“But you don’t look sick!” This comment from her colleague left Maya feeling hurt and disappointed. Maya was suffering from chronic back pain. A lot has been said and written about visible disabilities—we realize that a person on a wheelchair or using crutches at the workplace would need respect as well as certain accommodations. However, what about the invisible disabilities? As the term suggests, a disability that is not evident, but can limit or challenge a person’s activities, is an invisible disability and identifying it is exactly where the challenge lies!

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According to the WHO’s World Report on Disability 2011, 15 percent of the world’s population lives with disabilities. In the current situation, those who have recovered from COVID-19 too are expected to face certain health-related issues and we need to be aware of these as well as sensitize our teams. It’s important that we are aware of invisible disabilities, which include but are not limited to the following (Also, check out this infographic on the 4 most common invisible disabilities at the workplace):

Mental health disorders: Mental health conditions such as anxiety disorders, depression, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder and even obsessive-compulsive disorder can be debilitating for an employee.

Chronic pain and fatigue: Chronic conditions such as fibromyalgia can affect a person’s movements. People with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) could have symptoms ranging from muscle pain and anxiety to sleeping disorders.

Neurological disorders: Neurological disabilities include epilepsy and brain tumours. Those with neurological disorders could have symptoms such as muscle weakness, poor coordination, loss of sensation, seizures, confusion, pain and altered levels of consciousness.

Intellectual and developmental disabilities: These disabilities include autism spectrum disorders (ASD). They could cause an employee to have difficulties in expressing themselves through words, gestures, signs and show affection.

Invisible disabilities like chronic pain or neurological conditions can impact how people approach their work. Here’s how you can be a responsible co-worker and support colleagues with invisible disabilities:

Be aware of invisible disabilities

Awareness is the first step. Broadening your understanding and knowing that not all disabilities are noticeable is essential. You could also consider discussing invisible disabilities with other colleagues and spreading awareness.

Watch what you say

You may be speaking to a colleague who may be suffering silently. Watch your words and use language that conveys your concern. Harsh language could demotivate your colleagues and leave them with self-esteem issues.

Comments like “It’s all in your head!” are insensitive and should be avoided.

Show empathy

Whether or not someone chooses to share about their invisible disability is a personal choice. However, should a colleague confide in you, offer a safe space and express empathy.

Offer support

Very often, someone with a hidden disability may shy away from asking for help. If you sense that your support would make a difference, don’t wait to be asked. Lend a helping hand, even if it may be beyond your call of duty.

Be a good listener

Each one of us wants to be heard. It may be especially encouraging for someone who is dealing with health-related issues or anxiety if you lend an ear.

Judge less, accept more

Whether or not your organization speaks about and has policies in place for people with invisible disabilities, you can aim to judge less and accept more.

Progressive organizations strive to move toward creating a culture of equality. As managers and peers, it is important for us not to limit our knowledge to only visible inclusion.

A responsible manager or colleague would be one who is genuinely inclusive of the diverse needs of their peers. Inclusion in the real sense moves beyond gender, ethnicity, diverse work groups and disability.

Let’s remember that pain is personal and just because you can’t see it, does not mean your colleague does not feel it!

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