As employers prepare to return to work, many are considering certain groups of employees based on their risk factors. But are we reinforcing narratives of vulnerability and risk in our inclusive workforces, asks Angela Matthews?
Social theorists, academics, and disabled people’s groups have long fought the battle to stop the language of ‘vulnerability’ and ‘risk’ creeping into business and government policy making structures, particularly among people with disabilities and health conditions. It felt for a while as though this had succeeded.
Return to work
But a pandemic hit, and suddenly we were ready to rename groups of people as “vulnerable”. We seem to have made quite a list: “extremely clinically vulnerable” (which has extended into narratives about disabled people generally); people who are Black, Asian or from an ethnic minority; older people, particularly people over seventy, for example.
It has been astonishing to see the ‘U turn’ made across the HR sector, which only a short while ago, was promoting diversity strategies to ensure these groups have a valuable place in our workforce strategies. Now we no longer see people as individuals, but instead as ‘risk groups’.
The risks of ‘at risk’
This generates a problem, as calls to our advice service illustrate. As soon as we hear “vulnerable” we hear “risk”; and we have seen employers start to ‘seek out’ employees who may fall into the category of ‘risk’.
We have even heard that “those who are in the ‘vulnerable’ category” will be asked to stay at home for longer than everyone else; yet we hear those who cannot return to their usual, work setting may be more susceptible to redundancy.
Business Disability Forum is very concerned about advice for employers that suggests subjecting all disabled workers, older workers, or workers who are Black, Asian or another ethnic minority to risk assessments. This has left many employees feeling harassed, as though their employer sees them as a ‘risk’.
The government’s narratives have not helped. As an example, the publication of the “extremely clinically vulnerable” list – unhelpful terminology in itself – appeared to understand risk as being something created only from a physiological health perspective.
In reality, it was the sudden change in business procedures and the public’s lack of understanding around disability (such as how difficult it is for someone who is blind to stick to the two-metre rule in a supermarket) that put more disabled people at risk of abuse, not being able to access food, and not being able to access treatment. Let’s also remember that people on that list are identified by an existing diagnosis; many more who are pre-diagnosis or have had their treatment postponed due to Covid-19 are also at risk, but their situation is not captured by the government’s guidance.
What should employers do instead?
There appear to be two key indicators of inclusive employee engagement that we have forgotten in favour of ‘risk’ narratives: focusing on an individual rather than a group, and compassionate communication.
Workplace inclusion leaders are reporting hugely increased levels of anxiety from staff. Staff in customer and client facing roles are obviously worried about contracting infection from the people they interact with.
The government is also producing a narrative and guidance on what to do and what not to do. Information and emotion are coming from everywhere, so it is no wonder the questions to our advice service are shortened to a simple, “I just need to know what I need to do”.
Some callers have gone as far to say that the government’s guidance as well as advice on risk assessing groups would potentially mean a breach of their equalities and inclusion policy.
In general, a three-pronged approach has been the most effective for workforces:
- Firstly, undertaking an organisation-level risk assessment, which looks at how equipped the built and physical environment is to allow as safe a return to work as possible.
- Secondly, communicating to the workforce what measures have been put in place, and that it would be helpful to know if anyone has conditions or is in a situation that their manager does not know about that could impact their safe return to work. Employers often find it helpful to include that employees are not being pressured to share personal information, but the organisation can only work with the information they have, and sharing this information will help them provide as safe an environment as possible.
- Lastly, with those who come forward as a result of this communication, discuss a ‘safe return to workplace plan’ (or ‘risk assessment’) that works for both the employee and the employer.
Ultimately, urging employees to share information if they fall into a “risk group” or naming protected groups as a risk regularly proves unhelpful and ineffective in the organisations we work with.
Not everyone who is disabled, older or from a Black, Asian or minority ethnic group will be more susceptible to contracting Covid-19. Moreover, the language of “risk” has the effect of ‘othering’ people and groups away from one another – the very workplace behaviours that our inclusive culture strategies have been designed to stamp out.