Invisible disabilities: How to support your struggling employees

Co-founder of The Rise Journey encourages you to make the most of Mental Health Awareness Month

Invisible disabilities: How to support your struggling employees

Five years ago, Jes Osrow fell down a pit.

Her long-term boyfriend broke up with her and around the same time, she was given a poor performance review at work. That one-two punch knocked her out, fueling her anxiety and depression.

Desperate for help, she reached out to one of her private women’s networks and received an outpour of support. She discovered that women were more likely to leave the workplace because of invisible disabilities – conditions similar to what she was going through.

“A lot of women weren’t diagnosed until later in life, so for years they dealt with it day in and day out,” Osrow, co-founder and COO of The Rise Journey, a New York City-based HR consultancy, told HRD. “Because of their invisible disabilities, the standard 9-to-5 system didn’t work for them. They weren’t getting the proper mentorship and sponsorship, so they left and even started their own companies.”

Read more: Why aren’t ERGs being compensated?

More than a quarter of adults (26%) in the United States have some type of disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (To Osrow’s point, one in four women have a disability, the CDC reports.) “Invisible disabilities” is an umbrella term that captures a whole spectrum of hidden disabilities that are primarily neurological in nature, according to the University of Massachusetts. While not visible from the outside, it’s a physical or mental condition that can limit or challenge a person’s movements or senses.

Invisible disabilities include ADD/ADHD, anorexia, autism, bipolar disorder, chronic pain, diabetes, depression, chemical dependence, personality disorder and much more. Oftentimes, these conditions lead to false perceptions in the workplace. According to The Rise Journey, 88% of employees said they don’t disclose their invisible disabilities in job application demographic questions. Furthermore, 57% of those surveyed said they haven’t asked for reasonable accommodations.

“Not everybody considers themselves disabled,” Osrow says. “Depression and anxiety can be very disabling, but sometimes when I remember my meds, they’re not.”

In order to support employees with invisible disabilities, Osrow suggests that HR leaders promote the accommodations available. If a company has an employee resource group (ERG) related to disabilities or mental health, that’s a key capability HR leaders should spotlight on the company website. Also, if employers offer reimbursements or copays for mental health resources, that’s another benefit that HR leaders should publicize.

“Anything you do to help employees build that psychological safety should be included in job descriptions,” Osrow says. “If you have ERGs, let them create their own pages on your career page. Almost all emails are automated through applicant tracking systems, so link things through and make them scalable. ‘Check out the latest quarterly report of what our ERGs are up to.’ Potential employees will see that you care by putting funding behind it.”

It's important that the company promotes its emphasis on accessibility because employees may not feel safe applying for accommodations, Osrow says. After all, it’s common for employees with invisible disabilities to fear being treated with bias or discrimination if they speak up. The easiest way to make employees feel comfortable is by having company leaders open up about their own struggles.

“It starts at the top,” Osrow says. “Has anybody in your C-suite ever said they have a disability or need to take a mental health day? Are they being vulnerable and sharing that? Leaders can set the example by taking mental health days, acknowledging that their parents and need to care for their children, not logging on to check emails during vacation, etc.”

If a company leader hasn’t dealt with invisible disabilities by themself or through their family and friends, they can still help destigmatize talking about mental health in the workplace. Osrow suggests addressing it like this: “I’ve not experienced this and I don’t know what you’re going through, but I’ve spoken with these experts and did the research, so this is what we’re proposing. We hope you’ll fill out these surveys and give us feedback, so we make sure these benefits and resources are right for you.”

“If employees know they have good benefits and an employer who’s safe, they’re going to stay,” Osrow says. “Even if things get rocky, they might not leave for a higher salary because that doesn’t mean better benefits or a better culture.”

Even if employees request reasonable accommodations, Osrow claims that employers often don’t know how to proceed. Luckily, HR leaders can learn everything they need to know about reasonable accommodations at Employment Law Masterclass California.

Navid Kanani, trial lawyer and employment law advocate at Los Angeles-based JS Abrams Law, will be revealing the new accommodation challenges employers are facing due to the COVID-19 pandemic and will be sharing the proactive steps employers must take to ensure they’re properly accommodating employees’ needs to avoid future litigation, while ensuring they’re protecting their organizations’ interests.

You can register for Employment Law Masterclass California here.

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