Post-lockdown working poses challenges for people with disfigurements

Long before coronavirus forced the world to retreat into homeworking, Brenda Finn knew how it felt to be cut off socially.

Not by a virus but by alopecia, an autoimmune condition that caused her brown shoulder-length hair to fall out and her eyebrows to rub off beneath her fingertips. She was 14 years old and the bullies had a field day. “It got so bad that I ended up being homeschooled. From the age of 14-and-a-half to 17, I’d just refuse to go out. Home was my safety place.”

Ms Finn emerged from her self-isolation and became a children’s entertainer, before switching to retail work. She has health issues that have required her to shield and has spent the past four months in a private “mental bubble”, away from the virus and out of view, with only her partner for company.

Now she faces a choice: whether to brave the London Underground and resume her part-time sales job with the Camden Watch Company, as official guidance allows her to do from August, or stay safe within her infection-free home, and risk once again turning inwards on herself. Before the lockdown, “I did all the customer performance and the jazz hands,” she says. “Now I’m thinking, am I going to be too busy piecing myself together to even get to the shop?”

Becky Hewitt is chief executive of Changing Faces, a UK-based charity that supports people with visible differences. She says that for some of its clients, the lockdown has re-awoken memories of times when they felt uncomfortable meeting strangers. Others have said that they fear forgetting the strategies they rely on to feel socially assured — like losing a “muscle that hasn’t been used for a while” — and some have confided that they have mixed emotions about the lockdown ending. “It’s a weird thing not to miss, but it’s so nice to wake up and not have a debate with myself about how I feel. Do I want to wear a head covering, or am I fine to just go out?” Ms Finn says.

The startled looks and comments that can turn a trip to buy milk from the corner shop into an endurance test, and the prejudice from which such reactions spring, spill over into the workplace.

Phil Gorf suffered hurtful rebuffs as a young jobseeker © Changing Faces

It took decades and therapy for Phil Gorf, a senior manager in DHL Supply Chain’s retail and consumer division, to feel at ease walking down the street. As a young jobseeker he suffered hurtful rebuffs. One interviewer, eyeing his birthmark, said flatly: “I can’t send you out to customers looking like that”. Another, at a utility company, asked whether “that thing on your face is likely to get into the water supply?” Now when he visits warehouses he looks out for workers who could benefit the business, though they may “look a bit different”, but mostly he searches in vain. “Is it that they’re not getting through the interview process, or that they’re too scared to apply?” he asks.

Kathleen Bogart, director of the Disability and Social Interaction Lab at Oregon State University, says that while most employers today know not to voice their prejudices openly, people still make judgments based on physical appearance. “Mostly [employers] do subtle things like not putting an employee in a public-facing role, or not promoting them because people with disfigurements are perceived as not having the social skills demanded of higher-level leaders.” Such is the strength of prejudice, she adds, that people with facial paralysis feel more stigmatised than people with more impairing conditions such as Parkinson’s disease.

James Partridge, founder of Face Equality International © PA

The habits that people carry over from the lockdown will reshape the norms that govern how work gets done, with many commentators predicting a permanent shift towards more virtual working. James Partridge, author of Face It: Facial Disfigurement and My Fight for Face Equality and founder of Face Equality International, a global alliance, says that he engages in “vigorous handshaking, lots of eye-contact and body language gestures” when meeting people.

The routine gives them a few moments to become comfortable with his burn scars “without feeling it’s the big topic in the room”, and allows him to generate some “good vibes”. Over a video-link that is harder, “unless you know the people well”.

Other aspects of video-culture that could create problems for people with disfigurements include the commercial pressure on home-workers to improve their looks with the help of “beauty filters” embedded in the latest videoconferencing technologies, and the boost that the pandemic has given to video-hiring.

Even in normal times, candidates with disfigurements begin on the back foot, observes Ms Hewitt. As well as managing their own nerves and reactions, they must “manage and compensate” for those of the interviewer. Now, that disadvantage could be magnified, warns Prof Bogart, because as office workers shrink into screen-based talking heads, all eyes are on the speaker’s face.

On the upside, there are steps that you can take to reduce the risks of mistaking looks for ability. As a general principle, Anjan Chatterjee, director of the Penn Center for Neuroaesthetics at the University of Pennsylvania, recommends making hiring panels as diverse as possible. Being open to the idea that you may harbour an appearance prejudice, he says, is a step towards overcoming it, because all of us “are terrible judges of our own biases”.

Claire Shepherd manages revenue growth at Avon, the cosmetics company, and suffers from severe eczema. She says that the shared experience of living through the long weeks of lockdown, without access to hairdressers and beauty salons, has given her a way to explain to her colleagues how it feels to live with a visible difference every day. “It’s that slight hesitation that you feel when you leave the door, that feeling of knowing that something isn’t quite right.”

To help end a prejudice that needlessly limits lives, Changing Faces is calling on employers to back its #PledgeToBeSeen campaign and represent the diversity of human appearance through their brands and the staff that they employ in customer-facing roles. In support of Face Equality Week, in May, Avon, a pledge signatory, launched Herstory, a fragrance celebrating women who upend conventional perceptions of beauty. For Ms Finn, who fronted the digital launch of Herstory, knowing that her own story has been shared when so many are feeling isolated and vulnerable is a sign that society is slowly changing for the better. “When we get back out there again, I hope we’ll all be just a bit more aware and more compassionate towards each other’s differences,” she says.

The hidden harms of isolation

An altered appearance increases the stress of life under lockdown in ways that colleagues might not suspect.

For Brenda Finn, self-isolation is a “reminder that memories don’t fully go away, nor the feelings that go with them.” For Claire Shepherd, for whom small environmental changes such as “a seat reshuffle at work” can trigger a painful flare-up, the biggest worry is how her skin will react after so long away when she returns to the office. On a good day, applying ointments and creams adds half an hour to her morning routine, and the same at night. “On a bad day, it’s an extra three hours of treatment . . . on top of all the things: go to work, go to the gym, try to see friends that I’d normally do”.

Already on flexi-hours, she knows that her bosses will support her to manage her condition. With some other employers, she says, “there’s a judgment call — do I spend the time doing the creams — or am I late for work?”