Employers large and small need to pay more attention to disabilities that are ‘invisible’, if they are to provide an inclusive and supportive environment.

people in an office sat looking at a screen

This is the view of leading wellness and employee benefits specialists, who have said managers need to do more to nurture a culture whereby staff suffering from ‘hidden’ disabilities, such as epilepsy, chronic fatigue, mental illness and many others, feel supported.

When employees are supported, the overall business benefits, according to Darren Michel, claims manager at Generali UK Employee Benefits.

Michel said the key for businesses was to “nurture a culture of wellbeing and support; where employees feel they can be open when and if they want to be – to share information with colleagues and managers and ask for, or seek, support where needed”. 

He said in the absence of such a workplace culture important warning signs that the employee is struggling could be missed and they’re unlikely to proffer any information.

When this happens, everyone suffers: the individual, the colleagues and the end consumer, so it is important that “warning signs” are not repeatedly missed, he said.

He added: “Where there isn’t an open and honest dialog between the struggling employee and their line manager or HR employee experience obviously takes a hit. Absences are likely to become unnecessarily protracted.

“Any opportunities for insurer-funded early intervention services are missed, because the underlying reason for the absence isn’t clear. Additional anxiety can be felt by all parties concerned.”

Eventually, Michel warned that communications between employer and employee might break down completely and any motivation to return to work disappears – a situation that helps nobody. 

His comments were echoed by Vitality360’s Amanda Mason, career and employment consultant with the company. 

She said it is vital for employers to “create an open, supportive and healthy working environment. This can help people feel more confident in disclosing their disability.

“In such an environment it is more likely that someone can take the steps they need to manage their health or disability within the workplace, even if they choose not to disclose.

“With regards to the question of employees sharing information with HR or line managers about how their disability – or any medication associated – might impact on work, as a guiding principle, unless there is something relating to the specific job function, then it is the individual’s choice whether to disclose.”

A safe space for disclosure

But when it comes to disclosure, it can be hard for employees to offer personal information to their managers or to the HR department.

Some managers are wholly approachable and supportive; others do not present themselves in that way, and so hidden disabilities can often stay hidden – and that can cause problems further down the line.

Vanessa Latham, partner at BLM law, said any employee ought to be able to contact HR for support, “irrespective of whether their line manager is supportive or not”. 

When contacting HR, the employee should be clear about what information can be shared with others and manage their expectations accordingly.

For example, if an employee doesn’t want HR to share information about a mental health problem with their line manager, they should make that clear to HR. However, the employee should also understand that withholding information will restrict what HR can do.

Latham added: “It is unlikely HR would be able to change working practises if they cannot explain to the line manager why the change is required.”

Their comments came after Generali UK Employee Benefits hosted a webinar in February, in partnership with Vitality360, on Time to Talk day. 

The seminar – part of a series of workplace wellness webinars scheduled for 2021 – aimed to highlight common difficulties or misunderstandings which may occur in workplaces and deliver strategies that will be useful to employers.

Generali has created a package that includes funding support for their business clients and the employees. Its HR meditation service can help provide a suitable return-to-work solution or help the employee move on in a way that benefits both parties.

Source – FT

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