Suffering in Isolation: How To Address Invisible Illnesses At The Workplace

By Jada Vanderpool

We’ve all experienced feeling less than 100% at work or in social settings at least once, and have either tried to conceal the pain or convince others that our discomfort is serious. Yet millions of individuals are suffering silent – or rather invisible illnesses.

Invisible illness is an umbrella term for any medical condition that affects a person’s daily life, but isn’t visible to others. Some examples of invisible illnesses include:

  • Allergies and food intolerances
  • Arthritis
  • Depression and mental illnesses
  • Diabetes
  • Digestive disorders
  • ADHD
  • Multiple Sclerosis
  • Chron’s Disease
  • Endometriosis
  • Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
  • Lupus
  • Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

And many more.

About 10% of Americans are living with an invisible illness. And of those, 96% of individuals are suffering from a chronic illness.

Yet unfortunately, many people with invisible illnesses face uncertainty from peers regarding the severity of their condition.

A study conducted by Lupus UK and Lupus Ireland found that participants with Lupus felt little social support for their disease within their social ties and with medical professionals. In addition, low public awareness of the disease can be a contributor to feelings of invisibility, and ultimately loneliness and isolation.

Individuals suffering from an invisible illness may also be less likely to inform their jobs of their condition. Yet there are a few things individuals can do to help them feel more comfortable in their personal and professional lives.

Let your doctor know how you feel

You know your body better than anyone – and you want your doctor to have believe your instincts about your body too. If you’re experiencing chronic symptoms of pain, fatigue etc., and haven’t presented them to your doctor, let them know how you feel. Your doctor shouldn’t treat your symptoms as acute minor illnesses, and should work to resolve them. If you find your doctor isn’t taking your invisible illness seriously, explore new medical professionals who will.

Try talking to your loved ones

It can be hard for loved ones to not recognize your pain if it’s not visible. Let them know the type of support you need, and the boundaries you have to set around your life to accommodate your invisible illness.

Individuals who are suffering from illnesses but appear healthy are covered under the Affordable Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA doesn’t include a list of “permissible” disabilities, but a way to determine if you’re covered under the act is if you have an impairment; if it affects your life; and if it limits some of your major life activities. While employees are not required to accommodate disabilities they’re unaware of, they are required to offer employees with invisible disabilities a reasonable accommodation.

Determine who you feel comfortable disclosing your illness

Legally, if you’d like to share your illness with someone at your job, you only need to notify your HR department. It’s your decision if you’d like to disclose your illness to your supervisor and coworkers. If you decide to share your medical condition, try to align yourself with work allies that will support you. What’s most important is that you don’t suffer in silence when you’re in need of help.

Don’t neglect your needs

Your illness is in no way inferior to another. Make sure you’re putting your health first. Recognize what your body is trying to tell you, and seek help from your doctor if your problems become troublesome to manage yourself.