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Not all disabilities are visible – why workplaces need to recognise invisible illness

This blog is part of our Expert Commentary series, bringing you insights into some of the unspoken challenges women face in the workplace, from experts with lived experience. The series explores a range of topics and perspectives to highlight the ways inclusive and compassionate leadership practices can benefit everyone.Every December the United Nations observes International Day of People with Disability. Most recently the day’s theme was ’Not all disabilities are visible’. In fact, it’s estimated that up to 90 per cent of disabilities are hidden. Which means, while you might not be familiar with the term ‘invisible disabilities’ there’s a good chance you work with someone who has one. People often find it difficult to empathise with invisible disabilities because there are no visual cues to help imagine life in another person’s shoes. When we meet a person with one arm, we can imagine the ways in which our own life would be different if we were in the same situation. But when someone says “I have chronic pain,” we’re not as quick to understand how that could affect our day-to-day activities. This makes people with invisible disabilities less likely to disclose their condition, because it creates an additional burden of education and usually involves well-meaning but unhelpful advice. While people with visible disabilities are often called ‘heroes’ or ‘inspiring’, people with invisible disabilities are more often accused of ‘faking it’ or ‘attention seeking’. To be clear, both of these attitudes are deeply problematic and the prevalence of both of these says a lot about how far we have to go with inclusive language around disability. I have an invisible disability. Personally, I’d much rather have the power of invisibility, so I could fight crime on the weekend. But having an invisible disability often feels pretty close to being invisible, especially in the workplace. Much like my identity as a queer person, I often have to make a conscious effort to ‘come out’ as a person with disability to my employers in order to access the support I need. This isn’t always an easy process. In addition to the labour of educating employers, I often face discrimination or just outright disbelief and dismissal of my lived experience. And I’m not alone in this. In the Center for Talent Innovation’s “Disabilities and Inclusion” study they found that 30 per cent of the professional workforce fits the current definition of having a disability, but only 39 per cent of those people have chosen to inform their manager. This is despite the fact that employees with disabilities who inform most people they interact with are more than twice as likely to feel regularly happy or content at work than employees with disabilities who have not told anyone (65 per cent versus  27 per cent). They’re also less likely to regularly feel nervous or anxious (18 per cent versus 40 per cent) or isolated (8 per cent versus 37per cent).In the workplace this stigma can create a huge barrier to accessing the resources and support available for people with disabilities. Most workplaces are legally required to provide ‘reasonable adjustments’ for employees who identify as having a disability. Reasonable adjustments are designed to help address any barriers a person faces to performing the essential requirements of their job. For instance, if a person with visual impairment can’t see their computer screen and their job requires them to read documents on said screen, then they can request screen reading software as an adjustment. There are two problems with this when it comes to invisible disabilities. The first is that many people with invisible disability don’t actually identify as being disabled. For most of my life I didn’t identify as having a disability. Despite the fact that every single definition of disability I came across seemed to be written with my experience in mind. But whenever I thought of disability, I thought of my friends who had visible disabilities. And I thought that identifying with the ‘disability’ label would be minimising their experience, that I might be taking resources away from them. This meant that when I saw policies about reasonable adjustments for people with disability, I never considered they would apply to me. What changed my mind was a conversation I had with a colleague with a physical disability. We had both recently participated in a survey about reasonable adjustments and the workplace that asked “Does your disability prevent you from participating in the workplace?” My colleague has a visible disability that affected the way her body developed. But when she saw the question she immediately responded ‘no’ because in her experience her disability hadn’t impacted her work or career at all. When we talked about it she asked how I would have answered, and I realised that there were many days when I couldn’t get out of bed, when I couldn’t think clearly enough to work, and workplaces had fired me because of this. I had a disability. It dis-ables me from participating in life the way everyone else does. But not everyone has this realisation, and for those who don’t, the language around support for people with disabilities can create a cognitive barrier to accessing that support. The second problem with reasonable adjustments is that someone who has an invisible disability has to rely exclusively on their own ability to communicate their symptoms in order to have their experience recognised. This is referred to as self advocacy. If someone using a wheelchair says they need a desk the right height for them to use, it’s easy to see what they’re referring to. If someone says fluorescent lighting triggers migraines, they have to trust you’ll believe them because they can’t provide proof.Asking people to self-advocate, particularly when they don’t recognise they even belong to a protected group, can prevent people from seeking support. Most people with an invisible disability have experienced more scepticism and dismissal than acceptance. Their lived experience tells them that advocating for themselves is unlikely to yield positive results. Disability discrimination accounts for the highest volume of complaints to the Australian Human Rights Commission annually and a 2011 Canadian study found that 88 per cent of people with an invisible disability had negative views of disclosing their disability to employers.This understanding MUST form the foundation of every policy for disability support. When we internalise this context we start to recognise the barriers to participation in workplace disability support. Reasonable adjustments rely on people to identify what the barrier is to them performing the essential requirements of their role. A lot of the time people with invisible disabilities have learned to perform their role despite barriers. Someone who experiences chronic pain will teach themselves to work despite their pain. A person with mental health issues will learn to mask their symptoms in order to perform their role. Many people with invisible disabilities will have never considered what adjustments might help them. As with many workplace issues that fall under the Diversity and Inclusion umbrella, the key to creating an inclusive and supportive workplace for people with disability is ensuring that the people with decision making power understand and empathise with their employees’ experiences. If you can’t understand why I’m afraid to tell you about my disability, then you’re only reinforcing my decision not to. WE NEED MORE LEADERS LIKE YOUYou’re here because you know that great leadership enables better outcomes for people. We’re here to help you be a great leader for your organisation.For more leadership news, plus event updates and expert tips, subscribe to our mailing list. SUBSCRIBE NOW

