There are many complexities surrounding disabilities in the workplace and with limited resources and support for employers, it can be a real challenge trying to offer better support to differently abled staff.
In today’s Wellbeing Wednesday feature, the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Jersey investigates what employers across the Channel Islands can do to assist those with hidden disabilities such as Multiple Sclerosis.
Globally one in seven of us live with a disability – adding up to approximately 1.3 billion people worldwide. But while some of us experience a disability that is visible, many have a non-visible condition or experience a combination of both visible and non-visible conditions.
People with multiple sclerosis (MS) frequently report lack of support from their employer as a key factor for giving up work, and a similar picture can be seen with other, often invisible, disabilities. When employees’ conditions and needs are addressed, and suitable adjustments are arranged, those with MS can often continue a successful career long after diagnosis.
So, what can employers do to better support an employee with MS, or with other disabilities?
Invisible disabilities in the workplace
According to the Government of Jersey, 14% (approximately 13,900 people) of the Island’s population have some form of disability and with 70-80% of all disabilities estimated to be invisible this affects a large number of workers.
Multiple sclerosis is one such condition. It affects the central nervous system, specifically the brain and spinal cord. It is an autoimmune condition which results in the slowing down, distortion or even complete stoppage of messages that control bodily actions, which causes the symptoms of MS.
There are a wide range of potential symptoms, including problems with vision, movement, sensation, or balance. While certain symptoms are more common than others, the majority of people will only experience a few. Many symptoms are also invisible, for instance memory problems, or physically demanding, such as mobility issues. Between eight and nine of every ten people with MS are diagnosed with the relapsing remitting form, which involves a relapse followed by a period of remission (which can last for years at a time).
This does not solely apply to MS, as there are many other invisible disabilities that present themselves similarly. Invisible disabilities can include cognitive impairment and brain injury, the autism spectrum disorder, chronic illness, vision and/or hearing difficulties, anxiety or depression to name a few. Symptoms can include debilitating pain, fatigue and cognitive dysfunction. All of these disabilities massively impact the life of the individual affected, therefore practical adjustments to help make this slightly easier for your employee are recommended.
How can employers better support staff with MS and other similar disability needs?
A vital step in supporting your employee is talking to them. An important thing to remember is that there are different types of MS and no two people will be affected in the same way. To understand the way your employee is affected by their disability, it is recommended that you establish an open discussion with them, to recognise and support their needs.
Making an effort to create a trusting relationship between you will allow each of you to share your thoughts or concerns.
As MS is a progressive condition, meaning the effects of MS can change over time, it is a good idea to plan regular chats (separate to a performance review) to keep up to date with how your employee is coping and whether any changes in support may be necessary. Go into it with an open mind, without making assumptions about what they are or are not capable of doing.
Making an effort to create a trusting relationship between you will allow each of you to share your thoughts or concerns. Another crucial thing to remember is that any information shared with you by your employee about their disability should be kept strictly confidential.
Provide reasonable adjustments
Under Discrimination Law, there are legal requirements employers must comply with to ensure employees are being treated fairly, which include providing reasonable adjustments your employee needs to be able to do their job, not harassing them or discriminating against them (nor allowing someone else in the workplace to do so) and fulfilling your legal duty of care to protect your employees under the Health and Safety at Work Law.
An occupational health risk assessment can identify reasonable adjustments for your employee. Examples of such adjustments can include, flexible or reduced working hours, working from home, moving their workstation, a car parking space near the entrance, voice recognition software and computer adaptations. If an adaptation goes beyond what is considered reasonable in terms of cost to your company, you may be able to get funding for it through the Access to Work Grant, which offers financial assistance to people with a disability to help them remain in work.
Respect requirements around confidentiality and dialogue
As an employer, it is also important to consider how your employee’s disability could have an impact on other members of staff and managing any concerns from other team members with sensitivity, while also respecting your employee’s confidentiality.
Discussing with your employee whether they wish to tell their colleagues about their disability could make it easier for the other members of the team know why they may be having to accommodate adjustments. Making staff aware of common hidden disabilities can help to create a more supportive environment for everyone, improving peer dynamics in the workplace and enabling more people with disabilities to speak up. However, if your employee chooses not to tell the other members of staff, you must respect their decision.
Furthermore, is also important to understand that many people with hidden disabilities are afraid of being seen as less capable and fear the effect on their career progression or their job security. Reassuring employees that they are valued by the company and treating them the same as you did prior to their disclosure will help them feel they can be honest about the support they may need.
Ultimately, supporting your employee is a matter of viewing them as an individual and taking into consideration their needs. Open communication and listening to staff to understand how they would prefer to manage work with a hidden disability avoids alienating them and creates a positive work environment for everyone to feel comfortable.
The Multiple Sclerosis Society Of Jersey was established in 1961. The aims of the society are to support those on the Island with Multiple Sclerosis and their families, emotionally and financially, whilst searching for the cause and cure of the disease. For those newly diagnosed in Jersey, UK Multiple Sclerosis “Just diagnosed” offers information or alternatively contact Sarah Kean at Neurocare on 01534 444524.
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