Invisible Illness and the Office Environment

Health isn’t one-size-fits-all. We can’t all hit the genetic jackpot and have perfect teeth, a flat stomach, and zero seasonal allergies (but how nice does that sound?).

There are people who were either born with or developed something called an Invisible Illness. While there are countless examples, a few Invisible Illnesses (also referred to as Disabilities) you may have run into include Rheumatoid Arthritis, Crohn’s Disease, Depression, Chronic Migraine, PTSD, Lyme’s Disease, Autism, Endometriosis, Cystic Fibrosis, Epilepsy, and Lupus. You may not even know if an employee is living with cancer, since they have no legal obligation to disclose this to you. 

Why might an employee not disclose something that affects their daily life?

  1. Stigma- Many mental illnesses and gender-specific afflictions can carry unfortunate stigmas and stereotypes. Health issues are extremely personal and can make someone feel alone, ashamed, stigmatized. 
  2. Lack of Awareness- If you have a male supervisor, he may not know how to respond to the pain of Endometriosis. A 26 year old manager may not be able to relate to your struggle with Osteoporosis. Employees may want to avoid this conversation altogether if they don’t think you’ll be able to have an informed discussion.
  3. Fear- Someone may not want to risk knowledge of their health issues spreading around the office for fear of changing their coworkers’ views of them. In a place where you spend eight hours, five days per week, it can be uncomfortable when your associates know intimate details of your life.

Of all people who suffer from an invisible illness, 60% of them fall within the working age range of 18-64.1 This means that employers need to step up their game when it comes to making reasonable accommodations for employees to thrive. 


How employers can help:

  1. Flexible working conditions- Be willing to let this employee work from home, allow time for doctors appointments, video-conference for meetings, prioritize snack and bathroom breaks. Be open to a discussion about how you can make their working lives easier and set them up for success.
  2. Do your research- One in five adults in the United States lives with a mental illness. If you have more than five employees, odds are good that someone in your office is struggling. Do them (and yourself) a favor and read up on signs, symptoms, and support for common mental, behavioral, and emotional illnesses. Having a better understanding will allow you to demonstrate your support, empathy, and care when the discussion arises. 
  3. Don’t generalize anyone- You may think you know what someone with cancer, depression, or irritable bowl syndrome deals with. The truth is, no two people experience anything in the exact same way. Take the time to ask questions about how this individual person experiences the condition. Make sure you understand how it effects their day and what would help them.
  4. Enforce a policy of acceptance- If their is nothing in your employee handbook about inclusion, diversity, and tolerance, it’s time for a re-write. Make sure that you communicate a zero tolerance for discrimination of any kind. Host a company-wide meeting to discuss mindfulness strategies, citing that everyone, at some point, struggles with their health.

As an employer, you want to do everything possible to create a culture of acceptance and wellness. Positioning yourself and your company as empathetic, flexible, and caring goes a long way in employee satisfaction and retention.