Employees are sometimes hesitant to disclose a disability or long-term health condition, meaning they miss out on adjustments that could help them thrive in work. An initiative developed by an occupational therapist aims to help organisations encourage more openness about disability, writes Ashleigh Webber.
For an employee with a long-term health condition, disability, or a form of neurodiversity, starting a new job can be daunting.
Despite the increased focus on employee health and wellbeing that emerged during the pandemic, much of the stigma around asking for help persists. New starters can be reticent to highlight additional needs they may have before their role begins, fearing a negative reaction from their employer or colleagues. Many employees once they’ve started in a role don’t know how to ask for support or even what adjustments they could benefit from.
However, an initiative launched by an occupational therapist with a background delivering occupational health services in the NHS is aiming to help neurodiverse employees or staff with long-term conditions articulate their needs in an accessible and easily-transferrable way.
The Empowerment Passport is a digital document that helps employees communicate what adjustments would benefit them.
Several similar “passports” already exist, including the Disability Passport, a mobile app that allows disabled people to identify their needs to places like shops and entertainment venues; the Department for Work and Pensions’ Health Adjustments Passport, which is designed for jobseekers; and employer-created documents that some organisations use to record adjustments that have been agreed with an employee’s line manager.
‘Owned’ by the individual
The Empowerment Passport is slightly different because it is designed to be portable, allowing workers to take it with them when they switch jobs, and enabling individuals to keep documents they might need in one place. The individual controls who can see the passport and how it is shared. They can pay for their own passport, though organisations can also purchase licences which can be used by employees.
Each Empowerment Passport comes with an action plan that is given to the employer. This gives managers and OH professionals a clear template of support to follow.
Its creator Mandy Whalley, director for occupational therapy service Tailored Employment Solutions, initially developed the passport to help her autistic son secure a job, as she had a good understanding of the barriers he would face and what support he could be offered.
“He was leaving secondary school in 2012, aged 18, and although he has a learning disability in addition to his autism, he is very capable of work with the right adjustments in place and an employer who was willing to give him a chance,” she tells OHW+.
Whalley’s son, Thomas, was offered a part-time job as a kitchen porter in a local pub. He was asked to start work immediately, so he did not have time to apply for support via the DWP’s Access to Work scheme or involve a disability employment adviser. Instead, Whalley worked with her son to create a bespoke reasonable adjustment document to present to the pub, which became the prototype for her Empowerment Passport.
What is the Empowerment Passport?
To get an Empowerment Passport, an employee fills out an online questionnaire about their needs under four headings: physical, intellectual, social and emotional.
They can detail what works well for them, what doesn’t work for them, what’s important to them, and any reasonable adjustments they need. For example, information could include: “I need to take regular pain killers”, “I struggle with my mood”, or “please try to be clear with your language”.
Individuals can also attach up to five files with further information about their disability or needs, keeping this all-in-one place.
The information is stored in a digital file on the Empowerment Passport website, which can be downloaded as a PDF.
The employee can also record information about how they can be supported in an emergency, such as whether they need additional help to leave a building during a fire drill.
The initial document was based on the NHS Health Passport, which allows people in the NHS who have a disability, long-term health condition or additional learning needs to record information about their condition, reasonable adjustments they need, and any difficulties they face.
She says: “We understood the pub landlord and other staff needed some ideas or guidance on how to work alongside Thomas. This first draft of the Empowerment Passport therefore offered his employer information to understand his communication style and unique traits and detailed a short list of practical no-cost adjustments that would work well for Thomas, complementing his strengths.
“It also detailed what wouldn’t work well, acknowledging his challenges, what was important to him to succeed in his job and what was important for him and the employer, from an environmental point of view.”
This initial copy of the Empowerment Passport received a glowing review from Thomas’ employer, who said: “[We realised] we would have to complete risk assessments to support both Thomas and the business to help [him] work in a kitchen environment, where he’s dealing with sharp knives, hot water, [and] constantly around chefs who are working under extreme pressure.
“It was therefore really important to have a full understanding of Thomas’s needs, especially when I’m briefing members of staff who hadn’t worked with Thomas before.
“Because of the information in the passport that Thomas shared, I was able to describe Thomas’s abilities and what he could and couldn’t do within the business and what [other employees’] responsibilities were to him and also his responsibility to them. I found it invaluable,” the employer added.
This positive feedback encouraged Whalley to take the passport further. She spent the next few years developing the passport, conducting trials, and gaining feedback from users, and in 2021 the Empowerment Passport was launched widely.
NHS trust pilot
It has recently been piloted by an NHS trust. Through her role as an NHS disability adviser and occupational therapist, Whalley was aware of the high attrition rate within the health service and thought the Empowerment Passport would help address some of its retention issues.
“I have known of the many issues concerning the process of identifying disabled staff and then supporting them through the complex processes involved in purchasing equipment through Access to Work,” she says.
The NHS pilot, part of a project to improve workforce disability equality standards, is running for 18 months and will conclude in April 2023.
Awareness sessions and “Empowerment Passport Champion” training events have been held to encourage NHS employees with disabilities or health conditions to participate in the trial.
It has enabled occupational health professionals to gain a clear understanding of how an individual functions holistically, and will enable OH to identify further practical solutions” – Mandy Whalley
“The response has been hugely positive,” says Whalley. “Staff who have previously never declared a disability are coming forward and requesting an Empowerment Passport. It appears the NHS has a low disability declaration rate despite many staff members likely having a disability, even if they do not consider themselves disabled.”
Participants have said the passport reduces the risk of their condition or needs being misunderstood. It has also helped managers understand how their disability affects their day-to-day work.
The Empowerment Passport has enabled a reduction in the steps needed to request adjustments at the trust, and a central, ring-fenced budget to fund adjustments has been created, Whalley says.
Benefits for occupational health
Outside of the NHS pilot, Whalley says the passport has been used to agree reasonable adjustments while employees wait for Access to Work assessments, so allowing individuals to start work without delay.
“It has enabled occupational health professionals to gain a clear understanding of how an individual functions holistically, and will enable OH to identify further practical solutions throughout the full range of employment processes,” she tells OHW+.
“It also supports OH providers to anticipate additional health impacts and to provide guidance during times of change.”
Whalley hopes the data collected through the NHS pilot will show that the passport has saved time and effort in finding out what adjustments an employee needs, as well as improved staff confidence, psychological safety and retention.
She is also in talks with the Department for Work and Pensions regarding a wider trial.
“It is hoped by fostering positive culture and normalising the management of long-term health conditions and disabilities in the workplace, the value of the Empowerment Passport can be replicated for all employers,” she adds.