Invisible Illness in the Workplace

A woman sits with her head in her hands while looking down at her computer

May is an important month for employees who have invisible illnesses! There are several groups in the disability community that celebrate an awareness month in May. During these 30 days, the disability community works to spread awareness around these invisible diseases:

•    Arthritis
•    Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS)
•    Celiac Disease
•    Cystic Fibrosis 
•    Fibromyalgia
•    Lupus
•    Lyme Disease
•    Stroke

One in four Americans have a disability, visible or nonvisible. Check out these staggering figures on what this means for the workforce (Agency Central UK):

•    96% of illnesses are invisible
•    74% of people who experience a disability do not use a cane, wheelchair, or any other visible aid
•    60% of people experiencing a chronic invisible illness are between the ages of 18-64

Highlighting that last statistic, over half of people with an invisible illness are working age. It is crucial that employers offer tools and supports to accommodate needs that are not apparent. 

So what is having an invisible illness like? Keep reading for a more comprehensive view of both the employer and the employee perspective and how all of us can support people with invisible illnesses in the workplace. 

The Employee
While everyone’s experience is unique, many workers with invisible illnesses share that they manage their days by managing their energy bank. They plan tasks around how much energy it will take them to complete those tasks. Many employees are often exhausted and running low on energy before they even make it to work. 

“Five years ago, I was working as a research assistant at a design school. I was also struggling with several undiagnosed illnesses, including narcolepsy, an immune condition, and a painful connective tissue disorder. Every night I’d set twelve alarms, turn the volume up, and plug my phone in on the other side of my bedroom. And every morning I’d sleep through them all. I started every day feeling like I’d already run a marathon and been hit by a truck as I crossed the finish line.” – Alex Hutt, ‘The Muse’ 

Many Employees with disabilities experience fatigue, pain, anxiety, and fear on a regular basis. They also may experience harsh biases from their peers and bosses, exacerbating their symptoms and leading to poor mental health. Read more about what it’s like working with an invisible illness here



So what can employers and fellow employees do to not just provide accommodations, but also help an employee with an invisible illness feel included, valued, and heard? Check out these suggestions:

•    Offer the capability to work from home
•    Offer flex scheduling
•    Lead by example – create a supportive environment at the office
•    Listen to your employees and their needs
•    Provide requested accommodations in a timely manner and adjust as needed
•    Provide staff trainings around both visible and nonvisible disabilities 

All of these suggestions will likely lead to higher productivity levels, employee loyalty, and a safe environment in the workplace. What will you do to spread awareness of invisible illnesses and support employees with disabilities not just this month, but every month of the year?