According to Government statistics, there is an estimated 3.8 million people with a disability in employment. 

As this figure is pretty high, it's likely that many business owners employ someone who has a disability, without even realising as 96% of illnesses are invisible. 

In an ideal world, employees should be able to discuss any medical problem with their employer even if they are not immediately apparent.

But, in reality, invisible illnesses are often not disclosed due to embarrassment, a lack of awareness or understanding, and a stigma surrounding certain conditions.

Sadly, this means that employees aren’t able to get the right help and employers aren’t as well placed as they should be to provide proper support.

What illnesses can be invisible?

Arthritis, diabetes, fibromyalgia and endometriosis all have 1 thing in common, they are all classed as an invisible illness. These illnesses, which don’t present obvious symptoms to the outside world, can be something that people are just too embarrassed to talk about.

For example, 1 in 10 women in the UK suffers with endometriosis – a condition which causes heavy periods and pelvic pain. Discussing something as intimate as heavy bleeding at work can be challenging, whatever the gender balance, but women suffering with endometriosis may benefit from a flexible working pattern and time off for appointments.

Other invisible illnesses that often go undisclosed are bowel conditions, such as Crohn’s disease and Colitis, because they can cause awkward conversations and are often not very well understood. The same goes for skin diseases, other pain conditions, and mental health issues.

Research by Chron’s & Colitis UK found that more than half of those with a long-term health condition feel they must downplay their condition at work. It also found that a third of workers lie about why they’re calling in sick due to a fear of stigma at work.

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As an employer, it’s important to be able to deal with invisible illnesses that might affect your employee’s ability to work as normal, but it can be difficult to know what your workers need from you. So, how can you support an employee who is living with an invisible illness?  

1. Don’t generalise

If an employee comes to you with an invisible illness, you may not know anything about their condition, but it’s important to first ask how it affects them, rather than discussing generic details of the illness straight away. You can find information online later once you’ve understood the challenges and feelings of the individual.

Being a good listener is a vital skill as an employer, and it comes into practice here. Keeping personal opinions to a minimum can put your employees at ease as our own pre-conceptions aren’t always helpful and may not be relevant to every individual. Instead, try asking broad open questions like ‘how do you feel each day?’ or ‘what would help you?’.

2. Create the right environment

Being available, creating an open environment, and having a willingness to learn about individual experiences and conditions will be appreciated.

Allowing staff to be open and forthcoming about difficult days as a means to understanding the pattern, routine or even the triggers of the illness is vital and enables you to plan a sensible workplace routine. This will also help you to understand how you can help, too.

3. Take time to understand

Taking the time to learn about the condition means that you can guide conversations and show a level of understanding that will make your employees feel valued and cared about.

Being empathetic and supportive, as well as pointing out the right people to talk to within the organisation, will make your employees feel more comfortable talking about their condition.

4. Talk to HR

If your business has dedicated HR professionals, they’re the best place to go when one of your employees needs help to cope with an invisible illness at work. With permission from the employee, HR can write to the individual’s doctor, which could help develop an understanding of the individual circumstances and enables them to make suggestions that might make their working life a little easier.

They can also look at what support is available in the local area in terms of care or assistance from local charities or even specialists, if appropriate.

Treatment can often be funded by an Employee Assistant Programme if your business has one, but if not then you can always consider contributing financially depending on the case. Ideally, you’ll want to keep your employees happy and healthy, so footing some of the bill for specialist treatment might be in your best interest and make an employee feel more valued.

5. Cater for individual needs

Asking your employees what they need to make like at work easier is a simple and effective strategy. It’s not only practical but is appropriately supportive. It might not be possible to make a huge number of drastic changes, but offering to work together to find the best solution is key.

Potential changes to your employee’s routine might include flexible working, allowing time for appointments, ensuring bathroom access, different equipment or a varying timetable.

Exploring these options openly will allow employees suffering with invisible illnesses to feel comfortable and remain as valued members of the workforce.

Ultimately, you can’t know about every illness or condition, but creating a workplace that is accepting and understanding can help employees who are suffering come forward. It’s important to do what you can to support individual needs and point them in the right direction for help.

After all, ending the stigma of invisible illnesses in the workplace can boost productivity, as those suffering in silence might not have work at the forefront of their mind.

Dr Ellie Cannon, GP advisor to the wellbeing charity, CABA

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