Employers need to take responsibility for the needs of their employees, writes Jonathan Taylor; the onus shouldn’t always be on the employee asking the manager for help.
If you are someone living with a disability or long-term health condition, your employer is legally obligated to provide you with additional support at work.
In the UK, these are known as reasonable adjustments (RAs). These will vary with conditions and between individuals, but may include adjustments to the work environment (e.g. having specialist equipment or access to quiet spaces), or to how work is organised and managed (e.g. delegation, scheduling, communication, support).
RAs are based on employees’ varying needs
Many RAs give those with a disability more flexibility in their job to ensure they are not at a disadvantage. This is important as an increased level of flexibility can offer them a greater sense of control over the working day, which in turn allows them to have more management over their condition. For example, someone with chronic back pain would be able to take time away from their desk and take days off when they have flare-ups.
Adjustments, when based on the needs of the individual, help people to manage their condition, to create more equity in our organisations. They are crucial for getting people with disabilities into the workplace and creating a fairer society.
However, in a recent Pearn Kandola study of 400 UK workers living with a disability, 2 in 5 respondents reported not receiving the reasonable adjustments that they need from their current employer.
Some of the most-cited missing adjustments related to having greater control over their work schedule, receiving more patience and understanding from others, having clearer communication of tasks, and receiving additional time for some tasks.
Somewhat surprisingly, this figure was higher within larger organisations, with smaller organisations performing better. We can speculate on why this may be, but it may be due to additional hurdles in place within larger organisations to make decisions and to provide people with what they need.
Why employees should disclose their condition
We found that employees who chose to disclose their condition to their employer were also more likely to receive the adjustments that they need.
In our survey, 27 percent of individuals who had disclosed reported not receiving the RA that they needed, in contrast to 59 percent in the non-disclosed group. However, we need to be careful in interpreting this. Disclosure is a personal choice.
A large proportion of our respondents noted that they did not wish to disclose (e.g. “its private”), noting that there was nothing their employer could do to change this opinion. It may also be that workplaces that are poor at providing RAs are also poor at creating the psychological safety needed for people to want to disclose.
Our research suggests that a significant knowledge gap exists amongst UK managers. In a complementary Pearn Kandola study with 150 managers across a variety of UK sectors, a significant percentage of respondents said that they did not feel confident supporting employees with disabilities or health conditions. Only 1 in 3 managers we spoke to said they felt confident supporting those with visual impairments, 39 percent for those with a hearing impairment, 44 percent for a mobility / physical condition, 32 percent for a speech or language impairment, 34 percent for a learning difficulty, and 48 percent for a mental health condition.
When we asked managers where they are getting their knowledge from, only 1 in 2 (51 percent) reported that this was from training provided by their organisations. In contrast, the most common source of information about disability was ‘my own reading on the subject’, suggesting that employees with a disability face a workplace lottery when it comes to having a line manager who knows how to support them. Furthermore, it means that in many cases we are relying on managers reading up in their own time on how to support others with a disability.
Clearly, we can do a lot better around training and awareness of disabilities in the workplace. So, what needs to change?
We know that many of the issues raised in our research relate to inclusive culture – specifically the degree of psychological safety that people feel to disclose their condition and request the adjustments that they need without fearing repercussions for their career. An organisation may signal that it is inclusive through its messaging and processes, but psychological safety is created through the day-to-day experiences with colleagues and managers.
Our research identified the need for organisations to raise awareness of disability, of different conditions, and critically, of the practical adjustments that can be offered to colleagues with disabilities.
Visibility of reasonable adjustments being made and normalised was a key influence on many of our survey respondents making their own requests. Offering training around disability inclusion can raise awareness of the support available and share expectations for managers and colleagues.
There is also a need for organisations to simplify and normalise the process of requesting RAs. There are many examples of disabled people – particularly those with mental health conditions – to ‘prove’ to others that their needs are genuine. Whilst this may protect the organisation from staff requesting adjustments that they do not need, it also signals that you do not trust the person, or are reluctant to make the adjustment.
Additionally, there is value in checking whether anyone needs RAs as a standard part of your process – whether this is recruitment, on-boarding, or day-to-day management. By asking everyone, we normalise the process and help to remove the stigma, making it easier for disabled colleagues to request what they need.
Similarly, managers need to hold themselves responsible for ensuring that their colleagues’ needs are being met. The onus should not be on the employee to always be tapping their manager on the shoulder and asking for help. How this looks will differ on a case-by-case basis but should at the very least involve regular check ins and normalising conversation around reasonable adjustments.
By creating a more inclusive culture, providing regular awareness training courses to the whole team, and being more intentional and sensitive around their colleagues’ needs, managers and business leaders can provide a safe space for everyone to thrive. This in turn will help organisations to increase their talent pool, boost productivity among their team, and become an employer of choice.
Jonathan Taylor is Managing Psychologist at diversity & inclusion consultancy, Pearn Kandol