Employers' diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) initiatives often overlook employees with hearing problems, according to a recent survey of about 800 employees by TruHearing, a hearing health care benefits platform in Draper, Utah.
Among the workers TruHearing surveyed:
- 42 percent had some degree of hearing loss.
- 75 percent reported that their company does not offer hearing benefits.
- 53 percent said it is important or very important for businesses to offer these benefits.
- 94 percent said that it is at least somewhat important for employers to offer hearing benefits.
Cammie Taylor, SHRM-SCP, HR director for TruHearing, who was diagnosed as hard of hearing early in adulthood, expressed concern that just 25 percent of those surveyed said their companies offered hearing benefits.
"In some ways, the survey results were exactly what we expected [because] in this industry, we know firsthand that there is an unmet need for hearing health care benefits," Taylor said. "In many other ways, however, it was shocking to see the significant gap in the percent of employees who said they were offered hearing health care benefits compared to the demand."
Why Hearing Benefits Matter
More than half of workers who reported hearing loss said they would have waited longer to pursue getting hearing aids if their company did not offer hearing benefits, the survey found. But nearly half of employees with treated hearing loss felt more included at work after wearing hearing aids.
"As DE&I initiatives continue to be prioritized during the job search, it is critical that companies provide offerings like hearing benefits that help cultivate an inclusive environment so that all employees feel prioritized and supported," Tommy Macdonald, CEO of TruHearing, said in a statement.
Nearly all respondents to an earlier study by TruHearing experienced significant challenges doing their jobs prior to wearing hearing aids. These challenges included needing colleagues to repeat statements, frequently missing pieces of conversations and an overall difficulty hearing other people.
The Hearing Health Foundation found that:
- People with untreated hearing loss may experience challenges gaining employment.
- Untreated hearing loss is associated with lower income compared to those without hearing problems, with research indicating untreated hearing loss can decrease one's annual income by as much as $30,000.
- Adults with hearing loss are more likely to have lower education and be unemployed or underemployed compared with their peers who do not have hearing loss.
- Hearing aids were shown to reduce the risk of income loss by at least 90 percent for those with milder hearing loss and by 65 percent to 77 percent for those with moderate to severe hearing loss.
"Those with untreated hearing loss also may not engage with co-workers to the same degree as someone with normal hearing," Taylor explained. "Due to the listening effort required and the disappointment when they have trouble hearing others, employees with untreated hearing loss often experience higher levels of stress, social isolation and fatigue, ultimately causing them to avoid social interactions altogether."
Four Ways Companies Can Make a Difference
A thriving company culture is one that is inclusive of all workers. Being selective in your DE&I pursuits while failing to address other aspects of inclusion can create resentment among employees and deteriorate recruitment and retention efforts.
To support workers with hearing deficiencies, companies should:
Offer hearing coverage. Providing benefits, such as coverage for hearing instruments or exams, is the easiest way for a company to support employees with hearing loss, cost is the top barrier to seeking hearing treatment and access to hearing coverage is the top motivator for treating hearing loss, Taylor said.
Have open discussions. Starting an open, honest dialogue with team members to identify workplace challenges for people with all disabilities, including those with hearing loss, and ways to overcome them can create a more inclusive, healthy culture.
Educate all employees. Talk to the entire workforce about the challenges their colleagues with hearing loss may experience in the workplace. This can increase empathy at work, help reduce stigmas associated with hearing loss and improve the overall work environment.
Embrace technological solutions. Promote video communication tools and activate captions during virtual meetings for those with hearing loss. Provide a written meeting agenda, share meeting notes and regularly record meetings.
"Employers embracing DE&I can make a big difference creating a culture of inclusion by openly discussing the needs of those with hearing loss and providing the financial support needed to seek treatment sooner," Taylor added. "This investment will easily pay off with employee respect and loyalty, as well as increased productivity and lower health care costs."
It's also important to avoid devaluing these employees. Howard A. Rosenblum, CEO for the National Association of the Deaf, said many companies underestimate the abilities of workers who are hard of hearing or deaf.
"Companies should give them a chance to excel in the workplace," Rosenblum said. "Too often, employers fail to recognize the intelligence and skills of deaf and hard of hearing employees simply because of the different ways they communicate."
Discriminating against workers or applicants with hearing issues can also violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The Society for Human Resource Management offers resources to help employers better understand the ADA.