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Disclosing invisible illness at work: a unique challenge

Updated: Jan 31




It’s very likely you, or someone you work alongside, has an invisible illness. Be it physical or mental, having an invisible illness raises a difficult question; to disclose or not disclose?


The thought of disclosing an illness often causes embarrassment or even shame. According to a report issued by the UK Government, 70%-80% of illnesses are invisible*. The same report has found;

  • 'Those with invisible disabilities may also experience attitudes of disregard and disbelief because they defy stereotypes '.

  • 'In a 2021 survey of people with energy-limiting conditions, 85% reported a lack of understanding and 65% reported disbelief of their impairment'


It’s no wonder people think twice before disclosing a condition.


For people who choose not to disclose, it’s a case of flying high on the good days and limping through the awful days (and hoping no one notices). This is one of the hardest things about having an invisible illness. You have to hide something which is a part of you, making it very hard to be your authentic self at work.


As much as disclosure may open up access to resources or support, it could also lead to others making assumptions about how much, or how little a person is willing to take on.


If you, or someone you know, is conflicted about disclosing an invisible illness, here are some prompts that might help;


  • How much support do you need to stay well? Make a list and consider how much of that list can be met by workplace adjustments, informed empathy from colleagues or other support systems outside of work. This list will make it easier to see the true benefits of disclosure before you decide

  • Identifying as a person with a long-term condition can raise feelings around vulnerability, self-esteem and being judged by others. How do you react in other parts of your life when these feelings come up? How might you cope if these feelings visit you at work as well, and what support might you put in place if needed?

  • Asking for help can also bring up lots of conflicting emotions. Try noting down the specific help you need and rehearse asking for it with a trusted friend. Rehearsing it gives you a chance to see if you have a tendency to want to apologise, minimise or otherwise dismiss your true needs

  • Whether you disclose or not, there will be times when you need to say no, or put a boundary in place. On a day when you feel well, create and rehearse an ‘elevator pitch’ to either describe your condition and its impact on your work, or gently close down inquiries


For people living and working with invisible illness, I offer coaching sessions to explore the challenges which come with unpredictable or poor health. These sessions are a chance to explore how to feel your most authentic at work while acknowledging the reality of your situation.




*Invisible Disabilities in Education and Employment, UK Gov, POSTnote 689

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