5 Things to Know About Invisible Illness in the Workplace

woman with invisible illness at work

Adobe Stock

Profile Picture
Laura Berlinsky-Schine2.3k

There are more than 100 million people living with an invisible illness, according to information from Disabled World. These “hidden” diseases and disabilities can affect people in myriad ways, from making it difficult to work to interfering with their day-to-day lives. What’s more, because it may seem like the individual is perfectly fine, she often doesn’t receive the same level of understanding and accommodations as people with more obvious conditions. 

Whether you’re living with an invisible illness or know someone who has one, here’s what to know.

What does invisible illness mean?

An invisible illness is a medical or psychological condition that isn’t obvious to others, such as a chronic medical condition like fibromyalgia or a disorder like anxiety or depression. While other people may be aware of someone experiencing symptoms, in general, there are no or minimal visible markers that someone has one. Still, having an invisible illness can be extremely difficult and often hinder the individual’s ability to complete tasks that may come easily to others. 

Invisible illnesses are sometimes called invisible disabilities, although the latter term tends to refer exclusively to chronic conditions. An invisible illness can refer to a chronic condition, but the term also encompasses some illnesses that may be treatable, such as cancer. 

29 invisible illnesses

What are some invisible illnesses? Is anxiety an invisible illness? What about cancer? Here are 29 invisible illnesses that affect people. Keep in mind that this list is by no means exhaustive — there are many invisible illnesses.

  1. ADHD
  2. Allergies
  3. Anxiety disorders
  4. Arachnoiditis
  5. Asperger syndrome
  6. Asthma
  7. Bipolar disorder
  8. Cancer 
  9. Chronic fatigue syndrome
  10. Crohn’s disease
  11. Cystic Fibrosis
  12. Depression
  13. Diabetes
  14. Epilepsy
  15. Fibromyalgia
  16. Hearing loss
  17. HIV/AIDS
  18. Hypothyroidism
  19. Infertility 
  20. Lupus
  21. Lyme Disease
  22. Migraines
  23. Multiple Sclerosis
  24. Rheumatoid Arthritis
  25. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
  26. Rheumatoid arthritis
  27. Sleep disorders
  28. Sjogren’s Syndrome
  29. Traumatic brain injury

Impact on the workplace and workforce.

Invisible illnesses are very common throughout the world and can affect people and their work lives in a multitude of ways. Some employees may need particular accommodations; for example, a person who frequently suffers from migraines may need access to a dark room on occasion. Because invisible illnesses by definition can’t be seen, it may be difficult for some employers to understand why such accommodations are necessary.

Still, many workers living with these conditions may have trouble dealing with symptoms of their illness while trying to do their jobs. They may suffer from low energy and feel drained. A person with back pain may have difficulty sitting in a chair all day. Someone with anxiety may experience frequent panic attacks. Employees may need to attend frequent doctors’ appointments. In general, these illnesses can impact productivity.

What to do if you have one and your boss doesn’t know.

1. Consider disclosing your illness to your employer.

Your business is your business. However, if a chronicle invisible illness is going to impact your work — for example, if you need to leave early for doctor’s appointments frequently — then you should consider telling your boss; otherwise, she will probably notice and believe you’re just not able or willing to meet your responsibilities. 

If you’re not comfortable speaking directly with your manager, you can discuss your condition with your HR representative. This is a good idea even if you do decide to disclose it to your boss, so you have it formally documented with the employer. In either case, you only need to disclose as much as is necessary for them to know as it relates to your job — if you’re not comfortable sharing certain details, you don’t have to.

2. Know your legal rights.

You’re entitled to certain accommodations and protections by law. Read up on the ADA to see if your condition is protected and how your employer must accommodate you. (This is another reason why it’s sometimes necessary to tell your employer about your condition.) It can also be helpful to consult with an attorney who specializes in employment and/or disabilities. While some employers may be more than willing to assist you, others can be more reluctant to do so.

3. Tell others only if you’re comfortable with doing so.

Again, this is completely up to you. If you’re concerned about others judging you or reacting in a way that makes you uncomfortable or upset, you can choose to keep it to yourself. If you fear that your illness may become apparent, you may want to get ahead of it by sharing on an as-needed basis. 

4. Find a support system.

It can be helpful to have an ally at work, someone with whom you can share your struggles and serve, at the very least, as a sympathetic ear. Not everyone will be understanding, so having this support system will allow you to count on someone when you’re having a difficult day or just need to vent.

5.  Request accommodations.

Again, depending on your circumstances, you may be entitled to certain accommodations under the ADA. For example, you might request the ability to work from home on occasion if it’s difficult for you to make the commute. Even if your employer isn’t legally required to make the accommodations you’re requesting, some might be understanding and willing to assist you anyway.

6. Get it in writing.

Make sure you document any communication you have about your invisible illness with your employer, including requests for accommodations and your disclosure of the condition. This will protect you in case you need to take any legal action later on.

7. Put yourself first.

Your health is a priority. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep, eating well and paying attention to and addressing any symptoms that arise immediately. See your doctor if your condition becomes too severe to manage on your own. And if work is taking a toll on your health, raise the issue with your employer sooner rather than later.

What to do if you manage someone with an invisible illness.

1. Make sure you’re being legally compliant.

For example, in many cases, you’ll need to provide accommodations if employees request them. Understand your employees’ rights — this could save you from employee dissatisfaction or even legal trouble.

2. Create a supportive environment.

This means supporting your employees, as well as establishing an environment that makes all your employees comfortable. You might initiate conversations about disabilities, host Disability Awareness Day events or start a task force dedicated to inclusivity. Don’t forget about small gestures, too, such as alleviating the workload of an employee who’s struggling with an invisible illness by not requiring certain responsibilities that are difficult for her. 

3. Offer resources to all employees.

Ensure that your employees receive the help they need throughout the day. Additionally, make sure all employees are doing their part by offering or requiring training on issues like unconscious bias.

4. Ask for suggestions.

No one expects you to have all the answers. Check in with your employees to see how you’re doing as a manager and what you might do to better accommodate their needs.

5. Respect your employees’ privacy.

Never pry. An employee will disclose as much to you about her condition as she wants, and if that’s not very much, respect her wishes to be private. Don’t ask for more information, unless it’s essential for work or legal purposes. 


Below are organizations and websites that help people with invisible illnesses and chronic conditions:

Don’t miss out on articles like these. Sign up!