Around 220,000 people of working age in the UK identify epilepsy as their ‘main’ health condition, making it one of the most common serious neurological conditions in the world. Yet despite its encompassing nature – spanning any age and background – a glaring employment gap shockingly persists. WPR takes a look at this demoralising deterrent for patients, and how fairer access to, and treatment in the workplace, have therefore been prompted.

87 people are diagnosed with epilepsy every day, but the fluctuating and invisible condition impacts the lives of individuals differently. While some people are unable to work at all, depending on how epilepsy affects their daily life, many can work with minimal adjustments. Despite this, patients commonly encounter hurdles when applying for jobs or within the workplace – reporting that disclosing their epilepsy at the interview stage can have a negative impact on their application, and at times, they also experience discrimination from their employer or colleagues.

On the Down Low

According to recent government findings highlighted by national charity Epilepsy Action, statistics have demonstrated that as high a proportion of 66 per cent of working-age people with epilepsy are not in work. The employment rate for people with epilepsy is far lower than for those with most other disabilities, according to data from the Office for National Statistics. The employment rate for people with epilepsy as their main condition is only 34 per cent compared to 53 per cent for people with disabilities generally, and 81 per cent for those without a disability.

People with epilepsy are also more likely to be economically inactive than people with any other disability and are more than twice as likely as those without the condition to be unemployed. Furthermore, research by the Trade Union Congress has highlighted that people with epilepsy in work are paid on average 11.8 per cent less than non-disabled workers. This means that not only are people with epilepsy less likely to have a paid job, but when they do, they earn less than their non-disabled peers.

Further depicting the difficulties for those with epilepsy seeking to work, and the extent as to which their enthusiasm can simultaneously be impeded, Philip Lee, Chief Executive at Epilepsy Action, said, ‘These figures are very worrying, yet they only skim the surface. Despite its prevalence, epilepsy is still a stigmatised condition in the workplace. From the initial application and job interview process to the day-to-day experience of working, many people with epilepsy encounter clear barriers and discrimination. This treatment can lead to fear of dismissal and even cause some people to hide their condition.’

Addressing the Issues

Why are – in so many cases – the career aspirations of those with epilepsy being curbed?

In a recent Institute for Employment Studies report, commissioned by Epilepsy Action, employers admitted that they were reluctant to hire people with epilepsy, largely due to concerns over safety. This is backed up by data that reveals that more than three-quarters (76 per cent) of people have not been offered any training on how to support a colleague when they have a seizure at work. This is despite current UK regulations requiring employers to provide staff with the required health and safety information and training.

Smashing the Stigma

It’s time for change – to come together and make a start on closing this inequality gap which has lingered for far too long already.

Speaking on how we can turn frustration into transformation, Philip explained, ‘Increased knowledge and a change in attitudes are the only ways we can start to close this inequality gap. We are calling on employers to take simple steps to help support people with epilepsy. They should encourage transparency from the outset and make it their business to learn more about epilepsy. It’s only then that they can improve workplace culture and create a level, more inclusive, playing field to help people with epilepsy pursue the career they want.’

Making a Difference

Epilepsy Action is currently developing a toolkit to help businesses support their staff with epilepsy and delivers bespoke training sessions to employers.

For more information, visit www.epilepsy.org.uk/awarenesstraining or call the Epilepsy Action freephone helpline on 0808 800 800 5050.

Neil’s Story

Neil, 57, from Oxfordshire, has been looking for work for the last two years and describes it as a demoralising experience. He went for a kitchen porter vacancy last year and said that the interview was going well until he mentioned that he had epilepsy – something the Job Centre had advised him to do. He has sleep seizures, which may require him to rest for a few hours in the morning. Neil explained that the atmosphere immediately changed and the interviewer told him, ‘No, I want someone 100 per cent and normal’ and wouldn’t let him explain any further.

Neil added, ‘Some employers are really great, some less so. I think when employers do first- aid courses, they should also learn about how to help someone having a seizure. It’s so horrible just sitting at home – I want to work but it’s so hard getting past the interviews when they find out I have epilepsy. All I want to do is work and wish someone would give me a chance.’