Invisible illnesses: how you can help your employees

Sophie Ainsworth, founder of RAiISE, explains how employers can help staff with invisible illnesses to feel more supported in the workplace.

Workplaces are taking greater steps to support employees with conditions relating to physical and mental health.

However, many employees with invisible illnesses like diabetes still face problems at work.

Sophie Ainsworth is the founder of Raising Awareness of Invisible Illnesses in Schools and Education (RAiISE). Here, she shares what employers can do to help staff with invisible illnesses.

Invisible illnesses are wide-ranging

Things like arthritis are common, especially among younger people. It affects tens of thousands of people. Children as young as three can be diagnosed with it. It’s not just something for older people in retirement to get. Simple things like sitting in a desk chair all day can be difficult for someone with arthritis.

Diabetes and ME are also common. All conditions vary within themselves – it seems like the biggest deal in the world to the person who has them.

“Children as young as three can be diagnosed with arthritis”

So, learning about illnesses – the common ones as well as ones you might not have heard of – is important.

Challenges for invisible illness sufferers in the workplace

A lot of the problems can come from the everyday things. We work in schools and find that it’s easier for for a lot of young people as they have more time off and longer holidays.

The workplace is less flexible – that can make it difficult to book hospital appointments or take time of for ill-health. It can often be conflicting for someone who doesn’t want to take that time off but really has to for their health.

Putting things into place like working from home for a few days can really help that – a general understanding of hospital appointments and the needs surrounding that is useful.

Supporting employees with invisible illnesses

Talk to the person with the invisible illness. Every person who has one has different needs.

I’d say it’s opening the conversation with the employer and making sure you take each person into account, rather than someone being any random number or person within the workforce.

Encourage employees to approach the conversation if you can. There is one thing which I think is a concern for a lot of people telling their employer about their condition – holding on to their jobs.

Of course, we know we have the Equality Act 2010, but I think it’s a fear that a lot of people still have that it might not necessarily work. It’s essential that employees can feel comfortable coming forward and explaining their condition and making it clear that a support system will be put into place. Make sure that it’s something that’s not going to hinder them or affect their job in any way.

Show that you’re just trying to help.

Resources for employers

It’s good to get in touch with local charities. Conditions that we work with – even rare conditions – can have dedicated charities.

Most people want to be in work despite their conditions, so organisations have resources in place for employers. That’s where the motivation for my organisation started.

Even if you find the info elsewhere, it can make the person with the condition feel like you’ve made a real effort. It’s best just to do a bit of research so as an employee, you feel your employer really supports and values you and wants to understand you. This creates a great working relationship.

How can bosses encourage fellow employees to help?

I think that, again, it’s a general understanding. The level of privacy is down to the individual and how much they want to share.

“The level of privacy is down to the individual and how much they want to share”

One thing that I always find is nice is companies who have a link with a condition and do some fundraising work for – say, a little cake sale in the office. It just raises awareness of the condition throughout the company and how it might affect the person, even if they’re not named. It’s a lovely gesture.

Potential candidates at interview

I think if a candidate brings it up, an employer should say that it’s not such as big thing. Reassure them that they’d be supported in that sense if they were to start working there.

The main ideas of communication, understanding and realising that everyone is their own person and every condition is different. Ensure that you are looking after the employees as much as possible so that they can thrive.

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Anna Jordan

Anna is Senior Reporter, covering topics affecting SMEs such as grant funding, managing employees and the day-to-day running of a business.

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Employee health