Losing your hearing is scary, disconcerting and challenging, and having to adapt the way you do things and learn new skills such as lip-reading can be exhausting. Dan Williams looks at some of the challenges deaf employees and those with hearing loss can face at work.
Perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of hearing loss is the uncertainty around employment.
Employees can find it hard to tell colleagues about their hearing difficulties, which in turn can lead to increased anxiety and stress.
They may struggle with the strain of listening and increased concentration needed to understand speech, along with distracting tinnitus (ringing, buzzing, or whooshing in the ears).
They may also be afraid to tell their manager in case for fear they will be told they can no longer carry out daily tasks as efficiently as they used to, or even because they are worried they may lose their job.
Common factors with hearing loss
Let’s think about the common factors associated with deafness and hearing loss, and how experiencing these may make an employee feel:
- Inadequate lighting for lip-reading – they may not communicate as well if they cannot see people’s faces.
- People approaching from behind and startling them.
- Headaches due to the extra concentration involved.
- Colleagues mentioning they have not heard them more frequently.
- Being unable to hear people from a distance.
- Concern about hearing levels dropping further.
- Missing contributions during team meetings and when in groups.
- Struggling to hear clearly when background noise is present.
- Increased possibility of ear infections, eczema and/or psoriasis.
- Pain around the ear area meaning a headset cannot be used for telephony.
- When using telephony, struggling to hear clearly as they cannot lip-read and see the speaker’s face.
- Colleagues not understanding and making jokes at their expense, so leading to a loss of confidence and low self-esteem.
How employers can help
Experiencing just one of these symptoms may make an employee feel worried, isolated, excluded, or anxious. If not checked, in time these feelings may escalate and affect both their work and private life.
It is vital they know help is available, as The Equality Act 2010 protects them against disability discrimination and their employer must make reasonable adjustments.
An occupational health team is often a good first port of call. OH practitioners can, for example, carry out an audiology test and, if need be, refer on to more specialist support, such as my company provides.
Overcoming the hurdles
Let’s take a look at the five most familiar challenges that may occur in the workplace for people who have hearing loss, along with practical solutions.
1. “I cannot hear clearly when using telephony”
We all lip-read to a degree but, when a hearing loss is present, we rely on this skill even more so.
When using telephony (mobile or desk phone, or virtual team meetings via a computer), recognise an employee with hearing loss will no longer be able to lip-read. This is a common issue that can be tackled in several possible ways. Options can include:
- Changing the headset if hearing aids are not worn.
- Using direct wireless streaming to the hearing aids (subject to compatibility, but usually possible).
- Assisting with background noise by implementing assistive listening devices.
- Adjusting desk position or working environment.
- Using video communication options such as Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, Zoom and so on.
2. “I am finding it difficult to hear during team meetings or group situations”
Reasonable adjustments here can include will ensure meetings become more accessible and enjoyable.
It is often possible to get advice on where best to sit in meetings and the most beneficial layout – that is something our company provides, for example.
If hearing aids are worn, there is now technology available that can help the user hear more clearly at distance and in one-to-one and group situations.
3. “I suffer from headaches and am tired due to the extra concentration needed when trying to understand speech”
Ensure the employee builds in regular breaks between calls and meetings, so that listening fatigue does not occur – and that their line manager is aware of the need for this.
4. “My colleagues don’t know how to support me in the best way”
Remember the employee’s colleagues may not have ever worked with someone with tinnitus, hearing loss or deafness. So health promotion and education around hearing loss can be invaluable, including how helping colleagues to understand what an employee may need, where their limitations now lie, and how they can best communicate.
Deaf-awareness training to understand how best to support employees can also be valuable in this context.
5. “I have ear infections, tinnitus and eczema in my ears and cannot wear headsets”
This is a common occurrence for employees with hearing loss. Options here can include switching to a different compatible headset or using a desk microphone and loudspeaker from the phone/computer. An external speaker can also be attached to most computers.
Remember, these challenges can cause elevated levels of discomfort, stress, and anxiety – so support may not need to be just about the physical hearing loss.
Ultimately, the key message in all this is – employees should not have to suffer in silence. For every problem there is almost always a workable solution, with HR, occupational health and specialist consultancies such as ours often able to provide answers.