Re-imagining the post-Covid workplace to support employees with a disability

Out-Law Analysis | 06 Dec 2022 | 11:59 am | 4 min. read

The theme of this year’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities on 3 December, ‘transformative solutions for inclusive development: the role of innovation in fuelling an accessible and equitable world’, represents an opportunity for employers to consider how they can better support their employees in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The fundamental change in working patterns and structures prompted by the pandemic means that employers need to reimagine the workplace and examine the adjustments that disabled colleagues may need, both in work and at home. They should ensure that they have meaningful conversations with employees about the return to the workplace and foster an environment in which workers feel they can discuss their health concerns as well as how their employer can support them.

Employing workers with disabilities

According to statistics published by the UK parliament (50 pages / 812KB PDF) 20% of the UK working age population, aged between 16 and 64, are disabled – representing roughly 8.4 million people. Between April and June 2022, 82% of non-disabled people were employed, compared to 53% of disabled people.

Encouraging applications from people with disabilities can positively impact skills shortages and help to increase the number of high-quality applicants available to a business. If successful, it will also create a workforce that reflects the diversity of clients, customers, and the community, that a business serves. Hiring people with disabilities can also bring additional skills to a business, such as knowledge and understanding of British Sign Language (BSL).

Reasonable adjustments

Under the 2010 Equality Act, employers are legally required to make reasonable adjustments to support disabled job applicants and employees. The cost of many reasonable adjustments is often extremely low, and could include simply making changes to a disabled person’s working pattern; ensuring that information is provided in accessible formats; providing specific desk and chair equipment or providing training or mentoring. The growth in innovative solutions and technologies that we have seen since the pandemic, such as video-conferencing software, has made the provision of reasonable adjustments like allowing employees work from home more regularly much more manageable for employers and has opened up more opportunities for disabled employees.

Hybrid working

Among a host of advantages for disabled employees, one main benefit of working from home is that it can grant them more autonomy over their working environment, allowing them to manage their conditions more effectively. This notion is supported by the fact that, according to one study (27 pages / 4.29MB PDF) conducted by Lancaster University, a majority of disabled people want to work from home between 80% and 100% of the time.

Creating a hybrid model that works

From both a legal and best practice perspective, employers should not take a one-size-fits-all approach to hybrid working for disabled workers and instead should consult with each person individually to establish what they need by way of adjustments and support. No assumptions should made based on the employee’s disability – it is key for employers to show flexibility and a willingness to explore options with employees on working arrangements, rather than having blanket policies.

Creating equal access also requires employers to audit their tech and software to ensure that tools like closed captioning, recording capability, text-to-speech translation and searchability are all available. Beyond that, employers should also train all employees to use the tools and to be mindful of when they should be used.

Home working

Employers also need to consider how their employees will work from home. They should ensure that their workers’ needs are supported on an individualised basis to reduce risk of injury and boost wellbeing. Something as simple as making sure a worker’s home office has proper lighting could have a major impact on their productivity.

More broadly, employees with physical disabilities may face logistical challenges finding accessible and comfortable workspaces in their home, and it is important that employers talk to all their staff individually to confirm they have all the equipment they might require. Employers must also deal sensitively with any concerns raised by disabled colleagues about returning to the office – and provide alternative solutions where necessary.

Employers should be conscious of proximity bias and ensure that employees working from home are not disadvantaged when it comes to access to work, promotion, training and support.

‘Not all disabilities are visible’

The theme of 2020’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities was: ‘not all disabilities are visible’, and it is important to remember this in light of new, emerging health conditions, for example ‘Long Covid’. Such conditions are not necessarily visible, but it is still essential that employers understand them – and support employees who are affected by them. In the 2021 case of Burke v Turning Point, an employment tribunal held that an employee with Long Covid symptoms was ‘disabled’ within the meaning of section 6 of the Equality Act.

Because of this, employers need to make reasonable adjustments for any employees with less visible disabilities as well as those with physical disabilities, and consider technological adaptations and innovation which could be key to supporting colleagues.

Mental health

Awareness of mental health is continuing to rise and we have seen a societal shift on this topic, meaning that employees may feel more comfortable raising issues regarding their mental health with their employer.

Some employees, however, may not wish to notify their employer of a disability like a mental health condition due to concern over ongoing stigma, and there is no positive obligation on the employee to disclose their disability to their employer.

Because of this, best practice for employers is to accommodate reasonable adjustments for all employees when requested and where possible, regardless of whether or not they are formally recorded on the HR system as having a physical or mental health condition that may be protected under the Equality Act.

Co-written by Holly Brannan and Daniel Breerton of Pinsent Masons.

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