Disability at work: time for action

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A diverse workforce offers greater creativity, innovation and productivity, making it more important than ever for employers to take positive action to recruit, retain and support disabled workers.

To say that HR teams and health and safety colleagues have had to become more agile over the past two years is a huge understatement. I honestly can’t remember a time when change has come so quickly and so frequently. First Brexit, then a pandemic, next a UK-wide skills shortage, then more pandemic, and now war and instability in Europe, and rising costs of living at home.

You may ask what that has to do with disability and mental health in the workplace – the theme of this piece. The answer is ‘a lot’.

Creating the future workplace

For several reasons awareness of disability increased during Covid-19. In the early days of lockdown, we all found ourselves in ‘the same storm if not perhaps the same boat’ having to quickly adapt to working and living in new ways. You could say working with adjustments became mainstream because we were all doing it to some extent. It also meant that adjustments moved out of the
HR sphere and became part of company-wide pandemic planning, often led by CEOs and senior leaders.

Disabled people bring the same range of skills to the workplace as non-disabled people and they also bring skills from their unique experience from living with a disability. Photograph: iStockDisabled people bring the same range of skills to the workplace as non-disabled people and they also bring skills from their unique experience from living with a disability. Photograph: iStock

At the same time, though, the term ‘disability’ incorrectly became a synonym for ‘vulnerability’. Poor public messaging around the vulnerability of some disabled people – who have particular health conditions – to the virus, quickly turned into disability equals vulnerability. In some workplaces, this wrongly translated into disability equals a health and safety issue.

Fast forward to 2022 and we are in an era of hybrid working and businesses looking (albeit cautiously) to life beyond the pandemic. At the same time, forces have collided to create a skills crisis across many sectors, including construction, finance and hospitality.

The pressures on HR managers are huge. Yet, HR also has the power to help organisations decide not only what future workplaces could look like, but also what they should look like. Getting the narrative right on disability and mental health is key.

The power of diversity

Employing disabled people and people with mental health conditions is of course the right thing to do in an ethical sense – but that’s not the point I want to make here. Rather – or as well – it’s the right thing to do because businesses need people with the broadest range of lived experiences, skills, talents and perspectives. And that includes disabled people and people with mental health conditions.

Disabled people bring the same range of skills to the workplace as non-disabled people, which means that a candidate who just happens to have a disability may be the perfect candidate for the job. But disabled people can also bring additional skills and unique experience, from living with a disability. The same is true of people living with a mental health condition.

Retaining disabled talent

There is an ever-growing list of research and studies which have found that diversity leads to greater creativity, innovation and productivity. People who think differently – quite literally in the case of people who are neurodivergent – bring better problem-solving and avoid ‘group think’.

A diverse workforce also helps you better understand and represent your customers’ needs. The spending power of the disabled and their families, often known as the Purple Pound, currently stands at £274 billion in the UK annually – an amount that no business can afford to ignore.

So, it makes sense that businesses need to be doing more to attract disabled talent, but what about your existing workforce? Retaining experienced staff is equally important. Over 80 per cent of disabilities are acquired while a person is in work.

With the majority of disabilities not being immediately visible, developing a culture where people feel comfortable talking about their experiences is vital if you are to create a workplace where everyone feels valued and supported.

And perception doesn’t always match up to reality in this area. Research conducted by Accenture in 2020 found a perception gap of around 20 per cent between the level of ‘psychological safety’ that senior leaders imagined their employees would feel in raising sensitive issues around disability and mental health, and how those employees actually felt.

Measuring disability

Engaging disabled colleagues in the conversation is vital. On this point, and with the UK government currently reviewing the introduction of mandatory disability reporting, BDF is often asked about how employers can best measure disability within their organisation.

In answer we usually advise businesses to look beyond any numbers to the experiences of the disabled people working in that organisation; the levels of employee engagement and the quality of the adjustments process, for example. Numbers can be useful, but they only tell us part of the story; they are not the story itself.

I have already touched on the importance of inclusive cultures. Senior leaders, who encourage and role model openness and ‘a sense of safety’ around disability, are often what is needed to drive forward change of this kind and give others the confidence to share their story and ask for what they need.

A robust workplace adjustments process

A robust and responsive workplace adjustments process is also needed. Having the right workplace adjustments in place can literally transform the workplace experience of disabled people.

Yet, many disabled people are still having to wait too long for adjustments. Others, still, simply never even ask for adjustments, either because they are worried about what their line manager or colleagues will think, or because they don’t think they will ever receive them.

34 per cent of disabled people who could have benefited from workplace adjustments did not ask for them because they were afraid that their manager would treat them differently. Photograph: iStock34 per cent of disabled people who could have benefited from workplace adjustments did not ask for them because they were afraid that their manager would treat them differently. Photograph: iStock

Research which BDF conducted before the pandemic showed that 34 per cent of disabled people who could have benefited from workplace adjustments did not ask for them because they were afraid that their manager would treat them differently. The figure was almost as high for those who were worried that their colleagues would treat them differently. Put another way, that’s a third of employees who were not as productive or happy at work as they could be.

