Disclosing or not disclosing a disability at work?

December 2, 2020 at 1:02pm

Does it matter what workers’ reasons are for disclosing or not disclosing a disability at work? Why and how?Screen capture from presentation

On November 24, 2020, the Local Union participated in a webinar hosted by the Institute for Work and Health. “Does it matter what workers’ reasons are for disclosing or not disclosing a disability at work? Why and how?” by Monique Gignac Senior Scientist and Project Director.

This is a burning question for a large majority of our members. Many Ontarian workers suffer from invisible diseases/conditions and have episodic disabilities that can be characterized as intermittent, unpredictable or invisible. Examples of episodic disabilities are depression, anxiety disorders, arthritis, multiple sclerosis, diabetes, Chrohn’s colitis, migraine, epilepsy, some cancers, HIV.

These conditions are manageable but when they emerge workers may be in need of accommodation. This then leaves them with the choice of whether or not to disclose health information. The study showed that many disclosures occurred primarily with co-workers, then supervisors and lastly HR.

The research focused on two factors behind disclosure decisions. Need (those experiencing active limitations, pain, fatigue or other) and perceived support (those who believe their workplace is supportive). The overarching goals for communication decisions was approaching goals and avoidance goals. Sadly, the research showed that Women and men (ages 18-51+)  experienced outcomes from disclosure very differently. Women saw an increase in negative outcomes when they work in a stressful environment with little workplace support. The extent of their accommodation and days absent were increased. As for men, the issues are varied. Men who work in a stressful environment with little support and regardless of their accommodation needs, saw major negative outcomes especially if it was related to mental health issues versus physical conditions.Screen capture of table from presentation

The research for avoiding disclosure were extremely consistent with what our members tell us:

  • Had to explain work absences
  • Health/disability was getting worse and needed to disclose
  • Others noticed changes
  • Concerned about lost opportunities for promotion/job tasks
  • Past experiences make me concerned about sharing
  • Nothing can be done so there’s no point in discussing

Ultimately, the study concluded that representatives, prevention officers, unions, employers and workers “need to tap a range of factors to help workers negotiate the communication decision that is right for them.” In the coming year, in partnership with ACED (Accommodating and Communicating about Episodic Disabilities), the IWH is looking to provide tools and resources such as Job Demands and Accommodation Planning Tool (JDAPT) and Communication Decision-Making Tool. The tools and resource goals are to be responsive to needs, promote discussion, adopt a disability prevention and support framework, and improve short and long-term workplace outcomes.Screen capture of table from presentation

You can download the presentation at the IWH website here:

“The Institute for Work & Health (IWH) is an independent, not-for-profit research organization based in Toronto, Canada. Our goal is to protect and improve the health and safety of working people by providing useful, relevant research in two key areas: (1) preventing work-related injury and illness, and (2) promoting recovery and work functioning following injury and illness. Our work provides impartial, evidence-based guidance to government policy-makers, health and safety associations, workers and employers, occupational health & safety professionals, disability management professionals and clinicians.”

Visit their website here: