Man and woman working at computer in the workplace.

Creating a Supportive Workplace: understanding invisible disabilities

Author: Laura Morrison
Headshot photo of Haliey Hectchman

As we work to build environments that support greater diversity, equity, and inclusion, those who live with invisible illnesses and disabilities can often be overlooked. Last month, we chatted with Hailey Hechtman from Causeway; a not-for-profit based out of Ottawa that helps people overcome barriers to securing meaningful employment. Hailey describes Causeway’s mission as supporting people to find, “not necessarily just a job, but a job that you connect well with, that means something to you, that utilizes your skills and your abilities and interests.” Isn’t that what we’re all looking for?

We wanted to know: how do we create supportive workplaces for all employees, especially those who may be struggling with illnesses and disabilities that aren’t visible?

What are the major barriers for your clients seeking employment?

“I think it really depends on the person – everyone is different and everyone’s experience is different. A lot of the people that we work with have been grossly underestimated. There have been assumptions made about what they’re capable of, or what is realistic or possible for them.”

Do you feel like people living with mental illness or other invisible disabilities are less likely to seek support or accommodation in their workplaces in comparison to people living with physical, visible disabilities?

“Yes. There is a perception that if you cannot see it, it is not that big of an issue. We make assumptions that mental health challenges are temporary, or that they are easily fixable by implementing a few self-care strategies. We have also, as a culture, normalized experiences of stress or anxiety in the workplace which can lead those who need more support to feel that their experiences are universal and therefore not worth calling attention to. “

Hailey hopes that with the intensity of the COVID-19 pandemic impacting so many of us, that we, as a society, have developed more empathy for folks who live with mental illness.

“A lot of people have experienced feelings of anxiety, frustration or sadness throughout this that wasn’t as easy to just turn off. I hope that leads people to think ‘wow if I’ve had a difficult time overcoming this, I can only imagine how it must be to always feel this way.’ During this time, people have had concrete issues to attribute their feelings to, like the pandemic, or losing their job, or having a loved one struggling – there is something they can pin it to and say, ‘I feel this way because of that.’ So many people who live with mental illnesses don’t necessarily have a specific event that they can tie it to. And so I hope that this experience leads people to be more empathetic and understanding.”

The assumptions and stigma associated with mental health issues continue to be a major barrier for people both in securing employment and in getting the support they need in their workplaces.

There’s just this assumption that because emotions are universal, that everyone deals with them in the same way, and everyone experiences them in the same way. I think we have normalized stress in the workplace so much that we’ve made it really difficult for people to feel comfortable reaching out.

During our time with Hailey, we went over some of the most common pitfalls employers make when it comes to interviewing, hiring, and accommodating employees who face barriers due to mental health challenges and other invisible illnesses.

These are the top three common pitfalls Hailey has observed:

1.Underestimating People and Making Assumptions

“As I mentioned before, I think one of the biggest issues is just really underestimating people and making assumptions of what’s possible and what people are capable of. We don’t do enough ideating with people – we don’t encourage them to think, what are my dreams? What are my interests? What kinds of opportunities do you really see yourself in? What kind of talents do you have to give to a workplace? We often just look at what boxes they check – having a certain degree, or a certain level of experience. That really limits the potential for creating great teams. We miss out on all of these extra pieces that are not captured by that kind of assessment.”

2. Assuming You Can’t Create Support Systems

“Some employers may believe that they’re going to need to put in so much extra work to hire someone who lives with a disability. They’re not recognizing that in a team, you will have people who naturally support each other. I also think that sometimes we underestimate other employees’ willingness to provide assistance and coaching to members of their team. There can be an assumption that people are busy, yet many are more than willing to work collaboratively to make sure that everyone feels heard, has the resources and information that they need, and is included.”

3. Not Utilizing Community Supports

“Employers often don’t realize that they can have support from organizations like ours or from other organizations that provide assistance around employment. If you have questions, or you’re not sure how to deal with a situation, you can reach out for help and receive guidance on strategies to implement. As an employer, you can ask questions and reach out to get clarity, guidance and training. It is okay if you don’t have all of the answers.”

In Hailey’s eyes, re-thinking what workplaces look like is central not only to building inclusivity and belonging for folks who may require accommodations but also for creating efficient, healthy teams in general.

Employers should be more open to redesigning jobs and finding ways to engage people. Regardless of who is on your team, it makes more sense to take a strengths-based approach rather than trying to fit people into boxes. What are people good at? What can they bring to the table? What are their skills and abilities and talents? How can we use that information to engage employees and shift things around to have happier, more productive teams?

In terms of what you can do today, Hailey says that looking into your systems and procedures is a good place to start.

“Even a really simple evaluation of your job postings and interview process can help; look for ways you can be more accessible. Make sure that your interview process is utilizing different ways of evaluating people – looking at trails, qualities, skills, and experiences rather than just one aspect of a human. There are lots of different ways to evaluate whether or not someone would be a good fit.”

“Also, make sure training and orientation are accessible; provide space for asking questions, clarifying that what you’re saying makes sense to them, and making sure that the way orientation is being delivered is meeting their learning needs. It’s important to be willing to reevaluate how we create workplaces and acknowledge that the way we do things now might not be the best way. Sometimes we just have systems that have existed that served us at one point in our organizational history that are no longer meeting the needs of the people that we work with or those that we are looking to bring on board. Be willing to adapt and ask people what tools and strategies help them learn.”

The most important takeaway?

Everyone has value. Everyone has something to contribute. Building teams that have diverse perspectives, experiences, interests and abilities only makes your environment richer, more aligned and ultimately will generate new ideas that will help your business to thrive.

Causeway logo, blue background letters writing Causeway

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