By Kate Nash OBE
Many employees with a disability or ill health are hesitant to share information about their condition, which then impacts on their ability to be themselves at work. It’s understandable why people are reluctant to share even though it means they may feel less able to be authentic in the workplace.
From my own experience, as well as from supporting PurpleSpace’s community of members over the past few years, I know that it can seem like a daunting feat. Over ⅓ of disabled employees have said that it’s a big step to associate themselves with the word ‘disability’. There’s fear of judgement or being treated differently, of being vulnerable and yet feeling ignored.
But being authentic at work isn’t a one stop shop; it’s a continuous path that can be life changing.
The ability to express who you are at work includes honesty around the limitations that disability/ill health has on you. This shouldn’t be bad or negative; discussing your disability/ill health or your needs encourages openness. Whilst more open discussion helps employees with disability/ill health to be themselves more at work, your condition also doesn’t have to be the be all and end all of who you are. Your impairment or condition doesn’t have to define you. But framing disability/ill health and discussions around it as a part of life, rather than something inherently bad can make all the difference. Of course, that’s easier said than done - many people resist the label of disability because it’s viewed as negative. But this doesn’t have to be the case; changing your framing in a way that supports you to be genuine is forever a path of practicing, not perfection.
To me, one of the most important aspects of authenticity at work is how it builds confidence. Employees with disability/ill health are enabled to be the best that they can be. It might be through requesting certain adjustments; it might be knowing that you don’t have to hide a significant part of your life and can discuss your condition/ill health with a line manager or other disabled employees. You can’t be the very best you can be without getting what you need. Through feeling like you can be yourself at work, you’re probably more likely to be more motivated, or feel like you’re not holding back as much, increasing your inner confidence. And as we’ve seen from our community of change makers at PurpleSpace, this can in turn increase the confidence of others. From PurpleSpace Ambassador, Darren Rowan, Annette Moody from Secro or Tassja Wiseman from the Welsh Government and many more, we’ve seen how one person being open about their experience of disability encourages others to also feel like they can be more authentic.
Encouraging authenticity can take shape in many forms; networks and employers are crucial to this process. As mentioned earlier, framing can make such a difference. One of the key findings from my book, Secrets and Big News, was that people’s decision to share information about their disability or ill health is related to both someone’s personal experience of disability mapped to their employer’s track record on disability. Through actions such as storytelling campaigns, improving workplace adjustment processes, specific messaging on the value of disabled employees in the workplace and investing more in disability networks/resource groups, there can be an abundance of more disabled employees being themselves at work.
Being your authentic self at work can be many small steps that allow you to feel more free and confident in the workplace, whilst (intentionally or unintentionally) helping others to do the same. It’s not easy, but it is forever a practice, and a path of learning and growing. If you’re someone with a disability at work, I hope this piece encourages you to take whatever step you can to feel like you can be more genuine at work. If you’re an ally, or someone who already feels authentic at work, I hope this piece encourages you to think about what you, your employer, and your disability employee network can do to help others down the same path of authenticity.
For more on authenticity in the workplace, take a look at our June 2021 Leadership Theme.
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