Coronavirus: why disabled workers may hold some of the answers to post-pandemic working

As UK plc gradually, carefully, emerges from lockdown, employers will need all the help they can get to adjust to post-pandemic working. Occupational health practitioners, of course, have a pivotal role to play in this. One good starting point is getting employers to talk to, and learn from the experiences of, their employees with disabilities, argue Dr Jen Remnant, Professor Kate Sang, and Dr James Richards. 

Despite the gradual easing of lockdown restrictions that we are now seeing in the UK, many workplaces remain shut and, as they have since March, are still requiring many, if not most, of their employees to work from home.

About the authors

Dr Jen Remnant is a post-doctoral research associate, Professor Kate Sang is a professor of gender and employment studies, and Dr James Richards is associate professor in human resource management in the School of Social Sciences at Heriot-Watt University

Employees, and their employers, have had to go on a steep learning curve of adjustment to working remotely. The coronavirus pandemic has changed the very nature of work for a number of sectors, including higher education, where we (the authors) work. In fact, for higher education especially, remote working for students and staff alike is likely to continue to be a pressing issue, especially as we move into the autumn and the start of the new academic year.

There is of course lots of advice available regarding remote working that some employers have been sharing. Though helpful, it can nevertheless be quite generic and one-size-fits-all.

Arguably however, one population’s significant expertise in remote working is being undervalued and overlooked by employers – that of disabled workers.

Many disabled workers already employ creative and flexible working patterns to best suit their productivity. Therefore, they are potentially well-placed to offer long-term guidance for those new to home working, if employers are prepared to listen and recognise this.

For many disabled employees, achieving this flexibility has been a struggle. Along with disability pay and employment gaps, there is extensive evidence to suggest that disabled people are often denied the opportunities for progression available to their non-disabled peers, and that many employers do not even meet their minimal legal requirements in how they support employees with impairments or long-term health conditions.

At Heriot-Watt, we have been carrying out research focused on disability-inclusive science careers (DISC). This has illustrated the numerous barriers to meaningful inclusion that remain within the academic community. But, drawing on this data and feedback, we have also collected information on how best to provide good “inclusive management” techniques that can help, and be relevant to, home-working employees, whether or not they are disabled.

Moreover, these are tips and advice that occupational health practitioners may find useful to communicate and emphasise to employers struggling with these new forms of working, whether back in socially distanced workplaces or remotely from home, or if navigating a combination of both.

So, what have we concluded?

1) Make sure workers are safe, and provide them with appropriate equipment. This should be self-evident. Irrespective of where employees are working from, it is incumbent on their employer to ensure they are doing so in safety, and that all possible risks are minimised.

The first thing employers must do therefore – and which OH must keep on emphasising – is ask their workforce what they need (rather than tell them what they think they need), with particular attention being paid to needs relating to health conditions and impairments.

The notion that people are actively deceitful to access workplace support has, thankfully, been widely discredited. However, the self-disclosure rate of disabled employees remains low across sectors because of fear, presumed stigma and mistreatment.

It is imperative employers are encouraged to trust their employees, that they are ones who can give you, the employer, the ‘expert’ advice on how best to support their work needs. It is also ‘reasonable’ to send employees specialist equipment that they use at their usual workstation to enable them to work comfortably at home.

2) Alter targets to be more reflective of the context. Get employers to recognise, and understand, that when we’re talking about remote working, workplace accommodations are not exclusively physical adaptations. They can include things such as alterations to policies, procedures and workplace practices.

Expectations needs to be practical and realistic; it may even be that there will be a need for reduced targets for productivity and a relaxation of professional development agendas, even if just temporarily.

The economic fallout of the virus is going to be felt at individual, organisational and national levels, especially in the context of mental health and anxiety.

Employers will be much less likely to be able to come through the challenges ahead if their workers are overworking, tired, anxious and stressed, perhaps managing additional care responsibilities, or managing long-term health conditions without any support or recognition of that. In fact, it is more likely they may just burn out and their productivity will decrease if they are constantly being placed under unreasonable pressure and managed inflexibly.

3) Be kind and be clear. Throughout our DISC project, it has been clear that, though often unintentional, disabled people are often made to feel as though they are a burden, or “difficult” because of their specific workplace needs.

Pathways to support are often not accessible, and their needs are minimised, despite their talents and skills.

Now, therefore, there is an opportunity for employers and managers to be ensuing that all employees – disabled or not – know that their labour is valued.

Organisations need to offer clarity on their strategic goals during the coronavirus chaos, and evidence of how they have been appropriately altered to ensure the comfort and support of their staff. It is a time to be transparent about organisational decision-making, especially relating to financial shortfalls and the potential implications for staff.

Although the coronavirus pandemic is frightening and disruptive, we believe it does provide an opportunity for employers to learn from disabled people about useful coping strategies for isolation, contingency plans for when technology fails, and practical advice about which are the better platforms for communication.

It allows time for those new or struggling to adapt to remote working to reflect on their prior freedom to attend various workplace and off-site events without the worries of budgeting for a carer to attend, organising access logistics, being considered difficult for having specific requirements, particular anxieties or being neurodiverse.

DISC researchers such as ourselves hope that employers across all sectors will take time, use this opportunity, to ask their disabled employees how they can best support them. Finally we hope that everyone is keeping safe and has what they need to make it through this crisis.

More information on the DISC project can be found here.

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