The silent taboo of hearing loss in the workplace
Speakers often decline the use of a microphone in meetings because they deem it unnecessary or don’t want to hear their voices amplified.
For many of us, our first interaction with hearing loss is through our grandparents. But it’s not just something that affects only the elderly. More than 80,000 Irish people of working age are currently dealing with a significant level of hearing loss. By the time we reach 60, one in three of us will have experienced significant hearing loss.
But, while many workplaces already employ health plans that promote caring for our eyes and teeth, hearing health appears to be largely overlooked.
Dealing with hearing loss in the workplace can be extremely stressful. Many people who experience it try initially to ignore the problem, hoping that it’s only a temporary issue or that it will rectify itself.
But letting something like hearing loss to go untreated will only result in further deterioration. For managers, an unexplained decline in productivity, a lack of confidence and depression can all be indicators that someone in your team is suffering from hearing issues.
Employees often are afraid to raise their concerns at work for fear it will affect their employability or have an impact on their career progression. For others, admitting that they are dealing with hearing loss can be embarrassing. In some cases, it can come on suddenly and without warning, leaving them feeling frustrated and unsure of what action to take.
That’s where an appropriate hearing healthcare policy can really help. Without one, we’re putting the onus on the employee to self advocate and it’s very possible that they don’t know where to start.
As one of the last health taboos to be addressed in the workplace, it’s time to bring the conversation around hearing health and hearing loss into the mainstream.
There are signs you can look out for. Some can be seen as early as the interview stage. For example, is the candidate struggling to hear the questions? Other things to look out for include:
- People regularly saying “what?” and “pardon?”;
- Work done incorrectly by normally reliable staff who may have been misheard instructions;
- People who need a lot of the conversation repeated several times;
- Misunderstanding what is being said;
- Complaining that you are not speaking clearly or loudly enough;
- Failing to hear someone address them or to hear the telephone ringing;
- A dislike of going to events, pubs or other noisy environments;
- Turning up the sound on their computer too loud for your comfort;
- Noticeably straining to hear what is being said.
As a manager, there are steps you can take to tackle hearing loss and the challenges it can create for employees within an organisation. Normalising the conversation around the condition is one. That’s where an effective and highly visible hearing health programme can really be of benefit.
Chime, the national charity for deafness and hearing loss, offers a corporate health and wellness programme called the Chime Charter. It includes on-site audiology screening, support services, and information on financial supports for talent with a disability. It can help to identify issues that your employees may be experiencing, helping organisations to create a more equal and effective work environment where everyone has the opportunity to thrive.
Alongside an effective hearing health programme, there are other steps you can take to make your work environment more comfortable, and fair, for employees with hearing loss.
- Promote and advocate: establishing a hearing health programme is great but people need to know about it. Place posters around the office (the back of the bathroom cubicle door is a great spot to catch passive readers) and promote on-site assessments using email, internal comms channels, and incentives.
- Normalise the testing process by encouraging senior members of the team to sign up.
- Don’t drop the mic: introduce an “always on” microphone policy for meetings and events. Speakers often decline the use of a mic because they deem it unnecessary or don’t want to hear their own voices amplified. However, it can benefit anyone who may be hard of hearing. According to the Health Service Executive, 8 per cent of Irish adults need audiological support. By refusing a mic, even at an event with as few as 20 attendees, you are pretty much guaranteed to be alienating someone in the room.
- Be an ally: don’t assume that a person with hearing loss will always self identify. If you’re attending a large meeting or town hall, ask the person presenting to use a microphone. If someone in the crowd asks a question, request that it is repeated by the person with the microphone so everyone can hear what is being said. If you’re hosting a video conference, turn on your screen so people can see you when you’re talking and always speak in the direction of the microphone. Small changes can make a big difference.
- Educate yourself: as a employer, learn about the various grants available to make your workplace more accessible. The workplace equipment/adaption grant from the Department of Employer Affairs and Social Protection offers up to €6,350 towards the cost of adaptations to premises or equipment.
- Create a constructive environment: While improvements in hearing aids have come a long way, they are still not perfect. Some devices can pick up on background noise and intensify it. If an employee has identified that they are experiencing hearing issues, make sure to sit them away from any windows beside thoroughfares with highs volumes of traffic or areas that contain noisemakers such as printers, coffee machines and dishwashers.
Amie Hynes Fitzpatrick is the fundraising manager at Chime, the national charity for deafness and hearing loss. chime.ie
Previously published in The Irish Times.
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