Invisible Disabilities & The Importance of Inclusion

Podcast: Line on LeaveAn inclusive workplace culture includes support for disabilities that aren’t readily apparent. How do you include what you can’t see? In this episode of The Line on Leave, we discuss ways employers can create a more inclusive workplace for invisible disabilities, including fostering a stigma-free environment and measuring a company’s inclusion efforts.
The Hartford’s Absence Management and Product and Strategy Lead for Group Benefits, Tom Tipton, and Senior Staffing Consultant for Human Resources, Stephanie Vogel, share their insights and passion for disability inclusion in the workplace.
Subscribe: Apple Podcasts | Android


Laura Marzi: Hello everyone. And thanks for tuning into our latest Line on Leave podcast from The Hartford. If you're a regular listener, you know we discuss a variety of strategies on this podcast to help employers care for their workforce. Nuestra página most recent series did a deep dive into the Americans with Disabilities Act, and we discussed ways employers and employees can work together to accommodate and include people with disabilities. But how do you include what you can't see? And that brings us to today's topic, which is disability inclusion.
Here from The Hartford to help us answer that question are Tom Tipton, who is Absence Management and Product and Strategy Lead for Group Benefits at The Hartford. And we also have Stephanie Vogel, who's a Senior Staffing Consultant for Human Resources.
They both share a passion for creating an inclusive workplace for people of all abilities. And that includes our fellow employees right here at The Hartford. So we're going to get into that as well. If you both could take a minute to let our listeners know what your roles are here at The Hartford and why this topic is so important to both of you, that would be tremendous. Gracias.
Stephanie Vogel: I'd be happy to. I'm a senior talent consultant here at The Hartford, and I've been a recruiter supporting our commercial group benefits and claims teams for over 18 years. This topic is so important to me as a chronic suffer of anxiety, which I had for probably three quarters of my career here. I made the brave decision to come out finally, after manager support that I had over a number of years and feeling that I wasn't able to be myself for so long. I leveraged The Hartford's blogging system to share my story. And the outreach and reactions were honestly overwhelming. And it only confirmed for me how many other people, how many colleagues, friends, and teammates have been suffering in silence for so many years. And I got more and more involved in our diversity and inclusion efforts as well as our FAN Disability Network.
Laura Marzi: Thank you for sharing that. It was brave, it was honest, and I think your teammate Tom will agree that it really helps put this entire discussion into a very important context.
Tom Tipton: Yes. Thank you. I'm responsible for our leave management offering. What I really do is design and deliver high quality products and experiences to our employers and employees, really making sure they have access to those benefits that they need and the time that they need it most. And the easiest way possible for them to get to those benefits there. I'm also the co-chair of our Flex-Abilities Network or FAN, which is an employee resource group here at The Hartford that's really focused on disability inclusion. Through my work as being a co-chair and what I do for my day job, it's really given me an appreciation and a passion around helping others and making sure that we help folks get to their full abilities in life and work.
Laura Marzi: Awesome. Thank you, Tom. When we talk about invisible disabilities, what does that mean? And how can you give us some examples that would make sense.
Tom Tipton: Invisible disabilities are really just disabilities you can't see, but are just as important. They include things that aren't visible on the outside, but really can impact a person's activities. Some examples that come to mind include heart disease, diabetes, even some mental health conditions. And actually speaking of mental health, there really is a cost of being unseen and untreated.
Unfortunately, going untreated can lead to unplanned absences and prolonged disabilities. When we actually look at our own claim data, mental health conditions are among one of the top five reasons US workers file a short-term disability claim.And really on top of that, our nonprofit partner NAMI or the National Alliance on Mental Illness says that more than 40 million adults have some type of anxiety, which makes it the most common mental health concern.
Laura Marzi: So Stephanie, The Hartford has been polling US employers and employees for over the past year, in our own proprietary Future of Benefits study. And we've been able to take the pulse of the workplace during the pandemic. One of the things that seems to be emerging from the pandemic is that there is more empathy in the workplace. And that same survey found, if I've got my numbers right here, 72% of employers believe that stigma around mental health can be a barrier for people coming forward to honestly ask for help. How do you think employers can help break down that perception in that stigma?