Leading through the Great Resignation: Uncovering our mental models

Leading through the Great Resignation is a series of articles exploring the tools and frameworks that will help leaders effectively navigate emerging workplace trends, by Suzi Finkelstein, CEO at Women & Leadership Australia. There is no doubt about it – change is here. Right across the country, and in many different ways, we have been experiencing and adapting to extraordinary change for nearly two years.For many of us, this period of forced change has prompted us to reflect on changes we might choose for ourselves. A slower pace. A move to the regions. A career change.And many businesses are now presented with an opportunity to leverage the changes we’ve made to our workplaces, systems and policies to transform the ways we move ahead.According to a recent report from Microsoft, current workplace trends suggest that “we are no longer bound to traditional notions of space and time to work together. Instead, we can set aside our long-held assumptions and shift our mental model to embrace extreme flexibility.”But, change can be hard. We explore what it means to lead change in each of our leadership development programs at Women & Leadership Australia, because it is a challenge that all leaders will face, in many contexts, throughout their careers. Time and again we hear about organisational changes that – despite the best of intentions – fail to stick.That’s where mental models come in. Mental models are the ways we think about the world. They might be subconscious assumptions, unspoken rules, or stories we tell ourselves without question, and while they may not be visible, they are certainly powerful.When it comes to change, mental models create the foundations we need for success. They underpin the invisible structures and patterns, and the visible behaviours that play out at work every day. If we don’t change the foundations, the structures and behaviours that result cannot really transform.For example, let’s consider a team that has been working remotely for much of the last two years. Despite the changes in team behaviour, new ways of working and updated workplace policies, if the team continues to think of working in the office as ‘normal’, working remotely will continue to be seen as a temporary practice, and the workplace systems, team patterns and individual behaviours will easily slip back to pre-pandemic norms.Now consider another team, who believes remote working opens up new opportunities for their business and considers hybrid working the ‘new normal’. They are more likely embed and leverage remote working practices, advocate for hybrid working arrangements within the organisation, and maintain this transformational change.Over the last two years, many of us have made a change to our behaviour – working from home, connecting virtually, maybe supporting our kids through remote learning. We may have changed some of the patterns that shape our days – a new daily walking habit, or a different schedule of work hours. And even some of the structures that influence our work lives have changed – government-mandated practices, workplace policies, and the technological systems that have been adopted to support our new ways of working.Yes, change is here. And as leaders, we have an opportunity to shepherd in lasting, transformational change, by digging deep into our mental models and exploring what else might be possible.Tips for uncovering and shifting your mental models When faced with a workplace issue, take time to pause and notice what are you paying attention to. Are there assumptions you are clinging to? Is there another lens you could apply?Consider the mental models at play in your team or organisation. What are the unspoken rules? Are profit, service or product quality, team cohesion, innovation or harmony prioritised? How do these thoughts play out in workplace structures and actions? We need more leaders like you​You're here because you care about being the best leader possible. We're here to support you at every stage of your leadership journey.For more leadership news, plus event updates and expert tips, subscribe to our mailing list.

