Well-trained line managers are central to enabling disabled people to enter and stay in the workforce, a group of MPs have been told.
Giving evidence to the Work and Pensions Select Committee this morning, Professor Dame Carol Black, who advises the government on the relationship between work and health, said employers needed to take a people-centred approach to closing the disability employment gap.
Asked whether it was the duty of employers to demonstrate how they were making reasonable adjustments to retain employees with health conditions, Black said she put “a great deal of emphasis” on the importance of line managers who had been appropriately trained in mental and general health.
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Closing the disability employment gap “really comes down to what I think is central to work and wellbeing. You need high-quality leadership. You need really well-trained line managers,” she said, adding that making health and wellbeing a board reporting issue, where a non-executive member works closely with HR, was “especially useful”.
“[Employers need an] understanding at a very broad level of the things that will keep people out of work or are likely to take people out of work,” Black said.
Black was giving evidence as part of the committee’s inquiry into the disability employment gap, launched last November, which aims to investigate the causes of the gap between the employment rates of disabled and non-disabled people and the economic impact of low employment rates for disabled people.
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The most recent official data on employment rates among disabled people shows that currently around 7.9 million people aged 16-64 – 19 per cent of the working age population – have a disability. Of these people, an estimated 4.2 million are in employment, an increase of 354,000 from the previous year.
In the period April-June 2020 the unemployment rate for disabled people was 6.5 per cent, compared to 3.5 per cent for people who are not disabled.
Black told MPs that a “people centred” approach was what worked when helping disabled people into work, citing conversations she’d had with people who felt they weren’t seen as a person beyond their disability.
“It may be more intensive, it may be slightly more expensive, but dealing with that person's problems is what will help get them back,” she said, adding: “As far as employers are concerned, as far as health is concerned, anything the employer can do to maintain the physical and mental health and wellbeing of a worker, whether they're disabled or not, is very important.”
Commenting on the government’s approach, she warned the committee that the current system was “viewed with great suspicion, as if it's a system that is trying to get you back to work however you may be placed in your health or other circumstances”.
Instead she suggested a more flexible model similar to that of the Netherlands. “They assume that people will have periods in and out of work,” she said. “So being out of work doesn't carry the stigma in the way it might have for us sometimes. They expect that this will be a much more fluid state in which anyone could find themselves.
“The need is to enable as many people as possible to return to a good workplace and be supported. That's a very different culture to the way people view our system.”