Last year, while battling a major depressive episode, a senior executive at a Georgia manufacturing company took leave to receive treatment in a psychiatric hospital. When he tried to return to work six weeks later, he was instead fired. The CEO told him he “couldn’t be trusted” to perform his work duties.
The firm recently agreed to compensate the employee, but in 2022, incidents like this shouldn’t be happening in the first place.
One in five Americans experience mental illness, meaning that many of the people milling around your co-working space or chatting away on Zoom calls could be living with a disability that you can’t see.
When invisible conditions aren’t drawn into the general conversation about disabilities and diversity, equity and inclusion (D,E&I), they remain the subject of ignorance and taboo.
Let’s take disabilities out of the gray space they’ve fallen into in business. It’s a space where disability is only partly defined, and there’s no effort being made to shine a light on all its definitions and nuances.
Also left in the dark are the support systems that already exist to help those people. If you’re not shining that light, soon others will shine it on you. You’re also holding your company back from having a better product, brand, and culture.
Here are some ways in which businesses can scrape beyond the surface and embrace invisible disabilities.
The idea of ‘not being disabled enough’ must disappear
In general society, disability is synonymous to what the world, unfortunately, deems as “handicapped”. If you don’t look like your body is struggling, you’re essentially deemed “not disabled enough”.
I had a long internal battle before writing my first public acknowledgment of my own invisible disability — an anxiety disorder I’ve had since I was a child, but took me years to identify and put a name to.
I didn’t know whether I had the right to pen my personal struggle under the category of a disability, or whether my disorder was “serious” enough to speak out about it. But at that point, I had understood that not being unable to acknowledge my mental disorder was stopping me from actually dealing with it.
People silence themselves enough on their own. Especially at work, where people with mental illness may fear a reaction from their employer for appearing “problematic.”
Managers and business leaders — many of whom will be carrying their own mental challenges and disorders — are often unaware that they should be looking for disabilities beyond the most evident ones.
Yet when you’re in a position of authority, it’s your job to break down those barriers in your own understanding of ability and diversity.
Because you don’t know what you don’t know, business leaders should be working on an individual level to expose themselves to the different realities that exist within their society.
I worked with children with disabilities prior to entering the tech world, and am grateful for the insight it gave me into how people’s conditions affect their day-to-day. This doesn’t need to be your full-time job, but you should make a point of leaving the office to pursue causes beyond your company.
Also look for founding team hires with a background in social work, ties with citizen organizations, and general experience in a range of industries and markets. And, this is important: ask yourself if you’ve been intentionally or unintentionally excluding people with disabilities from your workforce. There’s no one better to tell you what your shortcomings are.
Exit the gray area
The gray area is where businesses sit when they don’t make an effort to talk about disability with employees, and know they won’t be made accountable for not complying. With time, that gray area is becoming increasingly black and white, and it will soon be remembered on the wrong side of history.
Today’s job candidates want to find workplaces that are taking the initiative and thinking ahead. Just like D,E&I efforts have become more mainstream (albeit slowly and often inefficiently), addressing accessibility and disability will soon be requirements for any business.
The first step is to recognize within your D,E&I process that invisible disabilities require your attention. Make an action plan to study all the different types of disability that exist, and their needs, and log exactly what your company is (or isn’t) doing to support people of all abilities.
Understand how disabilities are supported, both by the government, through benefits and programs, and what legal rights they give people. Then, communicate that knowledge with your entire team, and build channels to facilitate your employees’ access to those federal resources.
Explain your company’s own support system based on policy, ethics and values, and any shortcomings that exist.
Transparency is the best way to move past any shortfalls; that way they’re more easily forgiven and built upon.
Again, this process makes far more sense when your team itself is diverse. This will be a learning experience for you, and not just because new information is emerging by the day. Does your business match legal expectations for inclusiveness and supporting people with disabilities?
Existing policy does much of the work for you in drawing the framework you should be following, with some guidelines readily available too. For example, people with long COVID-19 have just been granted disability protections by the US government.
It might be necessary to get external assistance here. Businesses often feel under-supported by the government in understanding disabilities and navigating compliance. But there are resources and organizations out there that are prepped and willing to help, such as the US Access Board and the Job Accommodation Network.
Reframe unrealistic expectations
Many of the conditions our population struggles with, like depression and anxiety, are exacerbated by the excessive demands placed on us by our bosses, family, society, or ourselves.
We can and should change those expectations. For one, we can reframe our idea of ‘low expectations’. There needs to be a middle ground when it comes to people and productivity.
Focusing on growth at all costs doesn’t actually make sense. If instead we prioritize people (your employees and your customers) over profit at all costs, we get a completely different dynamic: it sets people up to be stronger as individuals, which in turn sees them truly output. When they make mistakes, they learn rather than take a hit, and that builds resilience.
And in the end, this mitigates longer term risk for you, because it actually decreases the rate of error.
Remote work has put a lot of people with disabilities in an environment where they feel safer than before, and more accommodated for when they need to step away and decompress. If we’re to learn from this, we should be ridding ourselves of the last vestiges of shame associated with: taking a day off for mental health, spending part of the day away from your desk, or saying “no” to a task when they’re stacking up unmanageably.
Let’s be proactive here, too. We can encourage people to take walks during the day, wander outside, or take fun breaks for non-work-related activities.
Make a clear statement to your company that mental health is a priority, and that they can ask for support whenever necessary. With personal time off, the most important factor here isn’t to offer employees unlimited days, it’s that you as a business leader set an example and take time off yourself.
We’re part of the problem if we don’t bring invisible disabilities into the foreground just because it makes life easier. Once we get over that hurdle, workplaces will start becoming as accommodating and supportive as they should be for those who need it most.
Sign up to the UNLEASH Newsletter
Get the Editor’s picks of the week delivered straight to your inbox!