How to support expat employees with hidden disabilities

July 02, 2020

A hidden disability is a limitation that may not be immediately apparent to another. In most cases a hidden disability will impair one or more everyday activities. Common hidden disabilities include:

  • Diabetes 
  • Epilepsy
  • Dyslexia
  • Mental illness
  • Chronic pain

A hidden disability is different to a hidden illness in the sense that it is more likely to be a lifelong condition that must be managed rather than something that will be cured. 

A US study showed although 30% of employees fit the categorisation of having a disability only 39% of those have disclosed it to their manager and even less to their colleagues or teams. Although many countries have employment law that expressly forbids discrimination of employees based on their ability, work culture in many organisations still discourages disclosure of hidden disability. There is fear of harassment, changes to working relationships or that they will be viewed as less capable. 

In addition to the normal challenges faced by expats moving overseas, those with hidden disabilities may have additional concerns that may need to be addressed as part of their pre-departure preparation:

  • Access to treatment and medication while overseas. If an employee requires treatment or medication for their condition, will they be able to access it in their new home? 
  • Additional stress. Concerns about their health may make the move overseas even more daunting for someone living with a disability. 

From a HR perspective, support of employees should begin long before they leave on expat assignment. In multinational companies it is best if support is business wide, even if local legislation does not require it. Supports for those with disabilities include: 

Disability Inclusion Training

Ensure hidden disabilities are included as a significant part of inclusion training that takes place in your workplace. The narrative of the training should be towards the value of disclosure. Research shows 65% who have disclosed their hidden disability as being more than twice as likely than those who have not to feel happy and content at work.  For those going on expat assignment a refresher course could be provided as part of pre-departure training.

Treatment and medication overseas:

This may require research on a case by case basis for expats moving abroad. Depending on where they are moving to, they may need to bring medication with them or look at transitioning to medication or treatment which is locally available. This further highlights the benefit of encouraging a culture of transparency when it comes to disclosing hidden disabilities so expat candidates can be supported by HR in finding the best options.

Work together

As much as possible work with employees to accommodate their needs. No-one will understand what is required more than the employee themselves. Ideally when an employee approaches your department for assistance try to build out a number of ways in which your organisation could help make their lives easier and allow the employee to review. They can then choose the option or options that would suit them best.

Office adjustments or requirements

Depending on a person’s disability, office adjustments may be relatively minor but could make work life much easier. For example a sharps disposal bin for someone with Type 1 Diabetes or a modified monitor for someone with a visual impairment can make all the difference to their working day.  

Flexibility around work schedule 

Another way an employer can really assist an expat with a hidden disability is by allowing them more flexibility around their working day. Some conditions make long periods of work difficult but by taking breaks across the day it may be possible to complete the same amount of work but over a longer period of time. 

Access to professional support

In certain circumstances, expat employees may require professional support when it comes to maintaining their mental health. Providing access to a robust expat assistance programme helps those who are also juggling the added challenge of a hidden disability to know there is additional support if they need it.