Why working from home is a challenge for people with hearing loss

Lydia Smith
Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
During the coronavirus pandemic, remote working can pose its own challenges for many people with hearing loss. (Getty)

Remote working isn’t easy. Whether it’s an unreliable internet connection, feeling out of the loop with colleagues and bosses or the difficulty of keeping your work and personal lives separate, there are several pitfalls to home-working.

Many people are feeling the strain during the coronavirus pandemic. A survey of 1,250 UK workers in March found that a third of UK adults who are working from home reported a decline in mental wellbeing, with 46% saying they felt isolated and two in five parents feeling more stressed.

Not everyone is feeling the effects of the lockdown equally, though. For people with hearing loss, working from home can be even harder.

“During the coronavirus pandemic, remote working can pose its own challenges for many people with hearing loss. The increased use of conference calls and online communication platforms can be stressful and exhausting for those struggling to follow the conversation,” says Francesca Oliver, audiology specialist at Action on Hearing Loss. “Following video conversations when lipreading, having no live subtitling available can be exhausting.”

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Video calls can be tiring at the best of times, particularly if there are a lot of people involved and everyone is trying to speak at once. Lip-reading during a Zoom call is even harder, requiring an individual to concentrate on the movement of the lips and sounds they can hear to work out what is being said. It can also be harder to interpret the visual cues needed for effective communication, such as body language, gestures and facial expressions. 

A breakdown in communication not only impacts people’s ability to work, but it can also be isolating and stressful and can lead to people withdrawing.

There are 12 million people in the UK with hearing loss, including an estimated 900,000 with severe or profound hearing loss. Yet according to a recent survey by Action on Hearing Loss, respondents gave an average score of four out of 10 in terms of the equipment and support they have to fulfill their potential at work.

Some 57% of those surveyed said this was because their employers or colleagues simply didn’t have the knowledge to help.

So what can employers do to better support employees with hearing loss who are working from home?

Firstly, it’s important to foster good deaf awareness and be aware that the usual methods which employees with hearing loss rely on — such as lip reading — may not be possible when working remotely.

Simple communication tips such as talking clearly, saying your name before speaking and checking if anyone needs communication support also go far in making sure everyone is able to participate.

There are also ways to make virtual meetings more accessible, too. Use an agenda to give a clear reference point for everyone to follow and make sure only one person is talking at a time — something that all participants are likely to appreciate too. Visual cues and text boxes can also help.

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Make sure video calls are carried out in a well-lit area, but don’t sit with a source of light behind you as this can put your face into shadow. When speaking, face the camera and don’t cover your mouth.

Indicate when you are going to change the subject and if you are asked for clarification on something, don’t repeat yourself, but try to rephrase the point instead. If possible, nominate a note taker and send the notes out via email at the end of the meeting. If you are using voice calls to speak to colleagues or hold meetings, you may find speech to text apps or software helpful as they allow you to read a transcription of everything that is said in a conversation.

“With hearing loss affecting around 12 in 100 employees, it’s crucial to create a culture where people with hidden disabilities feel supported in their remote workspace,” Oliver says.

“That’s why we’re calling on employers to appoint a hearing loss champion — someone who understands the day-to-day impact of hearing loss. They will break down barriers for employees with deafness, tinnitus and hearing loss who are working from home, by providing other staff with deaf awareness tips.”