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Hidden disabilities: how to ensure your workplace is inclusive to all





Posted by Justine Woolf on 26 November 2019

Hidden disabilities: how to ensure your workplace is inclusive to all

HR Reward | Reward Consultancy | Motivation | Employee engagement | Flexible working | Agile working | Culture | Total reward | Productivity | Wellbeing | Employee Experience

Recently I saw this sign on a train seat: ‘Priority seat, please vacate for disabled people’. But how do you know who is and who isn’t disabled? 

Usually the concept of disability means being in a wheelchair – after all, that’s what all the signs show. But that’s not the reality for most people living with a disability. I have Crohn’s disease – an example of an ‘invisible’ disability that has impacted me all of my working life, and whilst I’ve never hidden it, I’ve always resisted identifying as ‘disabled’ because it always implied ‘you can’t do something’. 

It’s positive that our perception of disability as life-limiting is changing – for example, celebrating the achievements of Paralympians, increased visibility of disabled presenters on TV or in advertising campaigns. But for those with hidden disabilities, the world is taking a long time to realise the true impact that living with these conditions has on us as individuals. And, crucially, as employees.  

There will be hundreds of employees in your workforce living with hidden disabilities. Asthma, arthritis, autism… conditions which are not obvious from the outside but have a severe impact on daily life and can be difficult to discuss in a work context. For people with Crohn’s or Colitis, there is an embarrassment factor about having to discuss bowel habits. For people with mental health issues, there is still a stigma or lack of understanding about how to support those struggling with depression or anxiety. 

But think about it: 

  • If we could make every employee empowered to share challenges they face, sometimes on a day to day basis, and you as an employer could demonstrate a positive, supportive way to help them manage their condition, how much happier would that employee be? How much more productive, if they aren’t embarrassed to ask for help when needed? We know engaged employees are more productive, and more loyal to their employer. 
  • How many days’ absence would we gain back if genuine accommodation was made to help employees deal with their condition? I’m not talking about changing desks, I’m talking truly flexible working that, for example, enables people to start later or finish earlier if it helps them to manage their condition.  
  • How many talented employees are you missing out on because you don’t shout about how you support a truly diverse workforce? What do your adverts, your Glassdoor profile, your website really say about how you make a positive difference to your staff wellbeing or how you adopt flexible approaches to work/life? 

Many organisations are now embracing wellbeing, and integrating it into Total Reward so it is no longer seen as an add on or nice to have. But I’d really like to see more effort on hidden disabilities. This is admittedly hard to track as most employees in this situation will never tick the disabled box on a monitoring form. But you can start to change attitudes and mindsets with small actions. 

Instead or as well as supporting a company-wide annual charity, many companies will do matched giving to charities that are meaningful to staff – this often enables staff members to share why they are passionate about that charity and in many cases will relate to support that they or loved ones have received. Similarly, many companies encourage staff to have cake bakes etc to support various causes – encouraging staff to share stories and support each other.  

I am proud to be a Trustee at Crohn’s and Colitis UK, and we’ve been running two campaigns over the last year which are applicable to everyone dealing with a hidden disability. We have campaigned to change signs on toilets to highlight that not every disability requires a wheelchair. It sounds minor, but simply changing the signage means a lot to people who otherwise would feel embarrassed or even judged for using a disabled toilet.  

Likewise our It Takes Guts campaign is focused on encouraging people with Crohn’s or Colitis to speak out and break the taboo about bowel disease; but more generally, it does take guts to talk about a condition that impacts your daily life and brings additional challenges to your ability to work. Encouraging staff to share their challenges raises awareness, brings people together and creates an open supportive community.  

We want everyone to reach their potential in the workplace, so let’s not assume that we are all starting out from the same place. By recognising that not every disability is visible, we can start conversations in the workplace about what we can do together to promote understanding and take meaningful actions.  

 Innecto can help with any aspect of pay and reward. Give us a ring on 020 3457 0894 or email

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