Disclosure, privacy and workplace accommodation of episodic disabilities: Organizational perspectives on disability communication-support processes to sustain employment

Monique A. M. Gignac, Julie Bowring, Arif Jetha, Dorcas E. Beaton, F. Curtis Breslin, Renee‑Louise Franche, Joy C. Macdermid, William S. Shaw, Peter M. Smith, Aaron Thompson, Emile Tompa, Dwayne Van Eerd, Ron Saunders

Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation 2021; 31:153–165


Published: May 2020


Purpose: Employers increasingly are asked to accommodate workers living with physical and mental health conditions that cause episodic disability, where periods of wellness are punctuated by intermittent and often unpredictable activity limitations (e.g., depression, anxiety, arthritis, colitis). Episodic disabilities may be challenging for workplaces which must comply with legislation protecting the privacy of health information while believing they would benefit from personal health details to meet a worker’s accommodation needs. This research aimed to understand organizational perspectives on disability communication-support processes.

Methods: Twenty-seven participants from diverse employment sectors and who had responsibilities for supporting workers living with episodic disabilities (e.g., supervisors, disability managers, union representatives, occupational health representatives, labour lawyers) were interviewed. Five participants also had lived experience of a physical or mental health episodic disability. Participants were recruited through organizational associations, community networks and advertising. Semi-structured interviews and qualitative content analysis framed data collection and analyses, and mapped communication-support processes.

Results: Seven themes underpinned communication-support process: (1) similarities and differences among physical and mental health episodic disabilities; (2) cultures of workplace support, including contrasting medical and biopsychosocial perspectives; (3) misgivings about others and their role in communication-support processes; (4) that subjective perceptions matter; (5) the inherent complexity of the response process; (6) challenges arising when a worker denies a disability; and (7) casting disability as a performance problem.

Conclusions: This study identifies a conceptual framework and areas where workplace disability support processes could be enhanced to improve inclusion and the sustainability of employment among workers living with episodic disabilities.