How to Deal with Hidden Illnesses in the Workplace

Posted in : HR Updates on 1 May 2018
Helen O'Brien
Personnel and Training Services
Issues covered:

In the concluding video of our 5 part video series with PTS, Helen O’Brien deals with handling a hidden illness in the workplace. In this 5 minute summary Helen starts by making us aware that some 72% of serious medical conditions are actually hidden. She then goes on to answer a number of questions such as: what do we mean by a hidden illness, what obligations do employers have if they are not aware of the hidden illness and concludes by advising that employers should remind themselves that a hidden illness is not always seen or immediately apparent. Meaning that people often forget about the illness, employers forget, and employees forget and Helen reminds us that it's important to be aware of this.


What do we mean by hidden illness?

A hidden illness is an illness that you cannot see evidence of. You may know that they do have some kind of condition, but it's not immediately apparent. I read somewhere that 72% of serious medical conditions are actually hidden, which I was surprised about. So, it obviously is an issue that employers need to understand and deal with.

When we talk about hidden illnesses, we quite usually think of mental health issues, and we've done a previous video all about dealing with mental health issues in the workplace. But there are other hidden illnesses, physical illnesses, such as arthritis, or perhaps chronic fatigue syndrome, lupus, or digestive issues like colitis or irritable bowel syndrome, or it is not immediately apparent to somebody looking at the individual that they're actually suffering from an illness. 

I think you can divide this into three categories. So, there are hidden illnesses where the employee does not tell anybody that they're suffering, and that could be very challenging in itself.

Secondly, there are illnesses where they're prepared to tell their employer or perhaps the HR department, but aren't prepared to tell their manager or their colleagues that they work with.

And then there's the difficult issue where somebody is prepared to tell colleagues, but only certain colleagues, only their friends, and everybody else in the dark about their hidden illnesses.

So, each of those circumstances is really quite tricky to deal with and need to be handled sensitively and properly. 

If an employee doesn't tell an employer that they have some form of hidden illness, does the employer have any obligations or responsibilities towards that employee in terms of managing that condition?

Well, yes, they do, in the same way as they have obligations towards all their employees. So, if you have an employee who is acting erratically, or indeed their performance is erratic, or they're taking a lot of days off work, which they wouldn't usually do, then any reasonable employer should be sitting that individual down and discussing the issues, the problems, and if they can help them and if there's anything that they need to share with the employer. 

An employee could still hold an employer responsible for mental health issues that the employer didn't necessarily know about. So, for example, if they are arguing that they've been put under undue pressure, they've got unrealistic deadlines, they're being asked to work lots of extra hours, or they've got a manager who puts undue pressure on them or chastises them in front of their colleagues, those could all be things that the employer could be held accountable for. 

What if an employer is aware of an illness, but colleagues are not?

Well, it very much depends on the circumstances and the employee's condition, and it could be that employer is able to make adjustments or help and support that individual without letting any of the other employees know. But we need to be careful, because if one employee sees somebody else receiving different treatment or not having to do certain things or not having to attend on time as they have to, then it could breed resentment.

So, I think the important thing is for the employer to make sure the employee is aware that they will do what they can within the limits of the fact that the employee does not anybody else to know. 

What if an employer and a few colleagues are aware, but others are not?

Well, again, I think it's up to the employer to try and encourage the employee to be open about this. I think it would be very wrong if there were employees who were talking about an issue and as soon as somebody else walked into the canteen, for example, they stopped talking about it. It just breeds resentment.

And I think what the employer should try and do is make sure that the employee understands that their circumstances within the workplace are going to be dealt with, with empathy and with understanding.

Are there any other issues surrounding hidden illnesses that you would like to share with us?

Yes. Something that really occurs to me, and I think it's quite important to impart to you, is that the very fact they are a hidden illness and aren't immediately apparent means that people forget about them. Employers forget, and employees forget. And I think it's important that we are aware of this and understand.

For example, if you're having an office move in the office and somebody has got arthritis, they are not going to be able to do what everybody else does. They're probably not going to be able to pack up their bag and carry boxes from one floor to the other, and we need to remember that, and we need to be aware of that. It's probably up to the HR department to understand and appreciate that and remind everybody what the circumstances are when issues like that arise.

This article is correct at 01/05/2018

The information in this article is provided as part of Legal-Island's Employment Law Hub. We regret we are not able to respond to requests for specific legal or HR queries and recommend that professional advice is obtained before relying on information supplied anywhere within this article.

Helen O'Brien
Personnel and Training Services

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