Stephanie Vogel: Yeah. The Future of Benefits study revealed a lot around stigma. We saw in that study that especially young people, young workers tend to experience that anxiety more than any other generation. And though it subsides with age, we're seeing it with all generations, especially this past year. I think first and foremost, there needs to be more education around mental health for example, and invisible illnesses. We've seen more celebrities, for example, and athletes come forward over the past month and using their platforms to advocate for more mental health awareness.
The fact of the matter is that it is okay to not be okay, but there's always been a stigma associated with that. We know that prior to COVID, over 60 million adults and youth suffered from an mental illness disorder and even substance abuse. And so with that all, the substance abuse being a form of coping, we need to better educate to help remove the stigma so people can get the help that they need. To remove the shame around mental health awareness and wellness, so that people aren't embarrassed to speak to friends, family, colleagues, and others on the topic.
Laura Marzi: Thank you so much, Stephanie. I'm actually thinking back to the Olympics, which was a highlight of the summer and not all that long ago. And everybody was tuning into watch Simone Biles go for the gold in the gymnastics competition. And instead what they saw was a very courageous young woman taking a step back and being honest about pressure and anxiety that comes with high level competition. It seems to me that normalizing mental health and what we say and do is pretty important. And Tom, doesn't that really just come down to creating more employee awareness around benefits?
Tom Tipton: Yeah. Completely agree there. And I also agree that fostering that stigma free environment is really critical, but to really get to that question, yes, having a strong, supportive benefits package that employees are really aware of is important too. And a lot of that just starts with a culture that's supportive. So the employees feel empowered to take care of themselves. I mean, take something as simple as paid time off, the Future of Benefits study showed that about one third of workers, fear some sort of workplace repercussions if they take time off, one third, but employers are offering more leave programs. So that just highlights a disconnect here for that need of awareness, but almost more importantly, that workplace culture.
And just besides being able, just to take care of time for yourself, another way for benefit programs to be more inclusive is really around the ability to get care and treatment and having that be more accessible too.
I think one thing that the pandemic given us is really accelerated things like virtual visits, tele-health, but I think that's something that's really going to stay when the pandemic is over. We hope so, because that really has helped increase accessibility there.
I think one last point just on awareness and benefits is really talking about self-reporting and self-reporting for disabilities. I know like I've heard most companies having self-reporting for veteran status, but disability status is an equally important one as well. Yeah. That information is treated confidentially and is really important for benefit managers to understand the workforce so they can really design benefit and leave programs that meets the needs of their employees.
Laura Marzi: And Stephanie, it seems to me that there are more companies committing to a culture of diversity, equity, and inclusion, and more organizations are standing up for these principles. As they do this Stephanie, what do you think they're finding out?
Stephanie Vogel: I think it's so important. We've seen such a shift in the last several years. Diversity, equity, and inclusion are at the forefront and it has to be topped down activities, actions, and representations. So for example, we participate in the CEO Action for DE&I, and that's founded on diversity, equity, and inclusion as a societal issue. It's collaborative, bold actions from the business community, especially CEOs that are showing that we need to drive scaled change. We have to see leaders, exhibit role model behaviors. These are the things that will help employees self-disclose as Tom just talked about, to be able to bring their real full selves to work. And to not have to be robotic and hide. In many people's cases with an invisible illness or a visible disability, bring also a lot of benefits, a lot of added benefits that they can bring to an organization instead of having to hide behind their real selves and not be themselves when they come to work. There's so much more they can add when they don't have that anxiety, or worry, or concern that overarches all that they do.
Laura Marzi: And Tom, a company saying that it's committed to all things as a principal is one thing, but how can they measure their progress?
Tom Tipton: I would just start by saying, besides just being good business sense more and more investors are calling on companies to be more inclusive. So it's a great investment case as well, besides just good business to do that. One way to measure is the Disability Equality Index from DisabilityIN. DisabilityIN is a non-profit resource business, disability and inclusion group. And they sponsor this index on an annual basis. DisabilityIN is a non-profit resource business, disability and inclusion group. And they sponsor this index on an annual basis.
It helps measure companies in terms of how they're doing for disability inclusion and that index looks at culture and leadership, enterprise access, employment practices, community engagement, and supplier diversity. And those top scoring companies, the ones that score 80% above are designated as the best places to work for disability inclusion. And companies typically participate in the index every year and really build on its feedback and best practices to continually improve.
