Invisible Disabilities in the Workplace

The #1 Way to Support Employees with Invisible Disabilities

How many times have you judged a person for parking in a disabled space and not “looking” disabled?

Quite a few I’d say.

It’s an unconscious bias that stems from the assumption that all disabilities are physical with the signs and symptoms being visible to onlookers.

Off course, that assumption is false…

Not all disabilities are visible. A person can be disabled and look well at the same time.

The trouble is that these false perceptions and judgments can slip silently into the workplace, causing misunderstandings and discrimination in their wake.

People with invisible disabilities know this, which is why many employees are too afraid to tell their manager about their disability for fear of the consequences.

Certainly, that’s my experience as a mediator and investigator and as a Director at Disability Equality Scotland.

And The Papworth Trust reflects an element of this in their research:

The top 3 types of workplace discrimination identified by employed adults with a health condition, illness, impairment or disability are: being given fewer responsibilities (17%), not being promoted (11%), and being refused a job (8%).

This is a lose-lose situation as unmet needs lead to conflict, stress and health issues that have a negative impact on the person and the organisation; often resulting in reduced performance levels, lower employee retention and higher employee turnover.

In this post, I’m going to explore what employers can do to debunk false perceptions in the workplace about invisible disabilities and create environments where employees feel comfortable disclosing their invisible disability and asking for support.

So what is an Invisible Disability?

The Invisible Disabilities Association define an Invisible Disability as:

A physical, mental or neurological condition that limits a person’s movements, senses, or activities that is invisible to the onlooker.

Invisible disabilities include symptoms such as debilitating fatigue, pain, cognitive dysfunctions and mental disorders, as well as hearing and eyesight impairments and more.

What can Employers do to Support Employees with Invisible Disabilities?


  • Show that you are an organisation that values diversity and equality by making this part of your core business strategy and company values rather than treating it as a separate HR policy.

The Equality and Diversity Report from the Dept. for Business Innovation and Skills found that:

A diverse workforce brings organisations a range of perspectives that can improve creativity and problem-solving, which results in better decisions.

  • Show that you are committed to employing and supporting disabled people with both visible and invisible disabilities by signing up to the Disability Confident scheme to improve how you attract, recruit and retain disabled workers.

“Being Disability Confident sends a signal to employees, clients and stakeholders about the type of organisation we are.” Marek Tokarski, CDC Enterprise Agency

  • Show that you care about your staff by equipping your managers with the knowledge and tools that they need to support individuals and teams with invisible disabilities.

This includes putting plans in place to meet your legal requirement as an employer, under the Equality Act 2010, to make “reasonable adjustments” to ensure that workers with disabilities, or physical or mental health conditions, aren’t substantially disadvantaged when doing their jobs.


  • Offer staff training in Invisible Disabilities Awareness.
  • Notice when the emotional and behavioural indicators associated with invisible disabilities appear in the workplace.


  • Ask open-ended questions, without assumptions or judgements, in order to understand the reason for these behaviours and if the employee needs support. For example, “Is there something that I don’t know about that could be contributing to this behaviour?”

I know that it can feel uncomfortable having what can be perceived as ‘difficult’ conversations in the workplace so, to #EndTheAwkward, I’d like to give you a copy of my free worksheet, “6 Steps to Deliver Transformational Conversations in the Workplace,” to give you a framework to lead from.

  • If an invisible disability is disclosed, focus on the person’s ability and what adjustments they need to help them to do their job.

What ‘Reasonable Adjustments’ are Employers required to make?

Under the Equality Act 2010, the ‘reasonable adjustments’ that employers are required to make include:

  • Doing things another way
  • Making physical changes to the workplace
  • Letting a disabled person work somewhere else
  • Changing their equipment
  • Allowing flexible hours or part-time working
  • Offering training opportunities
  • Changing the recruitment process

If employees need additional help, over and above “reasonable adjustments,” they can apply for an Access to Work grant to cover the costs of practical support in the workplace.


Almost 1 in 5 people (19%) in the UK have a disability so it’s likely that some of your employees will have an invisible disability, whether you know about it or not.

The #1 way to support employees with invisible disabilities is to be visible.

By showing that you’re an organisation that values equality and diversity, that cares about your staff, that actively supports and employs disabled people, you will have created a culture where employees feel safe about disclosing their invisible disability and asking for support, free from the barrier of discrimination.

A culture that is diverse and inclusive. That benefits from a wider talent pool and facilitates improvements in performance, creativity, problem-solving and decision making.

I invite you to make a start today by choosing one thing to focus on and action from the Visible, Aware or Open list.

P.S. Don’t forget to download your copy of my free worksheet, “6 Steps to Deliver Transformational Conversations in the Workplace.

P.P.S. Please share this post with anyone that you think would benefit from it. Thank you.

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