To tell or not to tell?

Do you hide your hearing loss from the people you work with? According to research from Action on Hearing Loss, many people do. In a survey of more than 1000 people, the organization found that more than half of those surveyed delayed telling work colleagues about their hearing loss. Many feared that if they told, they could be fired (18%) or treated unfairly (33%), while others believed that adjustments wouldn’t be made to help anyway (42%). The research also shows that of those who were upfront about their hearing loss during the recruitment phase, 43% felt they never, or hardly ever, received reasonable adjustments. Of course, this isn’t just bad news for working-aged people with hearing loss — about 37.5 million of them in the US alone — it’s also bad for their workplaces.

The reasons for telling people at work about your hearing difficulties are clear: If they don’t know there is a problem, they can’t do their part to make communication easier and you will miss out on more than you need to. Communication goes two ways, so everyone needs to know about the challenges and solutions that will influence its success. After all, your colleagues need to communicate well with you to do their job too, and your employer needs you to be as productive as possible. 

For the 65% of you who feel isolated at work due to your hearing loss, another benefit of sharing your hearing status is that coworkers may engage more meaningfully with you if they understand your difficulty and know how to help. Whether during lunch, in a meeting, or while walking through the workplace, if colleagues know you hear better when, for example, they face you, speak one at a time, and articulate, everyone can get more out of conversations.

As sobering as the statistics from Action on Hearing Loss seem, the inverse is also true – if 33% of people with hearing loss think they may be treated unfairly if they tell, that means the clear majority believe they’d be treated fairly. Still, action is needed by employees, employers and policy-makers to grow the number of people with hearing loss in the workplace who feel secure and properly accommodated.

The average age of workers is rising and 11% of workers in their 50s have hearing loss, in addition to almost 25% of those in their 60s. It’s crucial that businesses take an active role in providing a sense of security for people to disclose hearing loss and make reasonable adjustments for better communication when necessary. Adjustments may come in the form of communication devices, adjusted seating plans, awareness training, or in some countries, including hearing loss treatment in benefits plans. Helping your company identify communication barriers like unnecessary noise, poor lighting, and visual distractions helps both them and you. So, it seems fitting that both of you must take responsibility for minimizing workplace obstacles. It’s natural that if you’re struggling with phone conversations, meetings, and discussions with colleagues, your performance will suffer. By speaking up, you can more reasonably expect to get help in the form of such things as an amplified phone, interpreter, loop system, or quieter working space. Safety items like visual fire alarms may also be added.

As our workforce ages and more people speak up about their hearing loss, employers will more clearly see the benefits of making adjustments and more workplaces will be motivated to become friendlier to those with hearing difficulties. If your company doesn’t respond fairly to your request for reasonable accommodation, remember that you have legal protections in many countries. In the US, it’s the Americans with Disabilities Act, and in England, Wales and Scotland it’s the Equality Act 2010. Remember, the Equality Act only protects you from disability discrimination if your employer knows you have a disability. So speak up.