Written by NICOLA GATER

A diverse and inclusive workplace – two things that are now widely recognised as key drivers for business success. But, despite seven million people in Britain of working age having a disability or health condition, it’s fair to say that people with disabilities are underrepresented in the workplace.

Are employers potentially missing out on skills and talent? Yes! Could employers benefit from more practical guidance on how to support their existing employees with disabilities? Yes!

So, to mark International Day of Persons with Disabilities on December 3, we take a look at some key facts, the law and offer five practical steps on supporting employees with disabilities.

What is a disability in the workplace?

The Equality Act 2010 protects people against discrimination at work because of their disability or long-term health condition. Employees do not have to be officially registered as disabled to attract this protection, but instead the Act defines a disability as a physical or mental impairment which has a “substantial and long-term adverse effect on a person’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities”.

This covers a wide range of people and impairments – and they are not always immediately obvious! For example, 3.4 million people have mental health-related impairment and 1.7m have a visual impairment, and there are many other invisible disabilities including autism spectrum disorder, diabetes and dyspraxia.

Why it’s important

Businesses with a diverse and inclusive workforce can tap into the different perspectives and skills that can really boost innovation and performance. Organisations also risk legal action if they do not comply with the Equality Act and, furthermore, failing to manage health and disability effectively could affect your reputation as an employer, damaging your relationship with your existing workforce and putting off external candidates.

Employers have a duty under the Equality Act to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ for people with a disability if there are any aspects of a job, workplace or policy which put them at a disadvantage. One of the most common claims of disability discrimination is an employer who fails to make reasonable adjustments for a job applicant or employee with a disability.

Practical tips for employers

The government recently updated their guidance for employers as part of the Disability Confident campaign – the principles of which we wholeheartedly support!

This followed the CIPD’s Health and Wellbeing at Work survey report, which found that the most common challenge organisations experience in managing people with disabilities or a long-term health condition is the knowledge and confidence of the line managers.

Here are five practical steps that all employers should be thinking about:

  1. Ensure line managers have the right training and knowledge

Line managers have the responsibility for implementing people management policies and need to understand how they may affect workers with disabilities or health conditions in unintended ways. Managers will often be the first point of contact for their team members to discuss any issues around disability and health, so they must have the right skills and behaviours to be able to approach the situation confidently and sensitively to build trust and achieve a good outcome for both parties. Employers should consider investing in specific training and development for their managers to be able to do this well.

  1. Sensitive communication is key

People with disabilities and health conditions may be nervous about talking about them, or if they do, will often have specific preferences for what language they find appropriate or insensitive. This can differ from person to person. If you are unsure about how to say something, ask the person what they would prefer. Don’t make assumptions – but take your lead from the individual. Make sure you treat everyone with respect – talk to people with disabilities and health conditions in the same way as you talk to everyone else! Building a respectful and trusting relationship with your team will help all communications go well.

  1. Ensure new starters feel welcome and part of the team

As well as ensuring your recruitment processes are accessible to candidates with disabilities or health conditions, think about their first day and how they will join the team. A good induction for all new starters is important to help them familiarise themselves with the workplace, their colleagues and their role and to support them to reach the expected levels of performance as quickly as possible. If you’re aware that your new team member has a disability or health condition, meet with them as soon as possible before their first day to discuss any adjustments they may need in their new job, so these can be put in place before they start. A mentor or “buddy” for all new starters is also a great way to build relationships and be introduced to the team. Be sure to seek specific permission before your share any sensitive health information with anyone though – agree what can or cannot be shared.

  1. Foster a positive and open culture

Actively promoting a positive approach towards health and wellbeing with a clear commitment to diversity and inclusion will encourage a culture in which employees feel comfortable to tell you about their disability or long-term health condition. If a member of your team wants to discuss this with you, conversations should be private and in a place where the individual is at ease. Listen with empathy and respond with openness and common sense. Be open minded about making changes to working practices and policies to remove any disadvantage they unfairly face. You do not have to apply every policy to all workers in the same way for it to be fair to all. Reasonable adjustments that work for the employer and employee will support the employee to reach their full potential and perform better for the team.

  1. Develop an effective framework to retain staff

Retaining employees with valuable skills and experience is critical to avoiding unnecessary costs of recruitment and training, as well as that risk that you may not find the same talent in someone else! Properly consider which adjustments you could make to enable people to keep working and making that valuable contribution to your business. Seek their suggestions for how things could be done differently, agree trial periods to see the impact, and document any agreements. Commit to regular reviews to check things are working well for both parties. This, along with our other recommended steps, will ensure all your talented staff want to stay working in your business for the long term.

Interested in finding out more? For further advice on supporting people with disabilities in your workplace, call us on 01256 328428 or email: info@realityhr.co.uk