Don’t be blind to invisible disabilities
Here’s what steps employers can take to support employees with seemingly invisible or hidden disabilities
Guest blogger Kelly Pashley-Handford
Under the Equality Act 2010, a disability is defined as a physical or mental impairment which “has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on a person’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities”.
Increasingly, disabilities that fall within this fundamental definition are invisible and/or hidden to others while being completely debilitating to those affected.
Often defined as “disabilities that are not immediately apparent”, invisible disabilities include chronic pain disorders, chronic fatigue conditions and mental illnesses. By their nature, these conditions can be difficult for others to recognise, acknowledge and/or understand simply because the symptoms aren’t always immediately apparent.
So what can employers do to support employees with invisible disabilities?
Raise Awareness and take a leaf out of Asda’s book
Encouraging awareness and making small changes can have a significant impact.
Asda recently put up signs in over 400 stores to encourage customers to recognise that not all disabilities are visible and to support customers suffering with conditions such as Crohn's disease, autism, anxiety, and inflammatory bowel disease to essentially support them to use disabled facilities without facing criticism from other customers.
The measure was inspired by the experience of a customer who legitimately used the disabled facilities due to suffering with a chronic condition affecting her balance and necessitating the use of hand rails.
The customer had been met with hostility and had been challenged on her use of the toilet by another customer for exactly the reason that the disability wasn’t immediately apparent. This led to the display of the signs. Similar measures can easily be adopted by any employer looking to raise awareness of this very issue.
Speak to employees
Even in the most open and supportive working environments, employees may be reluctant to openly discuss their health or personal matters. However, regular interaction with staff can help.
In particular, meeting regularly with staff on a one-to-one basis may provide the opportunity they need to disclose information relating to an invisible disability. Equally, regular meetings can be a useful way to identify and agree any arrangements, changes or adjustments that will work for the business and the individual involved.
Flexible working practices such as accommodating a variation of working hours, part-time working or home working on a regular or occasional basis (wherever possible) could make a significant difference to some employees.
Equally, providing flexibility can often prove mutually beneficial in the sense that a flexible employer will often benefit from reciprocal flexibility and an increased level of commitment from employees, particularly as employees are often appreciative of any flexibility afforded to them by their employer.
Equally, allowing as much flexibility as possible, while of course balancing what is reasonable and permissible operationally, may help retain an employee who might otherwise resign or whose performance may otherwise suffer.
Make reasonable adjustments
Most employers are aware of the duty to make adjustments to accommodate the needs of those with a disability. However, what does this mean in practical terms?
In a nutshell, employers are required to understand the barriers an employee is experiencing and put adjustments in place to resolve them as far as practicable. Naturally, employers need to involve the employee in any discussions around potential adjustments as ultimately – they are the experts on their condition.
What is reasonable will depend on the specific circumstances. However, in general terms adjustments could include changes to the working environment, working pattern and/or the provision of specialist equipment.
Adjustments needn’t be costly and small changes could make a significant difference and ultimately be sufficient to support and retain a valued employee.
Pashley is a Chartered Member of the CIPD and has extensive generalist and operational experience within professional services. With a background in the legal industry, spanning 20 years, she provides a wide range of in-house and external HR support services to SME’s in her role as a HR Manager