Disclosing your hearing loss at work

at the company meeting

For some people this is a big hurdle; I know it was for me.

I felt able to talk about my hearing loss with my family and friends, (in fact it was often a bit of a joke about which bits of a conversation I’d missed and misinterpreted).  However, work was different.

In the comfort of my own family, I was able to discuss it openly, and everyone was simply accommodating.  Indeed, it was recognised as a family trait.  Most of the women in my family had developed deafness from their early to middle  age, and I was simply the latest in the line.  I had a grudging acceptance of the hand that fate had dealt me.

However, work was different.  In a stressful, performance driven environment, hearing loss was something that I felt was a sign of weakness.  I was reluctant to talk to colleagues about it, and obstinately wanted to demonstrate that it simply wasn’t a problem; that it didn’t affect my work, or my performance, or how good I was. In summary, I worried that people might think I just couldn’t do my job properly.

I reached a significant turning point in the middle of a really important meeting, when I realised that I could hear very little of what was being debated at the other end of the meeting table.  On being asked for my own views on the debate, I had an overwhelming panic over my failure to understand what had been discussed, and the fact that my hearing loss had been exposed.  It wasn’t of course, and my response was probably so confident that no-one noticed anything wrong.  Its difficult to put into words the range of emotions I felt that day, but it felt that something fundamental had changed and the threat to my self confidence was potentially crippling.

I somehow found the courage to openly confide in my manager that I felt I could no longer cope with some situations at work.  To my relief, he was incredibly supportive.  Whilst  I had worried that he would think me no longer capable of doing my job, he saw the employee who had always been a loyal, hard-working, problem solving member of the team and told me that he had utmost confidence that I’d continue to be that, pledging his support to me.

I used the opportunity to find out more about Access to Work, who came and did a workplace assessment and provided me with  a range of assistive equipment.  I researched hearing loss and its impact, talked to others in the same situation and joined a hearing loss support group.  I also underwent the hearing test, that resulted in me moving from having only one hearing aid to two; a major turning point in how I defined myself.  These acts, along with a conscious decision to talk more openly to colleagues in the office about my deafness (and doing some small scale deaf awareness raising), enabled me to regain my confidence.  I slowly felt empowered to work differently, ensuring that I sat in the middle of tables rather than at the end, and asking people to talk one at a time so I could concentrate fully and be able to look at them whilst they were speaking.

Why do I mention all of this?  Because I saw some recently published research relating to disclosure of hearing loss. The findings included the discovery that men and women tend to use different strategies for disclosure, and that lead to me looking up further research on the topic.

There’s not a lot to be found and what I did find was from Canada[1][2], highlighting the challenges and range of factors involved in disclosing your hearing loss to work colleagues. They include perceived stigma, the potential threat to one’s identity and the need to disclose in a supportive environment (amongst others).

Its clear that we each decide to disclose based on the circumstances we find ourselves in, and I was lucky to find myself so well supported by my colleagues. If you aren’t currently open about your hearing loss at work, then I guess you will need to make an assessment on whether or not to make a disclosure based on such things as your workplace policies, the strength of your relationship with your line manager and on how you see other people in your organisation being treated.

However, admitting to yourself that you have a problem, has to be the starting point for any coping strategy for managing your hearing loss at work. It doesn’t mean that you’re incompetent or that you can’t do your job. It just means that you may have to learn how to do it differently.

What have your experiences been in disclosing your hearing loss?


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References

[1] Southall, K. et al (2011) Factors that influence disclosure of hearing loss in the workplace. International journal of audiology, vol. 50, no. 10, p. 699-707

[2] Jennings, M.B. et al (2013) Social identity management strategies used by workers with acquired hearing loss.  Work (Reading, Mass.), vol. 46, no. 2, p. 169-180


Header image adapted from  “Jordan Hall at the company meeting” by Infusionsoft, CC-BY-2.0.

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