7 ways to be your best tinnitus advocate at work

Sometimes tinnitus creates challenges that make it harder to work. We might not be able to hear well over the top of the sounds. We might work in a noisy environment and go home with unbearable tinnitus. Or we might find it hard to concentrate because of the distracting noises in our head.

If that’s the case, then consider asking for some help from your team leader or manager. You might have a lovely manager who, with some information and prompting, understands your struggles and is happy to adjust your working practices to make it easier to work with tinnitus. But if you don’t, here are 7 ways to help you get the support you need:

1. Know your rights.
Some employers will assist their employees just because they value them and want them to be happy and productive at work. Others will only do so when the law requires them to. If your employer falls into the latter camp (most will, sadly), check whether you are covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (if you’re in the US), Equality Act 2010 (England, Wales and Scotland), or Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (Northern Ireland).

In a nutshell, you usually need to be an employee, you need to qualify as disabled as defined in the disability legislation in your country, and your employers only need to make adjustments that are reasonable in the scheme of things. Here are some helpful guides for those in the US and in the UK.

2. Prepare ahead. I don’t know about you, but I find it hard to speak off the cuff about something that is really important to me. So I recommend you plan what you’re going to say, and rehearse it. If you have to speak in a face-to-face or on an online meeting, it is useful to type out what you want to say. That way, you can print the sheets to read from, then pass them/email them to the decision-makers after the meeting.

3. Give them the facts. We often say in the tinnitus tribe that you don’t get tinnitus until you get tinnitus. Provide your manager or Human Resources department with information about tinnitus from credible sources, such as the American Tinnitus Association or the British Tinnitus Association

4. Decide what adjustments you need. If you work in the UK, and you’re not sure what would help you, a government scheme called Access to Work can provide a free assessment and suggestions for changes. You do need your manager’s approval to have the assessment, and some organisations will try and steer you towards an assessment from an internal team such as HR. But while they can often support employees with common problems such as a bad back, or eye problems, it’s unlikely that HR will know as much about tinnitus as an assessor will.

5. Explain the impact. Once you are sure your manager understands what tinnitus is, the key thing is that you explain the impact it has on you at work. If you struggle with this, here are some ideas to get your creative juices flowing:

  • My tinnitus is so loud I struggle to hear customers on the phone
  • My tinnitus is so distracting that I have to check and re-check my work to make sure it is right, and so jobs can take me longer
  • My tinnitus reacts to loud noise and gets louder to compete with it. So when Carol from accounts starts cackling with laughter my tinnitus becomes much worse (this was one of my real struggles in an open plan office – names have been changed to protect the innocent!)

6. Create a support team. Get your manager, colleagues and past managers who appreciate the work you do, on your side, so you know you have advocates for you within the organisation. If there is a disability group in your workplace and/or a union rep, ask them for support too. They will already know how your employer handles requests for adjustments because of a health condition and will save you re-inventing the wheel.

7. WIIFM? Even if your employer recognises you tick the boxes in terms of being eligible for reasonable adjustments, they can still delay in implementing them, or try and fob you off with assistive equipment that’s been gathering dust in a cupboard for decades. In any negotiation (and this is essentially what this whole process is) both parties want to know WIIFM – What’s In It For Me? This is your opportunity to explain to your employer in words of one syllable about the huge contribution you have made to the organisation already, and how you can continue to do so with the right adjustments.

This is where some of the tinnitus tribe – especially the Brits – find our toes start to curl, and we wish we could hide under the desk. Many of us have not been taught to promote ourselves in this way, apart from at an occasional interview for work or promotion. Don’t worry – you’re not selling yourself, you’re simply spelling out some of your finer qualities that your employer might not be aware of, or remember!

You might explain, for instance, how the adjustments you are requesting will enable you to remain a super-productive part of a team, or continue to use a certain skillset in your work. If you’re struggling to answer WIIFM, ask a co-worker you trust to help you uncover your undoubted value to the organisation, a valuable skillset or expertise.

If you would like help to ask for adjustments, or to manage the noise and distraction of tinnitus, take a look at my course and my tinnitus coaching.