Of the 11 million disabled people in the UK, about half a million use a wheelchair permanently. That’s a very small proportion compared to the overall figure, says Dr Phil Friend of disability training and consultancy firm Phil and Friends, especially as this is likely to be even fewer when related to the workplace.
Often, disability is widely misunderstood among society in general and is thought of in more physical terms. As independent health consultant John Gillman explains, particularly smaller employers can latch on to physical issues related to disabilities rather than being aware of any mental manifestations.
“People do think about the physical stuff first, partly because that’s just how people think. Everywhere you go, the sign for disability is in fact a wheelchair, so it’s in your mind that it’s going to be a physically related thing,” Gillman says. “Secondly, it’s more obvious. So for employers, the challenge is that some may have a problem that’s related to their mental health but it won’t be immediately apparent.”
Indeed, getting to the core of the matter is an issue that many employers face, with many managers feeling ill-equipped to approach employees who might be coping with non-work-related health problems. Changing the conversation about disability can be helpful as well as ensuring that the employer is aware of what it wants the outcome to produce.
“Perhaps when they’re thinking about how they can support workers, employers can ask a slightly different question, which is: ‘Do you have a health condition which might affect you at work?’” Friend adds. “Because if it doesn’t affect you at work then it’s not a problem. But if someone has something that is affecting performance at work then the employer both has a right to understand that and needs to ask a slightly different question to get at the issue.”
Canada Life marketing director Paul Avis also echoes this sentiment: “As soon as you say the word ‘disabled’, it’s like a label, so what you’ve got to do is remove that word and reflect on what the act actually says. Which question would you ask: ‘Are you disabled?’ or ‘Do you have a long-term health condition that affects your day-to-day life?’ – you’re likely to get a better take-up rate if you ask the second question. Many disabled people do not see their disability as a barrier; people do not respond well to the word ‘disability’.”
Call of duty
Under equality law, employers are required to provide reasonable adjustments in the workplace to employees with disabilities. When this duty arises and an employer is made aware of a situation, it is obliged to take necessary steps to remove, reduce or prevent the obstacles faced by a disabled worker or job applicant.
While these adjustments are not necessarily always expensive, what is deemed reasonable depends on the factors involved and the size and nature of the organisation.
Case law plays a role here. In Croft Vets v Butcher, for example, the employer was found to have failed in its duty to provide reasonable adjustments for an employee with depression by not acting on a doctor’s recommendation to pay for private psychiatric services.
Pennington Manches associate director Tim Randles explains that one of the greatest difficulties in dealing with disabilities in the workplace is that they always need to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, as the Croft Vets ruling demonstrated. While paying for treatment in reasonable adjustments is not always deemed necessary, this always has to be dealt with on fact.
“Within the context of that particular case, it was partly because the employee’s psychiatrist was saying that, with some cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), this person will get back to work. The employer’s decision not do to anything about it was considered to have breached their obligation, but it would have been a reasonable adjustment in this case,” he says.
Independent consultant Gillman adds: “They not only lost the case on discrimination but on constructive dismissal, a double whammy. For employers, there is an element of being defensive as well as being a good employer which I think is important.”
So if making a reasonable adjustment could end up costing one employer anywhere between a few hundred up to thousands of pounds, should organisations go further than the absolute minimum to provide a suitable culture for any number of employees having health issues or disabilities of whom they could be unaware?
Gillman believes so: “As an employer, you can be merely compliant and do the absolute minimum or you can make the way you look after people who have a disability a cultural thing within your organisation – it’s part of the brand values. I believe this is a philosophical thing: that diversity in the workplace is good and that employers self-evidently look after their people, and doing so is going to get better levels of engagement.”
Group Risk Development (Grid) research published in 2012 revealed that, following the abolition of the default retirement age (DRA) in 2011, many employers were worried about absence management though they were largely unconcerned with the potential health effects and costs associated with older workers.
“Put simply, businesses fear that older workers are more likely to be sick than their younger colleagues and will have less incentive to return to work,” Grid spokeswoman Katharine Moxham said at the time.
In order to help soothe any anxieties employers had in this area, the group risk industry has worked with government to enable employees to take up other group income protection benefits – should their organisation choose to offer it – such as a limited payment period which would not have been available previously.