BDF has created guidance and scenarios to help HR teams and line managers to better understand the role of adjustments as a productivity tool, how to talk about adjustments and how to put them in place and review them. 

We have also created a series of factsheets which looks at common adjustments for specific disabilities. The most important advice however is to identify the barrier that someone is experiencing and then to focus on how you can remove it.

Access to Work

We know that funding of adjustments can also be an issue with more disabled people telling us that they are being asked to part-fund their adjustments.

The UK government announced a review of the current Access to Work scheme as part of its National Disability Strategy published in July 2021. While a review is welcome, we are concerned that it will not go far enough. The current support cap disproportionately impacts on people with more expensive support needs, such as people who need British Sign Language (BSL) support to communicate and people with learning disabilities who require job coaching support.

We are calling for this cap to be removed to provide equitable employment experiences for all disabled people. We are also asking for Access to Work to be made available at an earlier stage, so people can use the scheme to secure work, as well as to fund adjustments once in work.

Promoting good mental health

I have mentioned mental health in this article but now I want to focus on it specifically. The UK is heading for a mental health crisis. The events of the past few years have had and continue to have a huge impact on all of our mental health and wellbeing.

We saw many employers making staff mental health a priority during 2020 and 2021. As we look ahead, it’s important that that sense of ‘being human’ isn’t lost. We must continue to value and prioritise our health and wellbeing.

We must remember that for many, the impact of the pandemic continues. For some, this may mean continuing to socially isolate or living and working with long Covid.

For others it may be financial pressures caused by years of lost income now exacerbated by increasing fuel costs and the rising cost of living. It is worth noting here recent research by Wagestream which found that 68 per cent of people would not tell their employer about money worries due to the perceived stigma of doing so. This is despite 93 per cent of employers surveyed having a financial wellbeing policy in place.

On top of these issues, we also have the appalling situation with the war in Ukraine. An atrocity which is causing anxiety for everyone, but particularly for those with family, friends or colleagues living in the country.

Employers need to make sure that line managers feel equipped to talk about and support the mental health of their teams and spot the signs when someone isn’t coping. BDF has recently launched some new guidance on the subject.


Unfortunately, some of the pressures we face are in our workplaces themselves. Since the start of the pandemic, people are working longer hours and taking less annual leave. Rather than freeing us, new ways of working have too often created the 24-hour working culture and ‘ping dread’ – the endless need to check and respond to emails, messages and alerts, across a plethora of apps and platforms.

Managers have a role to play here, by setting an example and creating healthy and positive team cultures. But managers also face external pressures, which are outside of their control. This is why BDF recently launched its #SlowDown campaign to challenge the perceptions of society and our workplaces when it comes to productivity and wellbeing. We also held a conference on the subject to discuss how we can harness the benefits of technology so that it works for us rather than the other way round.

Being human

The past few years have taught us many things, but for me one of the most important lessons is around being human and reflecting our humanity in our disability and mental health narrative.

During the pandemic we saw a kinder and more human style of leadership emerge as we literally saw into each other’s lives. With the trappings of office removed, we connected more as humans – and that is something we need to hold onto as we navigate the return to a more hybrid style of working.

And that links to my final point – being person-centred. We are all different and we all work best in different ways. For many, the pandemic has given us the chance to make that a reality. So, for HR professionals charting a new world of work, I would urge inclusive working rather than hybrid; a type of work that enables everyone to perform at their best. That isn’t easy and we haven’t cracked it yet. But if we try and if we learn and share together, we may just end up with a new world of work that works for everyone.

For more guidance on disability inclusion see: Businessdisabilityforum.org.uk

Tips on attracting disabled talent

  • Publicise your commitment to employing disabled people in the careers information you make available on your website or in recruitment packs

  • When advertising for specific positions, use positive wording like, “we welcome disabled applicants”. Back this up with images and stories that show disabled people who already work for you

  • If the job can be done differently, flexibly or with specific adjustments, say so

  • State that applications will be accepted in alternative formats – for example, by email or in audio format. Make sure recruitment portals are accessible

  • Ensure every question in an application form is relevant to the position

  • Clearly mark which information is required and which is optional. Think about what you really need. Do you really need a degree or five years’ experience?

  • Ask applicants if they need any adjustments at every stage of the application process and interview

  • Allow space for the applicant to give details of experience they have gained outside the workplace

  • Use simple straightforward language. This will help everyone, especially those with disabilities affecting cognitive ability, learning difficulties and those who have English as a second language

  • Ensure any online recruitment process is accessible to disabled candidates.

For further guidance see BDF’s Disability Essentials Range: businessdisabilityforum.org.uk/disability-essentials

Diane Lightfoot is CEO of the Business Disability Forum (BDF)


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