How do you deal with disguised disabilities in the workplace?

Palpitations, a rapid heart rate, fatigue, nervousness, stomach upsets, weak muscles; are all hidden symptoms of an autoimmune disease known as Hyperthyroidism a disease I was diagnosed with coming up a year ago.

Looking back, it was clear I was chronically ill and not as I thought “just” exhausted as a full time working mum of 2 young children and runner. I recall a very good girlfriend of mine visiting me in the early days after my diagnosis and shocked at what she saw and became to understand of my disease she said in future she would call out anyone who made light of it as a “good way to lose weight”, which believe me does happen all too often.

To any HR professionals reading this or those in business who have had to hear a grievance from someone who has suffered disability discrimination in the workplace, it will come as no surprise that it is too often those making “light” of a person’s disability that causes the concern in the first instance.

However, my friends’ comments have got me thinking as we approach mental health awareness week, in situations where a disability is not obviously visible how do you ensure fair and equitable treatment?

A landmark case that I often recall is Archibald Vs Fife, not a strictly comparable case as here the disability was visible, but the ruling by the House of Lords applies across the spectrum of disabilities; they ruled that the positive duty to make reasonable adjustments under the disability discrimination act may extend to positively discriminate in favour of disabled people. In plain speak, it is fair to create not only an equal playing field but to go beyond and create an unequal playing field in favour of those with a disability.

In my experience working in large corporate organisations and now delivering a HR consultant service to SME clients, when I come across disability discrimination cases there often is no deliberate intention to ignore an employee’s disability, but there is a lack of time taken to observe colleagues for small signs of an underlying health condition.  After all, had my colleagues at the time paid more attention to observe by rapid weight loss, hair thinning, tremor, anxiety and restlessness all visible symptoms of my disease then support could have been put in place.

In summary here follows my top 5 tips for businesses to prepare and conduct themselves to support employees with disguised disabilities.

  • Ensure policies, procedures and occupational health support are in place no matter the size of your organisation and ensure they are used.
  • Train line managers to spot the signs of hidden disabilities in their day today interaction with their people.
  • Engage with your workforce and communicate your commitment to support those with disabilities in regular and topical campaigns here are some of the May campaigns you can support:
  • Create a networking group dedicated to workplace disability and ensuring it’s on the business agenda.
  • Introduce disability mentors who as subject matter experts can train and counsel colleagues and managers in dealing with disability in the workplace.