When we think of ongoing illnesses or health conditions, we often think we will be able to easily spot them. It’s natural to believe that those living with them will show tell-tale signs. Yet the truth of the matter is, 96% of all illnesses are actually invisible, meaning that most of the conditions people are dealing with we probably have no idea about.
Defined as a condition, disability or illness that isn’t easily seen or doesn’t show obvious signs, invisible illnesses or disabilities are far more common amongst work-age people than most of us realise. In fact, 60% of invisible illness sufferers are between the ages of 18 and 64, meaning the majority of people dealing with these conditions are most likely doing so whilst also working. Though perhaps surprising at first, when we consider the fact that the term covers mental, not just physical, conditions, it becomes easier to relate to.
If you’re suffering with an invisible illness or disability, you may have spent time thinking or worrying about how it will impact your work or your colleagues and employers’ perception of you. From being told ‘but you don’t look ill’ to fearing that you’ll be treated differently, the mental impact of such an illness can be significant.
Thankfully in this modern age, there are certain rights protecting those with invisible illness and navigating the various hurdles of divulging and coping with them in the workplace are less daunting as a result. We spoke to Soniamarie Palmer - HR expert and CEO of Soniamarie Consulting – about what exactly you need to tell your employer if you’re dealing with an invisible illness or disability in the workplace.
Know your rights at work
Thanks to The Equality Act of 2010, you do have substantial rights when it comes to being treated fairly at work. “An illness is an illness regardless of whether it is seen or unseen, it doesn’t make it less of an issue for the person who is living with it,” explains Soniamarie. “As such, employees who suffer in this way have the right not to suffer discrimination either pre or post-employment and to be treated fairly and equally. This is regardless of whether their illness is invisible or not. The Equality Act (2010) says that anyone who suffers from a disability or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day- to-day activities including work, is protected. It also puts a requirement on an employer who is made aware of an illness to make reasonable adjustments as a means to support the individual.
As stated by The Equality Act and reiterated by our HR expert, these rights are reliant on you informing your employer – if you don’t and they don’t know, there is nothing protecting you from being disciplined if the quality of your work is impacted. Though it might seem tempting to hide the truth of your illness from your employer for fear that it will alter their perception of your capabilities, it’s much more advisable to be honest and upfront about any challenges you may be facing as a result. Remaining silent may seem like you’re lessening the risk of being subject to stigma but actually you’re denying them - and therefore yourself - the opportunity to provide support that could make your working life easier. Soniamarie points out that it’s worth remembering that, given the very nature of invisible illnesses, you may not be the only person going through something like this. You have no idea how many other colleagues are also being supported:
“Companies by the very nature of employing many people are usually used to handling such sensitive matters and will be able to offer levels of support that can include making reasonable adjustments at interview stage or during employment to ensure a level of workplace wellbeing. Examples of this can be providing specialist access to software or facilities, buddying, providing a rest area or whatever is needed and reasonably practicable to implement.”
What to divulge
You don’t always have to give all the details of your illness if you don’t feel comfortable doing so – you can just focus on the areas that will actually impact your work. When having the conversation, rather than focusing on the illness itself, just be honest about how it may affect your current work situation. Keeping the conversation solution rather than problem focused will be far more productive. It also lessens the risk of your employer from making assumptions about what you can and can’t do.
When to divulge
This is always the dilemma faced by someone with an invisible illness - whether it should be divulged at interview stage or not. Though we know, thanks to the Equality Act 2010, that it is unlawful to be discriminated against for illness, it’s also difficult to catch interviewers in the act of doing so. After all, it’s entirely possible for them to make up another excuse for why you’re unsuitable for the role.
Thankfully, Soniamarie advises that it isn’t actually necessary to divulge this information before you’ve got the job - you can do so once you get to work.
“It is completely understandable that employees or potential employees may be a little nervous when disclosing their illness to their boss due to the sensitivity surrounding this personal matter. There is no duty to disclose this information at interview stage. However it is important, especially if the individual requires a level of support, to disclose this information as soon as possible so that the company is aware and can be afforded the opportunity to put in place any reasonable adjustments or support mechanisms as a result.”
As she points out, if you are reliant on the role providing flexibility to work around your illness, it is, of course, much less of a gamble to notify your potential employers before you get the job. Either way, Soniamarie suggests keeping a sense of formality when you do decide to broach the topic: ”This can be done by having a private one to one conversation with the HR manager/ line manager or perhaps writing it in an email or letter marked confidential.”
Look after yourself
Above all else, when dealing with an invisible illness at work, your primary focus should always be to look after your own wellbeing. Managing and minimising stress is good for everyone’s health and particularly for those who are dealing with other health issues as well.