I'm proud to say that The Hartford has been among the indexes top scores for the past five years. And that index is a good starting point. And really it's about striving for that continual improvement that shows that you're committed to inclusion. And everything is really about inclusion and disability is part of that.
Laura Marzi: Okay, great perspective and great answers. And this last question is for both of you. Support from peers can go a long way in building an inclusive culture. I want to talk about that some more and specifically your involvement here at The Hartford with our own Flex-Abilities Network. Can you give some perspective?
Tom Tipton: Absolutely. I'll go first here. Those employee resource groups are really a great way to get involved in company culture. I'm actually our co-chair of FAN or the Flex-Abilities Network. And that mission is to advance the philosophy that every person is capable of full productivity in work and life. And our membership, which is highly engaged throughout the country, gets involved at a local level, at a company level here to really drive inclusion and really walk what we say and do here. It's amazing to see. I get involvement with charities at a local level where our offices are located throughout the country.
One thing I do want to highlight, which I think is unique is one of our chapters is hosting a learning series to learn American Sign Language, which is actually being taught by one of our employees. And in fact, there was so much excitement and energy around this, that all of the slots were filled up in about 10 minutes. I mean, that right there is amazing and just showcases really that culture of inclusion that The Hartford lives every day and how our ERG, FAN, can really get involved and help drive and really foster that culture of inclusion. So much so that we actually opened up more slots and are actually talking about doing this on a more regular basis, that American Sign Language class there. So that employees can really interact more with employees that we have that might be hard of hearing.
Stephanie Vogel: Those are great examples, Tom. I joined FAN as a member and a few years later was asked to take on a remote leadership chapter role. We think about remote employees in many cases, be pre-COVID, where those in many instances, that needed to work from home due to a disability or illness. And that had become my passion. It gave me a wonderful platform to be able to move the culture and growth along with this organization. It is so important for our employees to know that they have that support. Employee resource groups do many things. They skill build. They allow cross organizational networking opportunities, but they also give people the opportunity to meet and speak with others who have similar experiences to help advance education. We do so many different ‘lunch and learns’ and info sessions throughout the year on a variety of different topics, highlighting mental health and other chronic condition and illnesses every single month.
You don't have to have one of these illnesses or disabilities to be an advocate and an ally for. And we really push here at the organization for allyship, to be someone who can help advance those who aren't able to do it on their own. And that has given me a great sense of pride and has been, I've seen as a recruiter, a big shift for what candidates are looking for. Companies so importantly need to have a pulse on what's important to their employees, not only from a benefits perspective, but from a cultural perspective as well.
Laura Marzi: Thank you, Tom and Stephanie, for all your wonderful insights and all your good work in this area. This has been a great discussion. Our listeners can read more about this topic in Tom's Disability Inclusion article, which is featured on our Employer Group Benefits Insights Page at Thank you all for listening. And as always, if you like what you hear, please subscribe to our podcast and share it with your colleagues.
You can visit us at, and there you'll receive a comprehensive set of leave management resources, including this very Line on Leave podcast. Until next time, be well and stay safe everyone. Gracias.
816076 09/21
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.
This informational material is subject to change as The Hartford continues to receive guidance from states and municipalities. It shall not be considered legal advice. The Hartford assumes no responsibility for legal compliance with respect to an employer’s business practices, and the views and recommendations contained herein shall not constitute The Hartford’s undertaking on a company’s behalf, or for the benefit of others, to determine or warrant that an employer’s business operations are in compliance with any law, rule, or regulation. Employers seeking resolution of specific legal or business issues, questions, or concerns regarding this topic should consult their own attorney or business advisors; and employees should continue to consult their employers’ Human Resources or other employment benefits department for guidance on the application of any law, rule, or regulation.
The Hartford Financial Services Group, Inc., (NYSE: HIG) operates through its subsidiaries, including underwriting companies Hartford Life and Accident Insurance Company and Hartford Fire Insurance Company, under the brand name, The Hartford,® and is headquartered at One Hartford Plaza, Hartford, CT 06155. For additional details, please read The Hartford’s legal notice at