Line managers are the missing link in supporting disabled employees

4 Jan 2018 By Pat Ashworth

Knowing when and how to intervene can make all the difference, says Pat Ashworth. But bosses can’t do it without support

In November 2017, the government published its paper on improving employment prospects for disabled people and those with long-term health conditions. The paper repeats the manifesto pledge to get one million more disabled people into work over the next 10 years, and outlines a number of actions the government will take to achieve this.

Critics of the strategy could argue there is little new thinking, and nothing bold enough to transform the employment landscape in the way disability campaigners believe is needed. However, there are some important points buried in the detail. Perhaps most significantly, there’s a recognition of the vital role line managers will play in ensuring those who get a job are supported to stay in it.

Line managers are on the frontline when it comes to managing employees, including those with disabilities or long-term health conditions. But they are not HR practitioners; usually, only 20 per cent of their role relates to employee relations, and they often receive little training or support on how to handle sensitive staffing issues. Through no fault of their own, line managers can lack the capacity and confidence to make decisions when it comes to employees with disabilities or long-term health issues (which often includes mental ill-health).

Employee relations is all about making judgement calls on difficult subjects most of us don’t want to confront. This can be scary for line managers, especially when they know that a bad decision could end in an employment tribunal. Too often, fear of saying something wrong means they fail to act at all, which can be just as damaging.

Managing disabilities and long-term health conditions at work requires difficult judgement calls. The government’s strategy rightly recognises the need to tackle the culture of presenteeism, where people who are sick are asked, or feel compelled, to come back to work before they are ready. For the individual, this can have a negative impact on mental and physical health, while for the firm it can result in reduced productivity at best and expensive legal procedures and reputational damage at worst. But on the other hand, staff can feel abandoned if their line manager does not contact them when they are sick or doesn’t seem pleased when they return to the office.

There is an urgent need to dispel some of the myths so line managers feel confident and capable in their ability to make decisions. They need to know how to intervene informally when appropriate and respond formally as needed, to be consistent in their dealings with employees and to engage them regularly to build productive relationships. In short, how to positively impact on the culture and performance of the business by getting the best out of their team.

Finding the right approach for you

The government’s strategy recognises that there is an impressive but confusing wealth of information available to support line managers, and commits to spreading best practice. This is a step in the right direction. But every business is different and therefore there is no one approach or set of interventions that will work for all firms.

Instead, companies need to dig deep into their data to understand how they are currently performing when it comes to employing disabled people and what barriers are preventing those with long-term health conditions from finding or staying in employment. Only once they have a true picture of their current situation can employers identify the right interventions for them. Technology, coaching and the right HR advice will play a key role here.

Getting a million more disabled people into work is a worthy aim, but it’s just as important to make sure line managers are fully equipped to support them at every stage.

Pat Ashworth is the director of AdviserPlus Learning Solutions

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