The impact of hidden disabilities on managers and leaders and their career progression
Written by: Lorraine Maodi
Lorraine is an Attorney from South Africa and has recently completed her full-time MBA at Warwick Business School. An awardee of the Chevening Scholarship 2021/2022, the UK government’s global scholarship programme, funded by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.
According to the World Health Organisation, disabilities affect many individuals worldwide, with most experiencing temporary or permanent disabilities. The World Health Organisation has defined disability as “the umbrella term for impairments, activity limitations and participation restrictions.” Unsurprisingly, scholars have conducted studies on disabilities in various contexts. Minimal research has, however, focused on hidden disabilities and their impact on individuals who are senior managers or leaders and their career progression. It is against this background that I investigated whether hidden disabilities have impacted the career progression of individuals who are senior managers or leaders. The importance of carrying out this investigation was to shed light on an important yet understudied topic affecting individuals who are senior managers or leaders living with hidden disabilities.
The findings of the dissertation
I interviewed twelve participants who are senior managers or leaders to gain insight regarding the impact of hidden disabilities on their career progression. At the outset, my goal was to ensure that the participants had different hidden disabilities and ages, worked in various industries and sectors, and represented both genders. The table below is an illustration of the participants who took part in the study:
Hidden disability impact on work performance
Only two participants were diagnosed with hidden disabilities after becoming senior managers or leaders. In contrast, the other ten were diagnosed with hidden disabilities before becoming senior managers or leaders. The two participants diagnosed with hidden disabilities after becoming senior managers experienced no impact on their career progression.
The ten participants diagnosed with hidden disabilities before becoming senior managers or leaders had varying experiences regarding the impact on their career progression. Five participants experienced a significant effect on their work performance before becoming senior managers or leaders. By way of example, participant 6’s role was made redundant after returning to work after six months due to the severity of Crohn’s disease. Participant 5 was suspended and later dismissed for continued late arrival for work despite her requests to work from home. Travelling led to her fatigue, which triggers the flaring up of Ehlers-Danlos syndrome.
Participant 2 had to step down from her first managerial role due to the flare-up of her fibromyalgia condition. However, she returned to a different managerial role after a few years. Participant 8 informed me that autism affects his daily productivity as he needs to spend extra effort on tasks others regard as mundane, e.g. writing and proofreading emails takes longer to ensure the email contents are not inadvertently offending the addressee. On the other hand, participant 9 was continuously penalised for his behaviour emanating from autism in performance reviews.
The impact on work performance is now relatively low for five participants (participants 1, 5, 6, 7 and 11) as they run their own companies, allowing them to put measures in place to minimise the impact of hidden disabilities on their work performance. Measures include being upfront with clients about expectations regarding deadlines, scheduling their working hours and taking time off when they experience a flare-up of their hidden disabilities.
Disclosure and support in the workplace
Nature of the work environment and reaction of others to disclosure:
It became evident that the nature of the work environment played a crucial role in whether the participants disclosed their hidden disabilities in the workplace. Five participants, who run their own companies, cited transparency with their employees, clients, and stakeholders as a critical factor for disclosure.
Moreover, four participants (8,9, 10 and 12) mentioned that organisations actively advocating for diversity and inclusion were critical factors that encouraged them to disclose their hidden disabilities in the workplace. Having a supportive line manager encouraged participant 3 to disclose her hidden disability.
In other instances, as was the case with two participants, disclosure was inevitable due to the manifestation of the symptoms of the hidden disability e.g., participant 2 walks around with an ostrich pillow at work while participant 4’s colleagues have witnessed him having attacks on several occasions. In both examples, disclosure was inevitable.
Four participants (5, 6, 10 and 11) informed me that they experienced positive reactions to the disclosure of their hidden disabilities. Participant 11 received praise for disclosing her hidden disabilities and was encouraged to keep shining the light. Participant 5 said she earned more respect from her peers due to her disclosure. Furthermore, participant 12 found peers and subordinates were empathetic to her infertility journey.
Two participants experienced adverse reactions to their disclosure. Participant 1, who has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, informed me that in her previous managerial role, peers and subordinates excluded her from social events as peers and subordinates assumed she would not show up. On the other hand, participant 9 found that subordinates blamed autism for their poor work performance, and some peers doubted his competence to continue leading in his position.
Three participants (3, 4 and 7) experienced no change in how others treated them after disclosure of their hidden disability.
Despite the adverse reactions that some participants experienced when they disclosed, they all stressed that they are advocates for disclosure.
Support for senior managers or leaders:
The participants had differing views about support in the workplace. Some believed they received less support due to their senior managerial or leadership roles. Participant 10 informed me that there is an obsession over the welfare of the employees at the cost of the people that own and run companies. He went on to state that owners of the company experience the same mental, physical, and other issues that other people have. While the firm cannot offer him practical support for his hidden disability, he mentioned that he would have still appreciated the company asking if he required any support for his Prosopagnosia.
Two participants informed me that they received more support than subordinates due to their senior managerial or leadership roles. Interestingly, some participants did not want support as they did not want their hidden disabilities to define them. By way of example, participant 4 stated that he would have pushed back if the company tried to place limitations such as him working remotely instead of going to customer sites.
