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Focusing on Nonapparent Disabilities

One in six U.S. workers report having a nonapparent disability, and almost half choose not to disclose it to their employer. Here’s how HR can help.

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The rise of remote and hybrid work has lowered the walls between employees’ personal and work lives. But that doesn’t mean all topics feel safe to merge. For instance, I’ll let my child wave to co-workers on a video call, but I’m probably not going to tell those co-workers that I’m really struggling with anxiety.

Whether or not you face choices about what to reveal in the workplace each day, you almost certainly have co-workers who do. SHRM research shows that, on average, for every six of your co-workers, one will have a nonapparent disability—a condition not visible to others that limits or challenges their movements, senses or activities. Examples include depression, diabetes, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism and dyslexia. 

Unlike workers with visible disabilities, those with nonapparent disabilities can choose whether to disclose their condition to their employer. According to SHRM’s research, about half choose not to do so. 

This decision can carry significant consequences. For example, disclosure may prevent misinterpretation of an employee’s actions, and it can ensure that the employee receives the appropriate accommodations and protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act.Screen Shot 2023-11-21 at 3.00.44 PM.png

So, why are so many people staying silent? We asked employees with nonapparent disabilities that question. About 1 in 3 believed that disclosure would cause others to scrutinize their behavior, think that they couldn’t do their work, or talk behind their backs. Further, 1 in 5 believed they would not be promoted if others knew of their disability.

Unfortunately, this concern for reprisal appears to be legitimate. Employees who disclosed nonapparent disabilities were two to three times more likely than nondisabled co-workers to report experiencing frequent workplace incivility, such as being interrupted or ignored. 

Additionally, despite believing they had leadership potential, these employees—regardless of disclosure status—were significantly less likely than their co-workers to agree that they’re given opportunities to lead. Unsurprisingly then, they’re about twice as likely as workers overall to frequently (at least weekly) feel excluded and want to quit their jobs.

These employees therefore face a Catch-22: If they don’t disclose, they don’t get support to perform at their best. If they do disclose, they may be mistreated. And either way, they’re less likely to be given leadership opportunities, which leads to financial and career inequities. So, workplaces risk losing the battle for inclusion and, potentially, key talent.

What can be done? Well, when we asked people with nonapparent disabilities what would make them feel more included at work, the most common answer was more understanding from others. For instance, one person said they want workplaces to “recognize how my neurodiversity contributes and allows me to see things differently than neurotypicals.” Regarding what accommodation (if any) is most helpful, the most common answer was flexibility, such as allowing for breaks and time off.

We know that many employees value understanding. Understanding is a key component of empathy, and years of research document that autonomy, enabled in part by flexibility, can motivate higher performance. 

Ultimately, focusing on understanding and flexibility is a great example of the curb-cut effect, meaning those factors can make a big difference for employees with nonapparent disabilities while also having wide-reaching benefits for the entire workforce. 

Katrina P. Merlini, Ph.D., is an industrial-organizational psychologist and a former senior researcher for SHRM.


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