06 Mar 2024
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Has the dial moved on disability in the workplace since Covid?

– A guest blog by Saxton Bampfylde, Executive Search and Leadership Advisory

Two years ago we all emerged from a scenario that most of us could not have imagined – a lockdown of society which impacted us all, and left some very lasting impacts. There was much discussion in the media and across wider society about what the return to ‘normal’ work life was going to involve, but at Saxton Bampfylde we were acutely aware that there was very little reference in all of this to the UK’s disabled working population of 4.4 million people and what the pandemic might do for their work patterns, accessibility and profile.

In early 2022 Saxton Bampfylde’s team produced ‘It’s About time: Learning the lessons of Covid in breaking down workplace disability barriers’, for which we spoke with a selection of disabled leaders, staff and those working alongside disabled colleagues from a range of sectors, functions and roles in UK organisations.

As we look back over the last 24 months we reflect on what lessons were identified and how far we have come (if at all) in addressing these lessons.

One of the major points that we have to highlight, still remains as it was: the Equality Act of 2010 remains as broadly reaching in its relation to disability that it still presents a challenge for employees and employers. “we are still in recovery from COVID and we are mired in cost-of-living crisis that affects particularly those who depend on benefits and tangible support”.

However, still taking that into account, we wanted to revisit the four different themes that arose from our piece:

  • Flexible and agile working
  • The onus for more rights, profile, promotion being on the disabled employee
  • D,E & I should be embedded across company policy and values
  • Changing perspectives on disability in the workplace

We followed up with a small group of those we spoke with previously and discussed these themes to get feedback, as well as considering our own experience in terms of recruiting leaders and supporting them through the REACH mentoring programme which we deliver in partnership with the Civil Service.

More flexibility benefits most

With more flexible and agile working models, it was acknowledged that “on average there is more awareness shown for the needs of disabled people, but that is because there is [in theory] more flexibility being shown for everyone.” It was noted that the ‘corporate response’ to flexible working across the board is much more positive and that this is having a positive trickle through affect, rather than a deliberate push, for staff with a recognised disability.

One respondent said: “pre-covid you would roll a dice and need to get a six to get a positive outcome from your employer with regards to flexible working. Now you only need to roll a four, five or six to get that outcome. Not perfect, but progress has been made.”

However, it was highlighted that equipping people for home working is still woefully unbalanced based on sector and even organisation. This applies to all colleagues, but particularly impacts disabled staff who absolutely do need the additional support, such as specific assistive technology, devices and furniture.

Profile and promotion are slowly making progress

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the pandemic has helped raise the profile of disability across certain workplaces, with examples of mentoring and supporting colleagues to gain more senior leadership positions being highlighted, in areas such as healthcare. However, there remains a serious dearth of data and evidence to highlight the extent to which areas are being supported, with one commentator saying “it’s remarkable how little we know about key segments we keep discussing, particularly around mental health and suicide.”

During the pandemic organisations like the Office for National Statistics produced interesting data, but this has been restricted post-lockdown due to funding, which makes the challenges around this issue even more challenging.

D,E and I as standard

With the pandemic there was a sense, whether it be true or not, that we were ‘in it together’ and that it brought a sense of levelling the workplace environment. One commentator suggested that “there were those disabled people who faced daily challenge with getting around coped better than fully able people who felt the constraints even more greatly.”

The full impact of this shared experience is very hard to quantify, but there is definitely a greater sense that people are much more central to company purpose and values than pre-pandemic. And with that focus on people, D,E & I are absolutely central. This is certainly true in recruitment of staff as we see it, particularly at a senior level.

Every perspective counts

The power of connection and communication through technology was vital during the pandemic. There were some very powerful examples of this, and one that we were delighted to hear about in 2021 was the establishment of the Disabled NHS Directors Network (DNDN). Specifically focused on senior leaders within the NHS across the UK, this network has facilitated peer support through knowledge and experience sharing, supporting more junior disabled colleagues and raising the profile and perspectives of disabled peers. It continues to operate and is open and available to those wishing to join.

There are moves in the right direction, but there is also still some rhetoric coming through policy discussions and in general across more siloed groups that disabled people should work because they can, with more flexible and home working, it does demonstrate that the nuances of the individual situations are not being considered and will be very hard to quantify. A further challenge that was less apparent during Covid was importantly raised: While we are still recovering from the impacts of Covid we are mired in a cost-of-living crisis that affects particularly those who depend on benefits and tangible support”.

The spectrum of disability is very wide and we need to be careful that we are not lumping everyone in together. If the emphasis really is on people, we need to consider how we can focus on individuals as well as the collective to achieve the very best for everyone.

As executive search and leadership advisors, Saxton Bampfylde has been appointing, supporting and guiding existing and future leaders across multiple sectors and industries for over 35 years. Never in that time has anything had such an impact on how we all live and work as the COVID-19 pandemic, and we believe that more than anything we must learn lessons from this to help make organisations actively better and deliberately more inclusive.

For more information about our work please visit our website or contact us at contact@saxbam.com.

*We would like to thank our interviewees: Keith Leslie, Chair of Samaritans UK and Ireland and Kate Smyth, Co-Chair, Disabled NHS Directors Network (DNDN) and Non-Executive Director, Lancashire Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.