With five million people of working age with hearing loss, and the figure set to increase with the rising retirement age, all employers should have hearing loss on their agenda. However, our major new survey of more than 1,000 people with deafness and hearing loss shows there is still a gulf between the vision of an inclusive workplace that many businesses aspire to, and the reality.
But it doesn’t need to be this way. Through exploring real-life experiences in the workplace, our survey findings reveal some positive changes employers can make to support staff in reaching their full potential.
Employees with hearing loss fear being open about their disability
Often referred to as a ‘hidden’ disability, it may not be obvious that someone has a hearing loss and people may make a conscious choice not to disclose it to others, particularly in the workplace. Our findings demonstrate that this choice is often linked to a fear of how colleagues and managers will treat them and judge their ability to do the job.
“I really worried that people would only see my hearing loss and not see me as a professional to be taken seriously.”
Over half of respondents (54%) said they hadn’t told an employer about their hearing loss. Nearly nine in ten of this group (87%) said they’d avoided telling colleagues, while six in ten (62%) had delayed telling managers. Some of the main reasons for not disclosing hearing loss included:
- concern over how competent others would think they were because of their hearing loss (60%)
- perception that workplace adjustments were unlikely to be made (42%)
- concern that they would be treated unfairly at work (33%)
Almost a fifth of respondents (18%) hid their hearing loss, as they thought they might lose their job. Shockingly, a number of our respondents said they’d been told by an employer that they would be better off not continuing to work (18%), while others had felt pressured into reducing their working hours (12%).
Creating an open environment
Being aware of, and meeting, an employee’s needs is essential in supporting them to thrive in the workplace. Organisations that have successfully supported staff have done so by creating an open and informed culture in which both employers and employees feel comfortable about discussing disability.
“They reassured me that I was worth the bother and that my employer wouldn’t mind making an effort for me.”
Wessex Water, for example, (featured in our mythbusting guide) runs annual equality training for all recruiting managers. They’re encouraged to have open conversations with staff about their needs, which leads to discussion about what equipment is available, and any adjustments required.
The price of poor management
Having to hide hearing loss, not having a supportive manager, or not facilitating appropriate adjustments can have a significant impact on day-to-day experiences at work.
One of the most worrying findings from our survey was that eight in ten of our respondents (79%) said they’d felt stressed at work because of their deafness or hearing loss. And that’s not all; two-thirds (65%) reported feeling isolated and just under half (47%) reported feeling lonely at work because of hearing loss.
“I feel excluded from office chat and often can’t follow at meetings – my colleagues don’t include me.”
For some people, the impact of dealing with such feelings may become too much: over half of our respondents said they’d retired early because of hearing loss (56%). This means that employers are potentially losing out on valuable skills and committed staff – much sooner than they might need to.
Improving deaf awareness
Communication is a central part of both the informal and formal elements of work, whether it’s catching up on office chat at the water cooler or taking part in meetings – and being left out contributes to the isolation and stress felt by employees. Increasing awareness and understanding of hearing loss among the workforce, whether it’s sharing communications tips or running deaf awareness training for staff, can help your employees with hearing loss feel fully included.