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Spoon theory, and how it can help businesses

Spoon theory was developed by activist and writer Christine Miserandino, to describe the experience of living with chronic illness and disability. 

Since its inception, it has been used by a number of disability activists, healthcare providers and charity organisations including the NHS and Scope, to help teach non-disabled and non-chronically ill people what it is like to live with a debilitating illness, disease or condition.

The birth of spoon theory

Spoon theory began when Christine was sitting with a friend in a restaurant. The friend asked her what it was like to live with Lupus, and Christine explained the pain and the medication, but her friend continued to ask, wanting to know what it was like to be continually unwell. 

Christine collected a number of spoons from around the surrounding tables, and presented them to her friend. She explained that as a chronically ill person, she had to make choices about what to do each day, because she had a limited amount of energy. Christine told her friend that these spoons represented the energy she had; she had a limited amount of spoons, and that everything she wanted to do each day would cost her a spoon.

Her friend listed off a number of tasks, and Christine periodically stopped her, breaking down the cost of reaching up high and down low, using buttons when her hands are in pain, making yourself presentable when your hair is falling out, standing on a train, typing at her computer for too long, eating when you feel nauseous.

Her friend ran out of spoons long before she had completed everything she wanted to, and Christine’s point was made; that living with disability and chronic illness was a continual fight to prioritise what she had the energy for, and that for many non-disabled and non-chronically ill people, this struggle was completely invisible.

Spoon theory for businesses

For business owners and employers, understanding spoon theory can be enormously beneficial for your disabled and chronically ill employees. For non-disabled and non-chronically ill people, tasks like walking up the stairs, standing on the train or waiting at the bus stop don’t register as tasks at all; these are simply things we do without thinking.

Understanding spoon theory can help you better support your disabled and chronically ill employees, as it helps the invisible become visible. By increasing our awareness around spoon theory and the kinds of struggles that disabled and chronically ill employees face, we can adapt our behaviour and our workplaces to help improve their day to day. 

If one or more of your employees are disabled or chronically ill, you can use spoon theory to start an in-depth conversation about their experience at work. 

  • I’ve recently become familiar with spoon theory; is spoon theory something that you’re aware of?

  • Are there parts of your workday that use spoons that you think I might be unaware of?

  • Are there any adjustments that we could make that could reduce the amount of spoons you use?

Remember, it is always the disabled or chronically ill person’s choice as to what they share, and with whom. If you’d like some more help in talking about disability, check out ACAS’ guide to talking about disability here.

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