How to Support Employees with Invisible Disabilities


In 2024, employers have a responsibility to support employees with invisible disabilities. Providing appropriate assistance enables these team members to thrive whilst demonstrating your workplace's commitment to equality.  


What Are Invisible Disabilities? 

Invisible disabilities, also termed hidden disabilities, refer to impairments that are not outwardly apparent to observers. These include chronic illnesses like diabetes or autoimmune diseases, mental health conditions such as anxiety, and neurological differences including autism spectrum disorders and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Such health conditions can significantly impact daily living, social interactions, or workplace performance. But without visual clues, colleagues often misunderstand affected employees' capabilities and challenges. 

With Invisible Disabilities, Support is Crucial But Rare 

The stigma around disability at work remains so strong that only around 4% of disabled professionals voluntarily disclose their situations to employers. Without this knowledge, you won't be aware of your people's needs for things like flexible scheduling, modified workspaces, or mental health support. Even well-intentioned teammates may stigmatise conditions that are unfamiliar to them. This compounds existing barriers for employees with invisible disabilities - impacting engagement, productivity and wellbeing. Proactively supporting them through workplace initiatives protects both your employees and your bottom line. 


Why Inclusion Matters 

Embracing workplace diversity includes enabling employees with invisible disabilities to thrive. Beyond being a legal obligation, providing reasonable adjustments actively demonstrates that individual differences and perspectives are valued across the organisation. It signals that you’re willing to do what it takes to empower each person to make a meaningful contribution.  

Structural changes towards more inclusive attitudes also encourage deeper understanding between all employees. Constructive conversations foster the psychological safety that gives all employees the confidence to speak up honestly, offer new ideas, try new things, and risk failure. According to a Google study, psychological safety is what the most effective teams have in common. Your work culture and employer brand will benefit from your reputation for empowering equality. 


The following sections explore specific, actionable steps you can take to support professionals with hidden disabilities. 


1. Raise Awareness Through Training 

Training helps employees grasp the challenges faced by coworkers with impairments like chronic illness, anxiety or diabetes. Sessions aim to build understanding, reduce stigma and nurture open dialogue. Consider involving external experts or advocates with lived expertise in designing materials. Ensure all staff and managers participate to shift workplace culture. Highlight how small daily issues like fatigue or medication needs can compound. Roleplaying difficult conversations allows colleagues to empathise. While respecting medical privacy, being transparent about support policies also encourages workers to request accommodations. 


2. Implement Inclusive Policies

Create clear guidelines supporting those with hidden disabilities, including flexible arrangements, workplace adjustments, and diversity policies. Communicate these policies across the organisation. Managers need to proactively discuss support options during recruitment and one-to-ones. Setting an inclusive tone from leadership down makes it clear that no workers will be disadvantaged, boosting morale across the board. Anti-harassment policies also allow neurodivergent individuals, amongst others, to feel psychologically safe being open about their conditions. Publicising accommodations makes asking for them normalised rather than stigmatised. 


3. Equip Managers to Provide Support

Frontline managers often have the most interaction with disabled team members requiring assistance. Yet they may lack specialist knowledge of available accommodations or how to communicate sensitively. Look beyond basic disability equality training to targeted development, equipping managers to realise policy flexibly. Explain the prevalence of hidden disabilities, including mental health issues. Prepare them to spot signs of emerging issues and have effective conversations. Ensure they can evaluate requests fairly, avoid assumptions and enable colleagues to stay well through adjustments like hybrid working. Confident managers can have more nuanced discussions around maximising strengths whilst managing disabilities day-to-day. 


4. Leadership Should Champion Inclusion

 Tone stems from the top. So senior figures must consistently articulate support for disabled professionals. After policy consultation with disability representatives and networks internally, leaders should actively participate in awareness campaigns, such as around World Mental Health Day. Participating visibly in initiatives like disability inclusion networks, even at board level, signals that all backgrounds are valued in the organisation. It also gives role models for emerging talent. Beyond events, ensure managers and executives use inclusive language emphasising capability rather than deficiency. Provide ongoing development opportunities targeting disabled high-potentials to retain tomorrow’s diverse leadership. 


5. Open Channels for Honest Dialogue

Preventing issues turning into crises starts with removing obstacles to transparently discussing them early. Publicly assure workers they can approach HR, managers and occupational health to privately explain their condition's impact. Establish formal mechanisms like mentoring programmes where disabled professionals advise leadership on addressing workplace barriers. Encourage buddy systems and peer support amongst neurodivergent or chronically ill colleagues for advice on navigating roles. At innovative companies like Microsoft, leaders actively disclose their own disabilities as mentors. Structural enhancements like employee opinion surveys must include anonymous disability declaration to capture experiences. Protecting confidentiality encourages staff to raise issues productively. 


6. Offer Accessible Workplaces and Mental Health Support 

Whilst many disabled employees won’t require infrastructure changes, ensuring workplace accessibility communicates that existing impairments won’t exclude people from opportunities. Consider accessibility across parking, hallway widths, lighting, acoustics and sensory spaces. Digitally, follow guidelines around software and interface accessibility. Regarding wellbeing, provide access to counselling services, whether internally or through employee assistance programmes. For neurodivergent staff, coaching can help establish strategies for managing stimuli like noise or filling gaps in social skills. Publicise mental health first aiders to talk through challenges. Ultimately realising disability support requirements depends on employees feeling safe to discuss their situations. An accommodating culture enables this. 


Embedding Support 

Supporting employees with hidden disabilities spans policies, workplace culture and leadership priorities. Whilst initial enhancements incur some cost, longer-term gains around talent attraction, engagement and retention outweigh these. Start by raising awareness of challenges faced, before building manager capability and implementing adjustments for existing team members. Progress relies on open dialogue - so signal from the top that support is available without judgement. Over time, a supportive culture will enable disabled professionals to maximise their capabilities alongside their colleagues.

Posted by: Branwell Ford