Why hearing loss needn’t mean job loss

Tracey Ward, Head of Business Development & Marketing at Generali UK Employee Benefits, speaks with specialist hearing loss consultant Kevin Harper

Around 11 million people in the UK are deaf or hard of hearing. And at least 4.4 million of those are of working age, although that figure could be much higher, but simply not officially declared. With the right support, workplace adjustments, and perhaps assistive technology in place, people living with hearing loss can enjoy productive and rewarding careers. But, undeclared and unaddressed, hearing loss can impact education and work, potentially leading to social isolation, loneliness and stigma.

Here, we speak with Kevin Harper, who uses his own lived experience of lifelong hearing loss in his work as a consultant to individuals and companies. Kevin works with Visualise Training & Consultancy, specialists in ensuring accessibility, inclusion and equality for employees who live with visual impairment and / or hearing loss.

Tracey: Can you please give us a brief overview of the extent of the problem when it comes to hearing loss and employment? 

Kevin: 83% of deaf people feel excluded from communications with colleagues at work; all types of communications, whether formal meetings in the boardroom or online. And excluded from all of those informal office chats and staff socials. This can really impact on an individual’s work as they’re likely to lose confidence, and maybe experience heightened anxiety too due to a feeling of being very isolated at work. In fact, research shows that 69% of deaf people reported feeling lonely at work and 59% had been left out of social events.

At the same time, according to a survey only 21% of employers who have deaf staff have actually arranged any deaf awareness training. So, for the most part, people with hearing loss are working with colleagues who have very little, if any, knowledge of what it’s like.

Hearing aids are still the most common way to treat hearing loss, but there are all different types of hearing loss. They have their benefits and can help us be more aware of what’s going on around us. But they’re not helpful in all situations. Quite often, in professional work situations, deaf people are reliant on assistive technology to be most effective.

Tracey: You mention loss of confidence, also anxiety and isolation. Can you elaborate on the scale of the mental health problem for deaf people in your experience?

Kevin: NHS England states that around one in four adults in the UK experience mental health problems. But, worryingly, when it comes to the deaf community, those numbers almost double. This is an issue compounded by a lack of access for deaf people to services and support related to stress points. In other words, support with worries around things like money issues or illness or bereavement. And, crucially for deaf people, employment and unemployment. Deaf people are almost four times more likely to be unemployed than hearing people. There’s also an element where illness or injury may have resulted in someone no longer being able to work and hearing loss may be a symptom of that. So, while hearing loss might not be the main thing that puts someone out of work, it can be the thing that is keeping them out of work. I think that’s crucial for us to remember. 

Tracey: What simple things would you advise employers to think about when it comes to supporting good hearing health? 

Kevin: Keep the volume at a safe level. Try to limit the amount of time that people are exposed to loud noises and dangerous levels of noise. That involves being aware of what those dangerous levels are. And support people to protect their hearing. Do something that will limit the impact of that loud noise.

Consider encouraging your people to do a free online hearing test. It only takes 3 minutes and there are various options, including one on the RNID website. If this indicates a potential problem, encourage them to talk to their GP and ask for a referral for a full hearing test; either via an NHS audiology service, or individuals can go direct to a hearing care provider.

Tracey: What are the main barriers in the workplace for people with hearing loss?

Kevin: When we talk about barriers for deaf people, they’re always going to relate in one way or another to communication. As I’ve mentioned already, deaf people feel isolated and cut off from communication at work. The environment is a really important factor here. So, for example, what is the background noise like in your office? Are the levels high? If someone is reliant on lip reading, can they see you clearly? Is the fire alarm system in the building geared up to help deaf people? Are they able to hear it in all areas of the building? Is there assistive technology provided? What is the culture of communication in the workplace? Is it the telephone? If so, that’s going to be another big barrier for a deaf person. What is the deaf person’s preferred method of communication? And is that being facilitated? The biggest barrier I find in my experience is simply a lack of awareness.

Tracey: So, what quick win solutions would you suggest?

Kevin: First, organise awareness training. This is something that Visualise provide; a full interactive 2-hour sessions can be delivered remotely via Zoom or Teams. This can really drill down into the specific circumstances of a particular workplace. The training will go into some communication tactics and tips, such as: speak clearly – don’t mumble; and make sure you face the person. Try to be concise in communication at work, because doing so can help reduce fatigue, especially when someone is lip reading. When someone is more reliant on what they see, they have to concentrate harder.

And, crucially – and contrary to popular belief – raising your voice in the hope you’ll be heard better by someone with hearing loss simply doesn’t work. For the majority of people with hearing loss, volume isn’t the main issue. The main issue is clarity. What happens in speech is that certain frequencies in English drop off so that we can no longer hear them. And when someone shouts, it doesn’t help with clarity. In fact, it just makes it harder to hear.

Think about the environment too. Are there parts of the office that are quieter? Is there an area where people can go to get away from background noise, even if it just temporary? Think about desk position. Also think about meetings – are they inclusive? What’s the layout like? Are they strongly chaired, so that only one person at a time is speaking? Is an agenda shared in advance?

Then there’s assistive technology. This is perhaps not a quick win, but it’s important to understand what kind of assistive technology is available. There are solutions to help people to be more present in meetings; to be able to better participate. There’s equipment to help people hear over distance and over background noise.

The important thing to take away is there’s no one-size-fits-all scenario. It’s very dependent on individual circumstances and the type of hearing loss. Also, on the types of hearing aids that are used – but it’s important to bear in mind here that not all deaf people wear hearing aids. There are around 2 million people in the UK wearing hearing aids and an additional 4.7 million could benefit from using one. The problem is, people will deny hearing loss in a way they wouldn’t perhaps deny sight loss – people will openly go out and get glasses.

All of this is something that a company like Visualise can help employers navigate. 

*To access a free recording of the full 30-min webinar ‘Hearing loss needn’t mean job loss’, please email [email protected]

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All information contained herein represents the views and opinions of the author as at the date of writing and is provided for general information only. Nothing herein constitutes or is intended to constitute financial or other form of advice and no individual should rely upon the information provided in making a specific investment decision without first seeking independent professional advice