Marc Smith, chief executive officer at the Brain and Spine Foundation, talks about how employers can support their employees who may have a hidden disability

One in six people in the UK are affected by a neurological problem. Conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, motor neurone disease and epilepsy result from injury or changes to the brain, spinal column or peripheral nerves. Some neurological conditions are life threatening, with many severely affecting an individual’s quality of life.

However not all disabilities are visible. There are many people who live with hidden disabilities that you might not recognise simply by looking at them.

Hidden disabilities can hinder a person’s abilities in the world of work, education and social environments. This creates challenges and can dramatically affect everyday life.

Over a fifth of working adults in the UK have a disability1 but workers may not feel they can share this with their employer because of stigma, acceptance and understanding.

We would like employers to create a supportive and open culture, so people can ask for help. We encourage employers to seek knowledge from appropriate sources when required, so they can support people with hidden disabilities to fulfil their potential.

We are delighted to be working with BHSF to help employers support their employees who have hidden disabilities. With BHSF supporting the charity, we are able to fund an extra nurse to take calls on our helpline.

This nurse can provide dedicated specialist one to one information and connect individuals to support local to them. More than 90% of people who have called our helpline feel they have benefited from gaining factual information and are more confident to discuss their condition with a health professional.

In fact, over two-thirds of people who have called our helpline, feel less alone and isolated in dealing with their problem. We recognise isolation and the impact of mental health as a key area. It is an area we are looking to address more.

Supporting employees with hidden disabilities

People with hidden disabilities can face barriers and discrimination at work, often due to lack of awareness or understanding. It is the role of an employer to encourage conversation and understand their employee’s condition. A lack of understanding can lead to people keeping quiet about their disability.

Educating fellow employees on hidden disabilities can help significantly to give them an understanding of how living with an invisible illness can make daily life more demanding and the challenges they face.

It is important to remember that people affected by a hidden disability or invisible illness, already face the challenge of managing their symptoms or condition outside the workplace. Increased stress can sometimes lead to their condition getting worse.

Offering flexibility and showing trust can make a big difference in enabling employees to work around their needs and be in a happy place. 89% of employees believe flexible working is key to boosting productivity levels and believe that it increases their productivity and efficiency.2

Employers can also help employees get access to professional expertise and care. We’re here to help by offering practical and emotional support to individuals affected by brain and spine problems.

Positive signs

It is encouraging to see there have been positive changes in recent years to better support individuals with neurological problems and hidden disabilities.

Disabled bathroom facilities have been introduced with signs that highlight ‘not all disabilities are visible.’

Sunflower lanyards are now available through airports and supermarkets so that people with a hidden disability can to make staff aware they may require additional support.

Also blue badge permits are now available to people with hidden disabilities.

We know that research is critical to help improve people’s lives. We are working alongside the Neurological Alliance, Brain Research UK and Epilepsy Research UK, who are carrying out life changing research on a daily basis to help people with hidden disabilities cope.

We would like to hear from people whose work life been affected by a neurological condition. What has made the most difference, good or bad? Give us a call on 0800 8080 1000 or email: helpline@brainandspine.org.uk. The more we learn, the better we can support the thousands of people who turn to us every year.

If you, or know of someone who has a neurological problem click here on how the Brain and Spine Foundation can support.

1 – https://www.glasgowchamberofcommerce.com/news/member-blogs/2019/september/18/the-hidden-challenges-of-invisible-disabilities-4-ways-to-avoid-discrimination-in-the-workplace/

2 – https://www.recruitment-international.co.uk/blog/2019/08/89-percent-consider-flexible-working-as-a-productivity-motivator-report-finds