Life with an invisible illness carries a whole host of hurdles.
For starters, there is the physical side of these ailments. Chronic pain, depression, digestive issues, and fatigue can easily prevent someone from feeling like an active participant in their own life.
There are also financial concerns to consider, as the cost of healthcare has been creeping up for years. Because the symptoms of many chronic diseases are broad, doctors frequently have to run several costly tests before reaching a diagnosis. And if an ailment necessitates medication, a patient could be looking at an extra $1,300 in expenses per year.
Perhaps most taxing of all are the mental hurdles. Because invisible illnesses aren’t outwardly apparent, patients must become experts at explaining their conditions to others. The emotional labor of teaching peers and even healthcare providers about one’s lived experiences can be just as draining as the symptoms themselves.
For that reason, many people who suffer from invisible illnesses do so in silence. There’s a good chance at least one person on your team has a hidden disability they’ve chosen not to disclose. This begs a question: Are the policies and procedures you enforce as an HR professional exacerbating the issue?
What’s an Invisible Illness? A Quick Primer
To start, let’s take a closer look at invisible illnesses and who they tend to affect. Invisible illnesses are quite common, and they’re only growing in prevalence — a whopping 96% of Americans with chronic medical conditions don’t outwardly exhibit signs of sickness. As we continue to learn more about the long-term health impacts of COVID, there’s a good chance we could see an uptick in invisible illnesses.
The list of medical conditions that can be categorized as invisible illnesses is quite broad, including symptoms such as hearing and vision loss, chronic pain, mobility problems, and even mood and behavioral issues. And interestingly, some of the most common invisible illnesses tend to present more frequently in women than men. Let’s run through a few of them:
- Menopause: Menopause marks the end of a woman’s fertility and occurs when she has gone a whole year without a period. The typical age of onset in the U.S. is 51 years old, and menopausal women are one of the fastest-growing demographics of workers. But due to lingering taboo around the subject of reproduction, many women feel pressured to experience this transition and its associated symptoms (e.g., hot flashes, insomnia, chills, mood changes) as if nothing were out of the ordinary.
- Lupus: Lupus is an autoimmune disease wherein the body’s immune system becomes hyperactive and begins attacking otherwise healthy tissue. Though anyone can develop lupus, it’s more common in women (they account for 90% of diagnoses). Lupus eluded public awareness for years, but we’ve recently seen increased discussion around this invisible illness — thanks to advocates like Selena Gomez, who has been open about her lupus battle.
- Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS): PCOS is a reproductive disorder that’s common among women of childbearing age, yet we rarely hear about it. Perhaps that’s because the exact cause of PCOS is unclear, which means it’s also underdiagnosed. It doesn’t help that some symptoms of PCOS (e.g., acne and weight gain) are often attributed to lifestyle, while other symptoms (e.g., missed or irregular periods and excess hair growth) are similar to what one might experience during puberty. But PCOS can lead to other issues, including Type 2 diabetes, heart problems, and even endometrial cancer.
- Fibromyalgia Syndrome (FMS): FMS is a chronic condition that causes widespread musculoskeletal pain and tenderness throughout the body, extreme fatigue, mood issues, and memory and concentration problems. Like the other invisible illnesses we’ve covered here, FMS is more widespread among women than men (in a proportion of 9:1). There’s currently no cure for FMS, which means patients must manage symptoms using prescription medications as well as exercise, therapy, and various stress-reduction measures.
How HR Professionals Can Address the Challenges of Invisible Illnesses
Now that we’ve covered the basics of invisible illnesses, it’s time to explore how HR professionals can help their team members navigate the associated challenges. That support begins with prioritizing mental health across the organization.
Considering mental health disorders are one of the most prevalent hidden disabilities in the workforce, employers should provide proper training and resources on the subject. This should include regularly communicating with employees about the availability of associated resources and how those resources can provide a helping hand. For instance, a company that offers Paytient’s Health Payment Accounts (HPAs) to help team members access and afford care should also put energy into educating employees on how they can and should use their HPA funds to pay for mental health services such as therapy.
Next, HR leaders must look at any structural issues that might be exacerbating issues related to invisible illnesses. This should include a careful examination of whether there might be policies that disproportionately impact women’s health and wellness.
For instance, some companies require employees to use paid time off when they need to step away from the office for things like doctor’s appointments. While a healthy employee who only visits the doctor for an annual checkup might not bat an eye at such a policy, a woman dealing with a chronic reproductive disorder could quickly burn through her PTO while seeking medical care. Employers might consider implementing a more flexible workplace policy that empowers employees to step away from the office for a few hours — no questions asked.
Finally, HR leaders should focus on being empathetic and making themselves available. Too often, employees with invisible illnesses feel they have to put on a mask for the world. When they let that mask slip, they’re often met with judgment. When a team member needs to take an afternoon break, employers shouldn’t automatically assume it’s because they’re lazy or less capable than their colleagues — it’s not always apparent what health issues someone might face.
And if someone chooses to disclose their hidden disability to you, acknowledge that doing so can be extremely difficult. Thank your colleague for their candor and for trusting you with this information. Then, do right by them. That doesn’t mean coddling team members — it means providing accommodations that help them bring their best selves to work.
A rising tide lifts all boats. And when HR leaders commit to creating workplaces that validate people with invisible illnesses, they ultimately create an environment where all employees can succeed.