December 2 2022

Invisible workplace disabilities: supporting colleagues

Not every disability is physical, and in the workplace, disabilities are far more common than you may notice at first. Millions of people across the country go to work with chronic health conditions and disabilities they do not display.


In fact, 74% of people who identify as disabled do not use wheelchairs or any other type of aid that may indicate they’re disabled. As you can imagine, this can make it very difficult when in the workplace to garner the right support in their day-to-day working life. 


How are hidden or invisible disabilities defined?


Hidden and invisible disabilities are disabilities that are not visible to the outside world. They are often mistakenly not identified and can often lead to the person affected facing multiple barriers as a result of this. Invisible and hidden disabilities can greatly impact a person in the workplace and of course, in their social life too.


Symptoms of such disabilities vary greatly however they commonly include fatigue, dizziness, ongoing and untreatable pain, cognitive dysfunctions, injuries to the brain, learning difficulties, vision impairments, hearing impairments, and mental health disorders. Some examples of hidden disabilities include diabetes, dyslexia, autism, and Crohn’s disease.


Despite there needing to be more support in place for hidden disabilities, the good news is that society is ever-progressing with more and more acknowledgement of such disabilities. However, there is still work to be done.


Hidden disabilities and the workplace


In the workplace, employees with hidden or invisible disabilities can face real challenges. As colleagues and management can’t see the disability outwardly, this can lead to judgement in regards to a person’s work performance. As a result, the person with the disability can end up feeling ashamed and embarrassed or as if they are not good enough for the company at worst.


An example could be if a person with chronic fatigue is employed and has to take time off as they cannot find the energy physically or mentally to attend work. In doing so, they could be misjudged as lazy or that they are simply slacking. Another example could be if a person with autism struggles to communicate with their colleagues at work, they may come across to others as rude when in fact they have a disability. This can lead to exclusion and feeling as if they are not capable of working for a company based on the treatment from others.

Therefore, it is incredibly important to ensure that the work environment is inclusive and that employees provide support for a colleague with a hidden disability. Below, we have listed some of the ways in which peers can help their colleague(s).

How to support a colleague with a hidden disability


  1. Be open minded and encourage conversations


It is important to try not to be judgemental towards a colleague with a hidden disability. Instead, approach them with an open mind and be sure to have honest conversations. If you have questions you’d like to ask about their disability, ask if it is okay to do so. At the end of the day, the employee with the disability probably wants to be as understood as everyone else in the workplace and may be receptive to your questions.


If your colleague is off work sick, understand that they have to take time off more to cope with their disability. And, if other peers discuss the time off a colleague is taking, be sure to step in and put things straight where you can.


  1. Offer to reduce the person’s workload if you can step in


Perhaps you finish your work early and you can see that the colleague is still working. If there is any way that you can reduce their workload or offer to help, do so. This will be greatly appreciated and goes a long way in showing your commitment to helping employees who are struggling.


  1. Include the person in social activities


Many people enjoy going out after work and often do so with colleagues. If one of your colleagues has a hidden disability and you think they’d rather not socialise after work due to lack of energy, for example, invite them anyway. They will feel included and will appreciate the offer either way. This also goes a long way in demonstrating that your workplace is an inclusive, positive environment where everybody is valued.

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