email protected]

1Department for Work & Pensions, Family Resources Survey, 2018/19, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/874507/family-resources-survey-2018-19.pdf

2Gov.uk, Definition of disability under the Equality Act 2010, https://www.gov.uk/definition-of-disability-under-equality-act-2010

3Invisible Disabilities Association, What is an invisible disability? [Accessed Feb 2021] https://invisibledisabilities.org/what-is-an-invisible-disability/

4Gov.uk, Reasonable adjustments for workers with disabilities or health conditions, https://www.gov.uk/reasonable-adjustments-for-disabled-workers