Leading through the Great Resignation: Rebuilding social capital and team culture

Leading through the Great Resignation is a series of articles exploring the tools and frameworks that will help leaders effectively navigate emerging workplace trends, by Suzi Finkelstein, CEO at Women & Leadership Australia. Over the last two years we have seen significant shifts in Australian workplaces and society. Many of us have been working from home. We have been juggling family responsibilities. We have been finding new ways to support our own mental health, and to look after loved ones from a distance. We have been reconsidering what is truly important to us.And, it seems, for many people across Australia – and the world – it’s time for change.New research shows that globally, more than 40 per cent of workers could be considering a career move in the next year.So, what can we as leaders do to support our teams, keep our talented staff, and move our organisations forward with resilience and focus?Rebuilding social capital and team culture will be critical.Social capital refers to the shared values, social connections and collaborative relationships that help people work together effectively. We know that social capital is key to improving wellbeing and performance across organisations.A report from McCrindle Research suggests that relationships with peers and colleagues, and a collaborative work environment, are key factors in workplace wellbeing.And we see this consistently in our leadership development programs at Women & Leadership Australia. Each of our programs explores team dynamics and culture, and regardless of industry, seniority or job role, the themes tend to be the same: team culture can be tricky to get right, but when it does improve, team cohesion, performance and resilience soar.Why is this so important for leaders to focus on right now?Many teams have been disrupted throughout the pandemic. Now, more than ever, teams are working in a digital world. Of course, there are benefits to this – according to Microsoft, interactions with our close networks are more frequent than they were before the pandemic. However, teams also tend to be more siloed in a digital work world, and for many of us, our connections with our broader networks have suffered.Being physically separated from work colleagues means it’s been harder to build informal connections, to pick up non-verbal communication cues, and share anecdotes in the lunchroom. These small moments play a big role in building social capital and a positive team culture. And hybrid working is a trend that’s here to stay: three in five Australian workers say a hybrid work model is their ideal arrangement, with a combination of working from home and the workplace, according to McCrindle.As we look ahead to the next chapter for ourselves, our teams and our organisations, nurturing our professional relationships and fostering a healthy team culture will ensure we have sound foundations to build from.Tips for building social capital and team culture Start with trust – this is the foundation for healthy conflict, commitment, accountability and ultimately, results within a teamProactively plan informal, social interactions with key colleagues and set aside time to connect – dedicating time to building strong relationships will lead to improved efficiencies and results down the track – and they can make work so much more enjoyable!Allow time for team dynamics to be re-established after significant changes to a team – like a new team member starting, a change in responsibilities, or even returning to the office. We need more leaders like you​You're here because you care about being the best leader possible. We're here to support you at every stage of your leadership journey.For more leadership news, plus event updates and expert tips, subscribe to our mailing list.

Leading through the Great Resignation: Leaning into authentic leadership

Leading through the Great Resignation is a series of articles exploring the tools and frameworks that will help leaders effectively navigate emerging workplace trends, by Suzi Finkelstein, CEO at Women & Leadership Australia. We need more women leaders.In many ways, women have been hit hardest by the pandemic. Health, education and caring professions – all female-dominated sectors – have been our front line. At home, remote learning and extra caring responsibilities have often fallen to women. Women’s economic security, safety and mental health have suffered.And through this period of upheaval, employees are feeling a disconnect with their workplaces. According to a new report from Microsoft, 37 per cent of the global workforce says their companies are asking too much of them: 54 per cent feel overworked and 39 per cent feel exhausted.The same report shows that on the whole, business leaders are faring better than employees. The business leaders surveyed were more likely to be male, and further along in their careers. Women, younger people, frontline workers, and those new to their careers reported struggling the most over the past year.That’s why we need more women leaders.We need more women leaders who can lean into authentic leadership, leverage their strengths and experiences, and help teams and organisations strive for better outcomes. The concept of authentic leadership is a critical one when it comes to empowering women to lead. In each of Women & Leadership Australia’s flagship leadership development programs, we delve into personal values and authentic leadership. Time and again we witness the shift that happens as women realise their personal traits, experiences and values can become their unique leadership super-powers. Leadership strategies can be learnt – but personal values and experiences bring unique strengths and opportunities.For many women, leadership roles can feel out of reach. Understanding and cultivating authentic leadership allows them to find their voice and their place in leadership.Having more women around the leadership table can, of course, lead to better business outcomes. But importantly, during this period of change, encouraging more women to step up into leadership roles can help businesses retain talented women, make development pathways visible to future women leaders, and progress the systemic and cultural shifts that many businesses need to make to re-engage their disconnected staff.For many women, as we emerge from the pandemic, what we want from our workplaces is changing. Seeing more women in leadership positions is critically important – to both employers and employees – at this time of reflection and recalibration.Tips for fostering authentic leadership Reflect on your values – list the three values in life that are most important to you, and consider if and how you bring each of these values to your workSpend some time developing your vision for yourself as a leader: what are your aspirations, what do you want to achieve, how do you want to be known?Conduct ‘stay interviews’ with your team – don’t wait until they are leaving to ask them what they really want in their job – and consider how you can connect their values to improve team and business outcomes. We need more leaders like you​You're here because you care about being the best leader possible. We're here to support you at every stage of your leadership journey.For more leadership news, plus event updates and expert tips, subscribe to our mailing list.


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