Government whitepaper calls for ‘inclusive’ employers and OH overhaul to get disabled people into the workplace

Organisations will be offered support, but commentators warn of additional pressure on HR

Credit: Luis Alvarez/Getty Images

A whitepaper on supporting disabled people and those with long-term health conditions back into work has said that alongside government support for occupational health (OH), employers need to be “inclusive” to open up the labour market. 

The Department for Working Pensions’s Health and Disability whitepaper – released in conjunction with yesterday’s spring budget – outlined a raft of measures to help more disabled people and those with health conditions “start, stay and succeed” in work. 

It has revealed plans to reform the OH market and benefits system to ensure people are supported by their employer back into work.

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The impact on HR 

Laura Ibbotson, head of UK HR at Heras, said this could place “more pressure” on “already exhausted” HR teams to be the judge of whether someone is able to return to work. “Are HR [professionals] really qualified to make these decisions? Should this not stay with the medically trained experts?” she asked, adding that the changes would rightly put the spotlight on equality, diversity and inclusion. 

Meanwhile, Liz Sebag-Montefiore, co-founder and director of 10Eighty, was sceptical that the reforms and employer support would actually come to fruition. This would leave “HR and employers unwilling to go out on a limb to hire people who may turn out to be unreliable, unfit, unwilling or otherwise difficult to ease into the workplace”, she predicted. 

“They won't take the risk if they don't perceive the reward to be worth that risk and effort and expense and, frankly, you can't really blame [employers] given all the problems they have with productivity, return to work, remote and hybrid working, and the difficult labour market,” Sebag-Montefiore added. It is easier to raise salaries and recruit from the usual talent pool than “adapt work and the workplace” for workers with health problems, she said.

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Jacqui Barrett, managing director of Wider Thinking, warned that while a more diverse workplace was a “great thing” it would not automatically equal inclusion. “Everyone has to work on this and understand what exactly inclusion means and how our behaviour can impact others,” said Barrett.

“Making the workplace more inclusive, which means many, many things, including more flexibility around where and when and how we work, will impact on everyone’s wellbeing and enrich workplace culture.”  

People with disabilities are “statistically more loyal” so making your workplace more attractive to a broader pool of talent will give firms a “competitive advantage”, Barrett advised.

Occupational health’s important role 

The whitepaper said OH services “play an important role” in supporting disabled people and those with health conditions, but acknowledged “disparities” in accessing OH, depending on employer size.

According to the whitepaper, employees of larger companies (69 per cent) were nearly seven times more likely to have access to OH services than those working in micro companies (10 per cent) – which have 10 employees or fewer.

As part of his budget announcement yesterday, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt revealed that the government would double the funding for the forthcoming “small company subsidy pilot”.

Under the pilot, small and medium-sized employers would be offered a financial incentive and support to encourage them to adopt OH services. The results will help determine whether the government will roll out the service nationally and, if successful, this rollout would be announced in the next spending review, the whitepaper confirmed.

Dr Shriti Pattani, president of Society of Occupational Medicine, said OH practitioners and providers were “ready to deliver what is needed to tackle economic inactivity related to ill-health and universal access is the next critical step”. 

“Specialist occupational health knowledge is the heart of workplace health in terms of both strategy and delivery, and we would like to see the government be clear in its intent to utilise OH expertise to ensure an evidence-based and targeted approach to workplace health,” Pattani said.

However, Imogen Cardwell, clinical operations director at PAM OH Solutions, said a mixture of financing and education for employers on the benefits of supporting employees back to work was also needed. “As well as subsidising the cost of OH for smaller businesses, employers need to provide education on the benefits of helping people to stay in work,” she said. 

“Even if someone can only return to 85 per cent of their former capacity, this is still better than having a vacancy and many people can be helped to recover fully over time.” 

Seeking OH advice earlier could “reduce the risk of and shorten the length of any absence”, Cardwell added, and education on when employers should make a referral was “vital”.  

Support for employers 

The government has said – following employer responses to the 2021 Health is everyone’s business consultation – that it would work to “improve resources” for businesses to help them support and manage health and disability in the workplace. 

It has begun national live testing for a new digital information and advice service to help employers provide support. The service aims to help employers “self serve” by walking them through common scenarios and providing “detailed guidance” – based on the strengthened Health and Safety Executive guidance, released last year, the whitepaper said.

The government will also pilot a new Access to Work enhanced package for people who need more support than the current scheme, alongside testing whether providing support for employers that are “willing to shape vacancies” to accommodate disability can “make a difference”.