Disability and non-health-related issues can be a dicey subject for employers, with many not even knowing how to spot them, let alone how to support affected employees. Hannah Uttley investigates
Of the 11 million disabled people in the UK, around half a million use a wheelchair permanently. That’s a very small proportion compared with the overall figure, says Dr Phil Friend of disability training and consultancy firm Phil and Friends, particularly when the proportion of wheelchair users in the workplace is likely to be even lower.
The perception of disability is often widely misunderstood among society in general and is thought of in more physical terms. As independent health consultant John Gillman explains, smaller employers in particular can latch onto physical issues related to disabilities rather than being aware of the mental manifestation.
“People do think about the physical stuff first, partly because that’s just how people think. Everywhere you go the sign for disability is in fact a wheelchair, so it’s in your mind that it’s going to be a physically related thing,” Gillman says. “[Physical disability is] more obvious. So for employers the challenge is that some [employees] may have a problem related to their mental health but it won’t be immediately apparent.”
Indeed, getting to the core of the matter is a common issue for employers, with many managers feeling ill-equipped to approach employees who might be suffering non-work-related health problems.
Changing the conversation around disability can be helpful, and can ensure the employer is aware of the outcome they want.
“Perhaps when they’re thinking about how they can support workers, employers can ask a slightly different question, which is: ‘Do you have a health condition that might affect you at work?’” Friend adds. “Because if it doesn’t affect you at work then it’s not a problem.”
Canada Life marketing director Paul Avis echoes this sentiment: “As soon as you say ‘disabled’ to someone, it’s like a label. So you’ve got to remove the word disability and reflect on what the person actually says.
“Which question would you ask – ‘Are you disabled?’ or ‘Do you have a long-term health condition that affects your day-to-day life?’? You’re likely to get a better take-up rate if you ask the second question. Many disabled people do not see their disability as a barrier – people do not respond well to the word disability.”
Under equality law, employers are required to provide reasonable workplace adjustments for disabled staff. When this duty arises and an employer is made aware of a situation, they are obliged to take necessary steps to remove, reduce or prevent the obstacles a disabled employee or applicant faces.
What is deemed reasonable depends on the factors involved and the size and nature of the organisation.
In Croft Vets vs Butcher, for example, the employer was found to have failed its duty to provide reasonable adjustments for an employee with depression by not acting upon a doctor’s recommendation to pay for private psychiatric services.
Pennington Manches associate director Tim Randles explains that one of the greatest difficulties in dealing with disability in the workplace is that people must be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, as the Croft Vets trial demonstrated.
“Within the context of that case it was partly because the psychiatrist was saying that with some CBT [cognitive behavioural therapy], the person would get back to work. The employer’s decision not do to anything about it was considered to have breached its obligation, as it would have been a reasonable adjustment in this case.”
Gillman adds: “The employer not only lost the case on discrimination, but also on constructive dismissal. For employers there is an element of being defensive as well as being a good employer, which I think is important.”
So, if making a reasonable adjustment could end up costing an employer anywhere between a few hundred up to thousands of pounds, should organisations go further than the absolute minimum to provide a suitable culture for any number of employees they might be unaware of having health issues or disabilities?
Gillman believes so: “As an employer you can be merely compliant and do the absolute minimum, or you can make the way you look after people who have a disability a cultural thing within your organisation. It’s part of the brand values.
“I believe this is a philosophical thing that diversity in the workplace is good and that employers that self-evidently look after their people are going to get better levels of engagement.”
Group Risk Development (Grid) research published in 2012 revealed that following the abolition of the default retirement age (DRA) in 2011, while employers were largely unconcerned with the potential health effects and costs associated with older workers, many were worried about absence management.
“Put simply, businesses fear that older workers are more likely to be sick than their younger colleagues and will have less incentive to return to work,” Grid spokesperson Katharine Moxham said at the time.
More generally, income protection is noted as a particularly beneficial product for any employees with health issues or disabilities, as insurers are increasingly adopting a full-circle approach to incorporating rehabilitation and employee assistance programmes.
“The support offered by group income protection providers for two weeks for mental health and four weeks for physical health, for example, means the employer is, in effect, outsourcing the vocational rehabilitation to specialists that are not only experienced but also have financial motivation to engage the employer to go back to work,” Canada Life’s Avis explains.
“A limited-payment income protection scheme of, say, two years’ half salary can be as little as 0.25% of salary costs, so for that cost you get free vocational rehabilitation within the insurance product.”
The loosening of state support for sickness and disability benefits will also have a significant impact on how employers view disability within their workforce, Randles believes.
He says: “Capability is the only basis on which people can be retired, and I think we haven’t thought that through. There’s a need for lots of people to continue working. Our benefits system is set up so that people are being encouraged to continue to work, so people with mental health challenges are almost finding themselves being pressured into working.”
There is also more organisations can do to support employees in the here and now of the working environment.
According to a survey conducted by Macmillan Cancer Support and YouGov last year, almost four in ten people who returned to work following cancer treatment suffered prejudice, compared with 23% in 2010. A further 37% said they had experienced some form of discrimination at the hands of their employer or colleagues.
Often misunderstood by many employers is the fact many conditions, including cancer, mean employees are protected under equality law at the point of diagnosis, meaning employers must be on their toes.
Friend believes line managers, executives and the board should all be involved in the process of setting out a procedure to ensure disability discrimination is not present within an organisation.
He explains: “Why should a line manager know how to deal with this when they’re not supposed to be social workers or doctors? We need to equip line managers to understand that they are perfectly entitled to talk to somebody about an employee’s performance. And if it’s a health issue that’s affecting performance then they should raise it and talk about it.
“We do that by offering managers some fairly basic training in how to raise the issue and talk about it in a non-patronising way.”
Reconsidering the world and the extent to which it is adapted for able-bodied people is one way employers can start to think differently about the workplace and how it might be favouring workers without health issues, Friend adds.
Disability and health issues are now too prevalent for employers to ignore, he concludes: “When we all lived in institutions or worked in sheltered workshops, this wasn’t an issue for employers.
“Now people become disabled when they’re at work, which means unless we grab this properly we’re going to lose some really good staff. So it’s mainly about retaining people. And we should be making sure we are attracting the best talent from the widest talent pool – we should not be excluding even by accident.”
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