Deafness and hearing loss in the workplace – a closer look

Did you know that in the UK, about one in five adults is affected by deafness, hearing loss, or tinnitus? That’s around 12 million people. While these figures might be surprising, they highlight an important aspect of our diverse society and the various needs within any workforce.

To break it down: there are approximately 10.1 million people in England, 1 million in Scotland, 610,000 in Wales, and 320,000 in Northern Ireland who are living with these conditions. This widespread prevalence suggests that hearing loss is quite common, and it’s likely that in your workplace, you already collaborate with someone who is experiencing it.

Age does influence these numbers significantly. For instance, over 40% of individuals over the age of 50 experience some degree of hearing loss, and this increases to 70% for those over 70. As our workforce ages and people remain in their careers longer, understanding and accommodating hearing loss becomes increasingly important.

Interestingly, about 1.2 million adults have hearing loss severe enough that following everyday conversational speech is a challenge for them. There’s a good chance that some of your colleagues or employees might be among those who navigate hearing challenges. Recognising this is the first step to cultivating a more inclusive and supportive workplace environment, where everyone has the opportunity to contribute effectively.*

Understanding mental health disparities

Indeed, there is a notable connection between deafness and mental health, a topic that merits greater attention and understanding. Deafness can significantly influence mental health primarily through the social and communicative barriers it introduces, which can lead to feelings of isolation and misunderstanding.

The disparity in mental health care for deaf individuals often stems from a lack of awareness among health service providers about the specific needs and cultural nuances of the deaf community. For instance, imagine a scenario of a deaf person missing their name being called in a doctor’s waiting room. Such occurrences, while seemingly minor, can compound over time, leading to increased stress, frustration, and a feeling of being overlooked by society.

Statistically, the mental health impact on the deaf community is significant. Studies indicate that 40% of deaf children face mental health challenges, a figure noticeably higher than the 25% observed in their hearing peers. This trend extends into adulthood, with numerous studies across different countries showing a higher incidence of mental health issues among deaf adults compared to the hearing population. This increase is closely linked to experiences of social exclusion and restricted access to educational and employment opportunities.*

These statistics reflect real experiences and highlight the need for a more inclusive and sensitive approach when it comes to the workplace.

Communication is key!

Effective communication is the cornerstone of a thriving, inclusive workplace. Workplaces that take proactive steps to incorporate British Sign Language (BSL) into daily interactions sends a powerful message of inclusivity and respect for diversity.

Imagine the impact on a deaf employee or one experiencing hearing loss when their colleagues make an effort to communicate in their language. This gesture demonstrates empathy and a commitment to creating an organisational environment where everyone feels equally understood. For someone whose hearing may be diminishing, observing their peers adapt and maintain open lines of communication can be incredibly reassuring.

Businesses that lead in these efforts set a standard for what it means to respect and celebrate diversity in all its forms. So, without further ado, let’s learn some BSL!

British Sign Language for your workplace

Below are some basic signs to help bridge the communication gap with your deaf or hard-of-hearing employees.*

  • Yes – Move head up and down.
  • No – Move head from left to right.
  • Agree – Either close your hand into a fist and rock it up and down OR touch all knuckles together and nod head up and down.
  • Disagree – Close your hand into a fist and rock it from left to right OR touch all knuckles together and pull them apart with a head shake from left to right.
  • Thank you / Please – Place your fingertips, with the palm facing your face, onto your chin and move it forwards.
  • Sorry – Close your hand to make a fist and make a circular motion in front of your chest.
  • How are you? – Fingertips of flat hands run up chest and then hands move forwards with thumbs up. Use facial expression to indicate that you are asking a question.
  • Work – Both flat hands at right angles – one above the other. Bottom edge of dominant hand taps top edge of other hand.
  • Busy – Same hand shape for work, but dominant hand slides over the hand beneath it. Puff out your cheeks to indicate how you are feeling.
  • Meeting – Extended index finger on both hands makes small circular movements close to each other in front of body.
  • Email you – Index finger projects quickly towards the other person.
  • Email me – Index finger projects quickly to yourself.
  • Ready? – Both thumbs touch your chest on either side, the rest of your fingers remain stuck out. Use facial expression to indicate the question.
  • (Can I) help you? – Place your dominant hand in the shape of a thumbs up into the centre of your palm. Push towards the other person. Use facial expression to indicate a question.
  • (Can you) help me? – Place your dominant hand in the shape of a thumbs up into the centre of your palm. Pull towards your chest. Use facial expression to indicate a question.
  • Weekend – Fingers interlock to form finger spelt ‘W’ then closed hands come together touching at the knuckles.
  • Boss – Index finger extended on both hands pointing forwards at shoulder height. Hands twist back so that index fingers point upwards.
  • Friend – Primary hand clasps secondary hand. Hands make a small up and down movement in front of body – like you are shaking hands with yourself.
  • What? – Extended index finger of primary hand held in front of body, does a small shake/waggle side to side.
  • When? – Fingertips of primary hand tap on the side of your cheek. Use facial expression to indicate it’s a question.
  • Where? Both flat hands with palms facing upwards make circular movements in front of body. Use facial expression to indicate it’s a question.
  • Who? Extended index finger on primary hand held vertically to side of head and makes small circular movements. Keep using those facial expressions!

Schedule a team meeting today to practice these essential signs together. Let’s make work a more inclusive place.


Editor at Workplace Wellbeing Professional | Website | + posts

Joanne is the editor for Workplace Wellbeing Professional and has a keen interest in promoting the safety and wellbeing of the global workforce. After earning a bachelor's degree in English literature and media studies, she taught English in China and Vietnam for two years. Before joining Work Well Pro, Joanne worked as a marketing coordinator for luxury property, where her responsibilities included blog writing, photography, and video creation.