How employers can better support staff with invisible disabilities

Sarah Hollobone explains what organisations can do to become more inclusive towards the millions of people in the UK living with a hidden condition

An estimated 9.5 million people across the UK live with an invisible condition, meaning 1 in 7 are managing a medical condition alongside their jobs, in workplaces that do not always take this into account. As part of its Not Every Disability is Visible campaign, charity Crohn’s & Colitis UK is launching Are You IN? – a selection of support and resources for companies so they can pledge their commitment to being more inclusive of people with invisible conditions.

For people living with an invisible disability, the hidden nature of their condition can make it difficult to disclose, because the effects it has on their life are not immediately apparent or easy to understand. This can lead to employees feeling like they cannot ask for adjustments to help them manage their condition.

There are many invisible disabilities, including autism, epilepsy, mental health conditions and others. Crohn’s and colitis, for example, cause ulcers and inflammation in the gut and there is no cure. Symptoms include the urgent and frequent need to poo (often with blood), extreme fatigue and severe pain. They can impact mental health, personal relationships, and nearly every part of the body, leading to a lifetime of medication and, in many cases, life-altering surgery. 

For people living with Crohn’s and colitis, the stigma surrounding discussion of bowel habits can make it doubly hard to disclose their disability to an employer. You may be employing someone with Crohn’s or colitis right now without knowing, because they are so used to hiding it.

It should not be down to luck or a good manager that people living with invisible disabilities and conditions in the workplace are acknowledged, understood and supported. As the future of the office is reconsidered post-Covid, now is the time to make our workplaces more inclusive for people living with invisible conditions.

The campaign’s core pledges will help empower employers to become industry leaders in workplace inclusivity and educate all employees to consider and support those with invisible disabilities. The charity is providing employers with access to a free suite of resources, including training resources, an invisible disability badge of excellence and digital assets.

This support could involve training and educating staff on invisible conditions and distributing conversation guides at work to provide tips and examples of how to talk about invisible disabilities. Organisations could also appoint an invisible condition representative as a point of contact to signpost colleagues towards relevant company policies or employee assistance programmes. 

As we gradually return to the office post Covid, it’s vitally important that workplaces comply with current government recommendations for a Covid-19 safe workplace. As part of this, employers could take a temperature check to see if their employees feel invisible conditions are supported at work, if reasonable adjustments currently in place are working, or if further alterations are needed.  

The switch to remote and flexible working during the pandemic has allowed many people with invisible conditions to better manage their health, as well as being a more efficient way of managing medical appointments and treatments that occur during working hours. Remote working can also support employees to return to work after periods of sickness or surgery. For many, a return to pre-Covid normality would be a step backwards. Companies should offer remote and flexible working as a permanent feature of the workplace going forward, to improve employee wellbeing, productivity, and job satisfaction. 

Building a strong reputation as a workplace that values employee wellbeing has never been so important. Let’s not go back to normal post-Covid – now is the time to make a change and build a better, more inclusive workplace for everyone, whether your company is big or small, and whatever your role.

Sarah Hollobone is campaigns manager at Crohn’s & Colitis UK