Navigating HR processes for employees with hidden disabilities

Navigating HR processes for employees with hidden disabilities
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Employers are well versed on their obligations to provide an inclusive and supportive workplace for disabled employees. But not all disabilities are visible and recent tribunal cases have highlighted the need for employers to take a more careful approach to employees with hidden disabilities.

Some conditions are not immediately visible but can significantly affect an individual’s job performance. Hidden disabilities include a wide array of conditions:

  • Mental health disorders: depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder
  • Chronic illnesses: diabetes, fibromyalgia
  • Neurological disorders: epilepsy, multiple sclerosis
  • Neurodiversity: ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), ASD (autism spectrum disorder), dyslexia, dyspraxia or dyscalculia

These conditions can profoundly impact an individual’s work life, often requiring specific accommodations to enable them to perform effectively.

Protection for individuals with disabilities

The Equality Act 2010 provides robust protection and key provisions include:

  • Reasonable adjustments: Employers are required to make reasonable adjustments to the workplace or work processes to accommodate employees with disabilities. Adjustments might include modified equipment, flexible working hours, or changes to job duties
  • Prohibition of discrimination: The Act outlaws direct and indirect discrimination, discrimination arising from disability, harassment, and victimisation based on disability
  • Confidentiality and disclosure: While employees are not required

The effect in the workplace

Hidden disabilities can often appear as performance or conduct issues, especially when neither the employer, manager, nor the employee understands how an underlying condition is affecting the employee’s ability to perform their duties and interact with colleagues effectively.

Some examples might be:

  • Attendance and tardiness: An employee with a chronic illness, such as fibromyalgia or diabetes, might have unpredictable flare-ups that cause frequent absences or lateness. Mental health conditions like depression or anxiety can lead to difficulties in maintaining consistent attendance.
  • Communication or social interaction: Employees with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or social anxiety may struggle with social interactions, potentially coming across as uncooperative or rude.  Dyslexia or other learning disabilities might result in misunderstandings or miscommunications.
  • Poor or unexplained behaviour: Anxiety or panic disorders can result in sudden, unexplained departures from meetings or tasks, which might be seen as unprofessional.  Sensory processing disorders can lead to difficulties in environments with specific stimuli, such as bright lights or loud noises, which might be mistaken for failure to comply with a reasonable instruction.
  • Poor performance: Mental health conditions, such as depression, can cause fluctuations in an employee’s mood and energy levels, leading to inconsistent work quality. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can affect an employee’s ability to focus, follow detailed instructions, or manage time effectively.

Act sensitively

It is important to try and approach potential misconduct or performance issues in these circumstances in a supportive and sensitive manner. While employees are not required to disclose their disabilities, your workplace should be an inclusive environment where they feel safe to disclose a disability in the knowledge that they will be supported.

Having a private, respectful conversation with the employee to understand any underlying issues that might be affecting their behaviour could resolve issues at an early stage. It’s an excellent opportunity to discuss if there is any support or adjustments that could be made to mitigate the impact on their performance.

Formal processes

You should consider alternatives to a formal process to avoid potential allegations of disability discrimination. However, we recognise that sometimes a formal process is unavoidable. In such circumstances, carefully explore whether there any barriers to the individual participating in the formal process and what adjustments could be made.

Reasonable adjustments could include: An employee with dyslexia may need more time to consider documents prior to any meeting or hearing.  An employee suffering with mental health issues such as depression may benefit from more breaks during a meeting.

You may also wish to consider:

  • The potential bias of managers involved in any formal processes and provide training to recognise and mitigate against this
  • Whether it is appropriate to obtain medical or occupational health advice before any decisions are made

What else could you be doing as an employer?

There are several critical areas where HR processes must adapt to better support employees with hidden disabilities:

  • Accessible job descriptions: Job adverts should focus on essential skills and avoid unnecessary physical requirements
  • Flexible application processes: Offering alternative application methods and additional time for tests can help candidates with hidden disabilities
  • Bias training: Training recruitment panels to recognise and mitigate unconscious bias is crucial to preventing discrimination

Workplace adjustments

Work closely with employees to implement necessary adjustments, for example:

  • Flexible Working Hours: Allowing adjustments to work schedules to better accommodate employees’ conditions
  • Remote Working Options: Offering the possibility to work from home can be beneficial
  • Assistive Technologies: Providing specialised software or equipment to aid in job performance

Ongoing support and development

Create a supportive environment by:

  • Regular check-ins: Continuous review of adjustments and their effectiveness.
  • Support services: Access to counselling and employee assistance programs.
  • Training and awareness: Educating all employees about hidden disabilities to foster an inclusive culture and reduce stigma.

Challenges and Best Practice

Balancing confidentiality with the need for information to make reasonable adjustments is challenging. The following can help:

  • Building trust: Encouraging open dialogue about disabilities while ensuring confidentiality can foster a supportive environment
  • Personalised adjustments: Recognizing that each individual’s needs are unique and should be addressed on a case-by-case basis

Continuous Improvement

Regularly reviewing and updating policies and practices to maintain an inclusive environment.

Creating an inclusive and supportive environment is key to understanding any issues that your employees may have. Always consider whether there may be an underlying issue for any changes to performance or behaviour and explore these sensitively with an employee. Alongside reviewing and updating policies and processes, educating all employees about hidden disabilities is an essential component for fostering an inclusive culture and reducing stigma in the workplace.

If you would like specialist advice on this topic or to discuss another HR matter, please contact Lisa Reynolds in our team on 07771 316 123.