Three participants received the necessary support in the workplace by accessing policies and programmes in their respective organisations, e.g., participant 8 noted the choice of responsibility policy available to all employees, not just those with disabilities. The policies enabled him to adapt his working environment to suit the needs of his disability through flexible working hours. Participant 9’s organisation introduced a mentor and buddy system. He can speak to the mentor about his career and reasonable adjustments. The buddy, on the other hand, listens and offers advice on day-to-day issues that happen in the workplace.
It is important to note that lack of support in the workplace is the main reason four participants started their own companies. The participants felt that nobody understood their challenges and that the only way they could cope with their hidden disabilities was to start their own companies. As managers of their own companies, they have put measures to counter the challenges emanating from their hidden disabilities. By way of example, participant 5 does not schedule meetings before 10:30 am and always schedules at least one full rest day in the middle of the week.
Career progression challenges:
Five participants became senior managers or leaders in their 20’s, five in their 30’s and two in their 50’s. All, nonetheless, irrespective of their age, have been able to occupy senior managerial or leadership roles despite having hidden disabilities.
My investigation revealed that hidden disabilities had not been a barrier to the career progression of nine participants. Participant 9 informed me that his disability did not stop him from reaching his goals. Furthermore, Prosopagnosia did not hinder the career progression of participant 10 who indicated that he could not get much higher in his career as he was already a senior partner.
Three participants noted the positive impact on their career progression. They mentioned new opportunities arose in their careers because of having hidden disabilities. Participant 2 earned a position on the advisory board, an opportunity that she reckons would not have been available to her if it were not for her hidden disability. Interestingly, participant 8 mentioned that he does not see himself living without autism due to the workplace opportunities it has presented to him.
On the contrary, hidden disabilities have negatively impacted three participants (5, 11 and 12) career progression. According to participant 5, the negative impact included not having opportunities to grow in previous organisations and thus having to start her own company. Moreover, participant 11 felt her hidden disabilities were accepted in specific industries i.e., education and creative industries, leading her to starting her own company to overcome the challenges of her hidden disabilities.
I was informed by participant 12 that she had to place her goal of becoming a partner on hold to prioritise having a second baby. The change in priorities meant that she became a partner later in life. Furthermore, she had to deal with depression which is intricately linked to infertility. According to participant 12, mental health conditions are associated with weakness in her profession.
Suggestions to employers to facilitate more inclusion and possible further career progression
Five participants believed that employers should create a culture of disclosure in their organisations to enable support for individuals with disabilities to progress in their careers. I was informed by participant 5 that employers should take advantage of flexible working practices such as part-time working and job sharing. While she informed me that job-sharing is likely more effective in junior-level positions, she confirmed that it has worked in her current senior managerial role. Notably, the job share arrangement was not because of her disability. It was due to her preference to work part-time, which her job-share partner also preferred after returning from maternity leave.
Information campaign drives are what two participants believe should form part of organisational initiatives. Moreover, one participant indicated that the traits of an individual’s hidden disability should be vital in placing them in roles wherein they can thrive. This includes what the person can, because of their hidden disability, bring to the table.
Organisations educating themselves about hidden disabilities to understand how to support individuals as stressed is key to ensuring career progression. For example, participant 12 was influential in approving her organisation's pregnancy loss and infertility policy and believes that policies are a starting point for providing support.
Participant 4 mentioned that to ensure the continued career progression of individuals with hidden disabilities, companies should instead focus on the value such individuals can add to the company. Removing barriers includes allowing for more remote working, shadowing people through mentoring, coaching, and providing equipment to help people do their jobs.
A separate communication channel, different from the line manager, has been stated by one participant as a tool to use. Employees would use the channel; to disclose their hidden disabilities if they wish. Information regarding the disclosure would only be shared with the line manager with the employee's consent. They would get support, reducing the barrier to career progression.
Participant 9 stressed the importance of training at all managerial levels. He stated that senior executives need training for strategic decisions they need to make for their companies to be more inclusive.
In conclusion, the investigation I undertook answered the question regarding whether hidden disabilities have impacted the career progression of senior managers or leaders, including whether the disclosure of their hidden disabilities impacted the participants’ career progression. The investigation revealed that hidden disabilities have, in some instances, impacted the career progression of some participants. In the case of other participants, there was no impact on their career progression. Moreover, it was evident that hidden disabilities do not always have negative consequences on the career progression of senior managers or leaders.
Inclusive workplaces which advocate for a culture of disclosure have played a pivotal role in the continued career progression of the participants. Moreover, participants who run their own companies also advocate for inclusive workplaces that look beyond an individual's hidden disabilities. The career progression of senior managers or leaders living with hidden disabilities should continue to ensure inclusive workplaces.
Lorraine Maodi is an Attorney from South Africa and has recently completed her full-time MBA at Warwick Business School. An awardee of the Chevening Scholarship 2021/2022, the UK government’s global scholarship programme, funded by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.
Social media links: www.linkedin.com/in/lorraine-maodi