How to spot and manage invisible illnesses at work

14 October 2019 -

Man working at deskWhen someone on your team has a health problem, it’s not always apparent. Here’s how to deal with such conditions

Mark Rowland

There is still a lot of confusion over what types of illnesses can be supported at work, especially when they’re not physical illnesses or visible disabilities. Nasser Siabi OBE is chief executive of Microlink PC, which works to improve working conditions for disabled people to empower them in the workplace, is trying to combat this. He says that often, when picturing people with long-term illnesses or types of disability, “a lot of people think of someone in a wheelchair, or someone with a guide dog and a stick.”

But what about those with invisible illnesses that aren’t obvious or physical, like neuro-diverse conditions? “Some hidden illnesses and disabilities such as dyslexia presents one in ten people,” says Siabi.

While many people know that dyslexia affects your ability to read and write, it can also affect the way that you think and even the way you store short-term memories. “You come to your job and because you lack traditional organisation skills, you work twice as hard,” says Siabi. “But it is seen as sloppy, and it is treated negatively in performance reviews.”

Mental health issues can often fit into this category of invisible illness. “People with mental health issues like depression are sometimes high-functioning people; the brain is always active and something snaps,” Siabi says. “These are the people that could end up on long-term sickness absence, and you won’t have them back if you don’t manage them properly.”

So how do you spot and manage these issues?

Read between the lines

Usually the first sign that something may be wrong is when a conflict arises. Perhaps an individual’s performance has been dropping, or their attitude has changed. Your first instinct might be to speak to them about their performance and escalate it if things don’t improve. Instead, try to put that performance issue in context.

If you suspect a mental health issue, for instance, ask yourself: was the individual’s work of a high standard previous to this current issue? Have they been under additional pressure? Any hints that something is going on in their home life? Ask some questions to find out what might be causing the issue.

Ideally, you should be trained in how to recognise the signs of certain invisible illnesses. Speak to your own manager about courses such as mental health first aid so that you can spot the warning signs more effectively.

“You need to really tackle the issue head on with any type of disability, otherwise the business will haemorrhage talented people,” says Siabi. “The starting position is: what condition is that employee suffering from, and how does it affect their work?

“You’re not there to fix people’s problems, because you can’t. What you can do is try to mitigate the impact on the work they do – that’s where the skill comes in.”

Be sympathetic

If people find their working environment friendly rather than hostile, then it can mitigate their mental health issue, Siabi explains. Often, work can be a very good distraction to what is otherwise a bleak time. As a manager, you must protect and nurture talent, and know how to step in if something is wrong.

“If you actually look at physical health, it’s a fluctuating variable,” says Siabi. “Mental health is no different. People are subjected to all sorts of external pressures and challenges. That can certainly impact the mind and how it can deal with problems and crises. So being a bit sympathetic improves the outcome by 60-70%.”

Develop a coping strategy

Work with the individual to determine how you can adjust their environment and workload so that they can work effectively. For example, if a team member has dyslexia, set them up with a fixed desk in an area with minimal visual and auditory distractions, and provide written backups for verbal instructions.

For people with a mental illness, you could divide tasks into more manageable chunks to help reduce their stress levels.

“A lot of the solutions don’t cost much – in a lot of cases, it comes down to how you speak to that person and how you support them to turn things around,” Siabi explains. “Sometimes it’s a simple intervention like buying a special piece of kit, such as a mouse, that makes their job easier. In terms of mental health, peer mentoring really does help, but they need to get back on the road to recovery – they may need some medical intervention as well.”

To see how you can make staff with invisible illnesses feel safe at work, read about steps you can take to actually be inclusive.

Image: Al Ghazali Unsplash

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