Invisible illnesses:
What support do staff need?


As more employers continue to work from home, identifying those that may need increased support can be a difficult task for HR teams...

Words by Jade Burke | Design by Matt Bonnar

 

If an issue is not visibly obvious, it can be difficult to comprehend that something may be wrong. This is the case for invisible workplace illnesses, which cannot be seen. However, it is crucial that HR leaders express understanding and openness so that employees are able to freely share if they are suffering from an invisible illness.

According to Government statistics, around 96% of illnesses are invisible, indicating that a large majority of any workforce will likely have some form of invisible illness that employers or colleagues may not know of. These illnesses could include autism, diabetes, epilepsy, chron’s disease, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis or insomnia, all of which are not necessarily able to be physically seen.

While initiatives and charities such as the Invisible Disabilities Association have been put in place to increase awareness of invisible illnesses in the workplace, it is important to highlight how HR leaders can make a difference to employees who may not be as open about their own illnesses, while also ensuring that those individuals are not discriminated against unfairly.

 

Helen Watson, Partner and Head of Employment Law at Aaron & Partners, supports this view, telling HR Grapevine: “It’s always difficult for an employer where an employee doesn’t have any physical signs of disability/illness and perhaps chooses not to disclose this for their own personal reasons. A few examples that spring to mind may be dyslexia or diabetes. Both of these are disabilities under the Equality Act 2010.”

It is the act that Watson references that provides disabled people with protection from discrimination in a range of areas, including employment. As part of this legislation, an employer could face serious consequences if they were considered to fail at making ‘reasonable adjustments’ to help the employee work. But it requires knowing if an employee has a protected characteristic to work. To ensure an employer does, Watson recommends opening an official dialogue. “Employers should hold regular appraisals/PDPs with employees because this is an opportunity to review performance and the reasons why someone may be underperforming,” she says.

Virtual support

The issue is, these illnesses could become even more invisible now a large part of the population is working from home. Due to this, a bigger emphasis on how to support employees on a virtual basis has been a hot topic of discussion for HR leaders. This was something that Helen Field-Andrews, Head of HR at parcel and courier service Hermes, had to consider, particularly when it comes to employees’ wellbeing while at home. She explains: “We had to ask people to work from home with very little warning and many people understandably didn’t have the correct equipment and setting for home working. Tapping away on a laptop at the kitchen table may sound ideal but it can soon lead to injuries, aches and repetitive strains. We made it a priority to ensure people knew how to set up their workstations and take regular rests.”

Similarly, Group HR Director at Reward Gateway, Robert Hicks, also believes a bigger emphasis is required on investing in better support while employees are working remotely. Due to the lack of physical team interactions, he advises HR teams to consider increased flexible working and understanding when it comes to unusual hours, while also ensuring that managers are better equipped to manage staff virtually.

He continues: “Employees suffering from these illnesses can also experience frustration, guilt, exhaustion and embarrassment. So very simply, it is critical employers today invest in what employees need to feel better, get better, do their job, feel productive, and feel supported. Offering flexibility so employees can take care of themselves is a great start and is easier than many believe. Also, managing your team and resources to offer those who need the most help, exhibits to the entire team that you are a supportive employer.”

 
 

Onboarding new staff

While some businesses have had to make the difficult decision to layoff staff as a result of the coronavirus, others have hired new staffers and had to onboard recruits virtually. Without face-to-face interaction, it could be considered difficult to build an honest rapport with a jobseeker, to allow them to freely share if they are battling with an invisible illness. Noting that this may be an issue, Karl Porter, Director of Recruitment at Metro Bank, tells HR Grapevine that to help prevent any barriers such as this, the bank has provided neurodiversity training to all of its recruiters.

He continues: “When we’re recruiting new colleagues, we want to ensure that existing health conditions and medical history are not a barrier to entry, and we are committed to working one-on-one with candidates, in particular if they have a condition we need to be aware of. For example, we have provided neurodiversity training to our recruiters, so they can help potential recruits that have invisible conditions such as autism through the application process – for example making simple changes such as having a plain background in digital interviews which can help candidates to focus.”

In addition to this, in order to support its current employees, Porter is proud to share that the business has also rolled out initiatives such as a wellbeing hub to provide staff with the tools and information to support their needs. “We pride ourselves on supporting all our colleagues’ wellbeing, both physically and mentally, and being aware of invisible illnesses is a really important part of that,” he says. “In particular in the current environment, we have put in place a number of resources to support colleagues, including creating our own wellbeing hub – full of useful tools, resources and information to support colleagues. Colleagues are able to write blogs and share their own personal experiences with others, and we’ve also given all colleagues a free subscription to the wellbeing app Headspace.”

 

‘No two are the same’

Ensuring that the right support is offered to an individual means that HR teams need to acknowledge that no two people are the same, and therefore their situation may differ greatly. By engaging with employees and encouraging open and honest dialogue, managers will be able to identify what support staff members need on an individual basis.

This is something that Reward Gateway’s Hicks’ also champions as he concludes: “As an employer we also need to engage with and understand our people. No two people will have the same challenges and the ability for organisations to offer programs that are relevant to as many people as possible will have maximum impact.”


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