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How are employers supporting disabled staff during coronavirus?

22 May 2020 By Diane Lightfoot

Research seen exclusively by People Management reveals the crisis could have a long-term effect on reasonable adjustments and flexible working – which will benefit us all, says Diane Lightfoot

Over the last few months, Covid-19 has turned our world on its head. We are living and working in a way that few, if any, could have imagined just weeks ago. Businesses across all sectors have had to adapt how they operate overnight. Some will survive. Some will thrive. But what does this all mean for the disabled people they employ?

Business Disability Forum’s 300-plus members employ an estimated 20 per cent of the UK workforce and 8 million people worldwide. We asked them how they are responding to the unprecedented challenges of Covid-19 and for their early thoughts on its legacy for the future of work for disabled people – and indeed us all.

This week marks Mental Health Awareness Week, and it’s probably no surprise that supporting employees with their mental health was the number one issue for respondents, with 73 per cent saying they were helping employees manage their anxieties about coronavirus in relation to their lives and work. The main areas of focus were:

  • Providing mental health advice and coping strategies
  • Managing staff stress, anxiety and motivation
  • Supporting staff with existing disabilities and long-term conditions that have been exacerbated by the crisis

Workplace adjustments

Workplace adjustments are critical for so many disabled people – and with homes now the new workplace there are some logistical challenges. Our survey revealed issues around provision and portability, set up of equipment, and ensuring effectiveness – and availability – of adjustments as well as the challenges of having accurate data on who has a disability and reaching out to them to provide support. 

At a practical level, the focus has been on:

  • Reviewing routine working hours to enable effective working from home (67 per cent)
  • Supporting colleagues with assistive technology (64 per cent)
  • Helping colleagues install video conferencing applications (61 per cent)
  • Working out which adjustments, such as assistive technology, specialist chairs or other equipment, could be transported to employees’ homes (60 per cent)

Of course, in the current climate, we are all working with adjustments to a greater or lesser extent and surely one positive legacy of the pandemic will be a much deeper acceptance and appreciation of the role of home and flexible working and the use of assistive technology in the workplace. Our respondents were positive about the potential for long-lasting benefits: 

  • 90 per cent agreed responses to Covid-19 will result in a lasting change in attitudes to flexible and home working
  • 63 per cent recognised the increased demand in adjustments for all staff to enable them to work in a new way

Businesses are doing the groundwork already – in our survey, 61 per cent said they were ensuring managers were briefed about how to effectively manage staff remotely. Hopefully, this will go some way to debunking some of the attitudes around the need to (always) be in the office and enable a more mixed economy for the future – which could benefit us all.

Of course, cultural change needs to come from the top. And, while responses to our survey reveal a cross-organisation effort to support disabled colleagues, decisions are generally being made at the most senior, strategic level. The majority (83 per cent) said how the business has responded to Covid-19 generally – including arranging internal communications, home working, and ensuring staff have the adjustments they need – was being led by the chief operating officer or chief executive. 

While the figure for responsibility for ensuring staff with disabilities and long-term conditions specifically can move to home working was much lower – 31 per cent said this was the direct responsibility of the COO or CEO compared to 69 per cent for HR – this is still encouraging. We see time and time again that CEOs or senior leaders who have a personal knowledge of and interest in disability issues – perhaps because of their own experience or that of a close family member – are champions of driving change. Giving senior leaders direct visibility of the issues facing their disabled employees should have a lasting and positive impact.

A kinder leadership?

Appropriately, the theme for this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week is kindness – and as we all cope with Covid-19 and lockdown, we need to be kind to each other and ourselves. One of the positives from how we are all working now is that we are having to be more human; much of our workplace ‘armour’ is gone and the intimacy of letting people into our homes (albeit via our video camera) is a powerful thing. I really hope this will have perhaps the most important legacy: a kinder and more human approach to leadership – both for our teams and ourselves – which encourages all of us to be more open about the support we need. 

Diane Lightfoot is CEO of Business Disability Forum

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