Companies committed to an inclusive culture support and celebrate employees for their abilities. But how can you include what you don’t see?
“Invisible disabilities, including mental health conditions, are just as important as the disabilities you can see,” says Adele Spallone, head of clinical operations for Workers’ Compensation and Group Benefits at The Hartford. “Being inclusive of mental health conditions requires a company-wide commitment to education and empathy to remove stigma as a barrier for employees who need help. People can be treated and accommodated successfully for many mental health conditions while being a productive, engaged employee.”
Mental Health: The Cost of Being Unseen and Untreated
Examples of invisible disabilities include heart disease, diabetes and mental health conditions. In the U.S. alone, more than 40 million adults have some type of anxiety disorder, the most common mental health concern, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). And when it comes to serious mental illnesses, NAMI reports that one in 20 American adults suffer from some kind of them.
Some untreated mental health and substance use disorders can lead to unplanned absence and prolonged disability. Mental health conditions are among the top five reasons for U.S. workers to file a short-term disability claim, according to The Hartford’s disability claims data (excluding pregnancy).1
The pandemic has raised awareness for the importance of mental health support in the workplace. Despite the progress that’s been made, many workers are still afraid to seek help for themselves or to disclose that a family member has a mental health condition. In fact, in a national study by The Hartford, 72% of employers say stigma remains a barrier to care. The study also showed a divide between employers and employees about workplace mental health. While 79% of employers say they have an open and inclusive environment that encourages a dialogue about mental health, only 52% of workers agree.
Breaking down stigma begins with employers and employees learning more about mental health conditions and substance use disorder. Nearly half of adults with a substance use disorder also have a mental illness. Employers can do more to create a supportive and compassionate workplace for their employees by:
- Using respectful, first-person language to talk about mental illness and addiction. Avoid harmful words that perpetuate stigma, taking into consideration that words matter.
- Providing mental health training for managers and senior leaders to help build a top-down awareness about mental illness, the warning signs and guidelines to normalize language.
- Offering an Employee Assistance Program, as well as sleep management, mindfulness or other programs that help improve mental and physical health.
- Communicating often about benefits and programs that support overall health and well-being.
- Creating a supportive culture for taking time off when it’s needed.
Create a Network of Allies
Peer-to-peer advocacy can be a powerful piece of an inclusive culture.
“You can do things with a workplace culture that supports people at every point – from hiring through retention. Companies can invite employees to voluntarily self-identify as an individual with a disability, much like people do with reporting their veteran status,” says Hayes Henderson, head of sales for the East Region and National Accounts Strategy for Group Benefits at The Hartford. Hayes is also co-chair of The Hartford’s Flex-Abilities Network (FAN), an ERG for disability inclusion. “Co-workers can do a lot to help, beginning with their advocacy and commitment to break down stigma.”
Promoting employee resource groups (ERGs) that are focused on disability inclusion helps create a safe place for conversation, education and invaluable perspective. For example, as companies shift more of their remote workforce back to on-site operations, group members can offer unique insights on what an employer can do to help those with anxiety make that transition. For some, it might mean continuing remote work or other accommodations.
“It’s great for employees to feel supported in that process,” says Henderson. “Our philosophy is that every person is capable of full productivity in work and life.”
Building From a Benchmark
In today’s economy, diversity, equity and inclusion, governance, social and environmental factors can impact a company’s brand and make it stand out as an attractive choice for employees and customers alike.
To build a more inclusive culture for people with disabilities – visible or invisible – companies can start with an understanding of how they measure up and then progress from there. One of the key benchmarks is the annual Disability Equality Index (DEI). This is an initiative of DisabilityIN, a non-profit resource for business disability inclusion and the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD), a public policy advocate. The Disability Index looks at a company’s:
- Culture and Leadership
- Enterprise-wide Access
- Employment Practices
- Community Engagement
- Diversidad de proveedores
The top-scoring companies – 80% and above – are designated as “Best Places to Work for Disability Inclusion.” Companies can participate in the index each year, building on the feedback and best practices it gathers to continually improve in every area. For the past five years, The Hartford has been among DEI’s top-scorers, including the most recently released 2021 index.
“The index is a good starting point,” Henderson says. “Striving for continual improvement shows that you’re committed. Everything is about inclusion. Disability is part of that.”
1 Top five reasons for short-term claims for the last four years (2016-2020), excluding pregnancy, were musculoskeletal injury, cancers and other neoplasms, digestive conditions, and mental health conditions.