Seen & Supported: Destigmatizing Invisible Disabilities at Work

When it comes to creating an inclusive workplace culture, invisible disabilities are often overlooked. These are disabilities that aren’t obvious to the naked eye, such as physical and mental conditions and other health problems—for example, autism spectrum disorder, chronic pain, depression, ADHD or dyslexia. According to a national survey, among white-collar, college-educated employees, 30% have a disability and 62% of that number have invisible disabilities. However, of all employees with disabilities, only 3.2% disclose their disability to their employer.

There are several reasons an employee may choose to stay silent, from fear of discrimination and bias to colleagues not believing that they have a disability. Here are some unique challenges those with invisible disabilities may face in their workplace:

Fear of discrimination or bias

Even with progressive policies in place, social stigma persists around disabilities. Some employees hide their full selves to avoid being seen as “less than” or ill equipped to do their job. Others may simply feel awkward or disconnected from the rest of their workforce after disclosing their disability.

Lack of understanding from colleagues

Because these disabilities aren’t as visible as a physical condition, some people may question their legitimacy or ask for proof. This puts unnecessary pressure on an employee who may already be experiencing anxiety and isolation. Additionally, if an employee receives different treatment due to their disability, other colleagues may see that as unfair or inequitable, even if the opposite is true.

Absence of accommodations and support

Proper accommodations for those with disabilities may cost little to a workplace, yet initiating that conversation can be intimidating. Pursuing accommodations can also require an official diagnosis written by a doctor or further testing—barriers and expenses that may be challenging for some employees.

While disclosure is a right and a personal choice, studies show that employees who disclosed this aspect of their identity were more likely to feel happier and less anxious, as well as access resources to help them succeed at work. When thinking about how your organization can help create a more inclusive, supportive culture for employees with invisible disabilities, here are a few actionable ideas to consider:

Check your policies and processes.

To create an inclusive workplace, it’s imperative to have policies and procedures in place that support employees with invisible disabilities. These can help educate employees on processes for requesting support, availability of accommodations and other ways your organization is ready to advocate for and protect employees with disabilities.

Offer workforce training.

Undetectable to the naked eye, someone could be struggling with a learning disorder, mental illness, chronic illness or a hearing or visual impairment. Disability awareness training can help create a basic understanding across your workforce of various types of disabilities and what it means to live with a disability. This can help foster company-wide empathy and reduce negative perceptions and biases about individuals with disabilities.

Create an employee resource group.

Starting or promoting an employee resource group (ERG) can help create a dedicated safe place for people with disabilities and allies to come together and discuss workplace challenges, provide feedback on resources and accessibility support and improve hiring efforts.

Remember that inclusion is about everyone and for everyone.

When leadership demonstrates commitment to fostering an inclusive workplace, employees with invisible disabilities can feel that they have a safe place to be their whole self, even if they aren’t ready to discuss their disability.

Prepare your benefits package.

When thinking of ways to support employees with invisible disabilities, consider how your health benefits offering might be able to aid whole body wellness for unique needs and challenges.

Additionally, unlimited chiropractic visits and acupuncture, both of which are included in Harvard Pilgrim’s Health Forward program* (with a co-pay), may be beneficial for those who have invisible disabilities associated with chronic pain. Digital tools can also help support physical and emotional well-being, such as Kaia Health, an app to assist with pain management, and Talkspace, which allows users to connect with licensed therapists through private messaging or live video.

 

Inclusivity in the workplace can lead to happier, healthier and more engaged employees. In fact, it can also help organizations succeed with unexpected benefits like more innovative problem-solving, attracting top talent and improving profitability. Bottom line—there are endless benefits to making our workplaces more inclusive of all employees.

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*Health Forward is available to Massachusetts businesses with 51 or more benefits-eligible employees.