In November 2018 the UK Government launched a voluntary framework to encourage employers to report on how they are supporting people with a disability. The same press release also launched a new good practice guide for line managers on recruiting, managing and developing people with a disability or health condition. The guidance was developed in collaboration with the CIPD and other experts as part of the Disability Confident campaign.

Mind the gap

We very much welcome these developments: we need a considerable shift in employer practice to make a significant impact in narrowing the UK disability employment gap. In May 2018 the ONS published figures showing that the gap – the difference between the employment of disabled people compared with non-disabled people – has stood at around 30 percentage points for around a decade. And it’s much higher for people with a mental health condition.

There is currently a sharp public focus on improving the employment prospects of people with a disability or health condition. The UK Government’s original target was to halve the disability employment gap by 2020; admittedly this was an ambitious target but the revised one of a million more people with a disability or health condition in work by 2027 has attracted some criticism as it is a non-relative measure and not viewed as ambitious.

The UK Government’s plans are contained in its Improving Lives Command Paper which covers initiatives in the three settings of health, welfare and employment. It is right to have a holistic focus but some of the statistics show the scale of the challenge needed in employment if more people with a disability or health condition are going to thrive at work. For example, over the course of a year, disabled people are twice as likely to move out of work, and nearly three times less likely to move into work, compared with non-disabled people and well under a fifth (15%) of hiring employers had recruited someone with a disability or health condition over the past 12 months. Clearly, a major policy focus should be on improving demand on the part of employers to tap into the valuable pool of talent comprising people with a disability who want to work. This will require a massive cultural shift in UK workplaces.

What needs to change in the workplace?

So, how can we narrow the disability employment gap? What should we be aiming for in organisations? As good a place to start as any is the Government’s vision set out in its Improving Lives Command Paper, which calls for a focus on employer actions and the role played by managers within the workplace, ‘from recruitment and retention through to managing employee ill health’. The aim is to foster healthy workplaces ‘where all can thrive and progress’ and ‘create opportunities for people who need a more flexible workplace.’

This vision is a good starting point but how should employers implement these principles on a day-to-day basis? If we are intent on significantly narrowing the gap, we need to look more closely at what current practice looks like in organisations, what are the barriers preventing employers embracing a disability friendly approach and creating inclusive workplaces? Clearly there are employers who are already creating great opportunities for people with a disability or health condition but at the same time these barriers do exist for many organisations or significantly more than 15% would have recruited someone with a disability or health condition over the past year, and people wouldn’t be losing their jobs either at the current rate.

What does current practice look like?

In May 2018 we published the CIPD/Simplyhealth annual survey on health and well-being, enabling us to survey over 1,000 organisations on their approach to supporting and managing people with a disability or long-term health condition; the findings give us some key insights into how effective organisations are in fulfilling the three broad principles set out in the Improving Lives paper.

Overall, around three in five respondents reported that their organisation has in place a supportive framework to recruit, retain and manage people with a disability and/or health condition, leaving room for improvement in some organisations. Less than a quarter told us that they don’t experience any challenges in this area. By far the most significant challenges are ‘developing line manager knowledge and confidence’ (56% of employers) and ‘developing an understanding about making reasonable adjustments’ (50%).

These findings are not surprising when we look at the level of investment that organisations make in these and other areas. For example, only a third of organisations provide training and guidance for line managers on how to support people with a disability and/or health condition and around the same proportion train line manages in mental health issues. Less than half have a supportive line management style that treats people as individuals and less than a third have a workplace adjustment process that is well communicated to line managers and employees. Having both of these approaches in place would make a fundamental difference to how well organisations facilitate effective working arrangements for people with a disability or health condition. Less than a quarter raise awareness of disability-related issues in the workplace, an approach which, if practised more widely, could help to facilitate a step change in how inclusive the working environment is around disability and health issues.

Line managers: the common thread

Organisations need to take action on a number of fronts to foster inclusive workplaces around health and disability but a common thread is the role that line managers play in creating the right culture and practice. There are several different dimensions to their role: first, they are the ones implementing the range of policies that will impact on people’s working conditions in areas such as flexible working, absence and return to work. Line managers need to be knowledgeable about disability and good people management as well as fair and consistent.

Managers are also likely to be at the centre of discussions around adjustments and how these changes can work in practice. More investment is needed so that managers have the confidence as well as the competence to build trust-based relationships with employees and have sensitive conversations. Managers are also key to nurturing an inclusive culture where diversity is nurtured, health and disability are visible, and there is zero tolerance to any hint of bias towards health or disability issues.

The new good practice guide we have just launched with Government for line managers will hopefully provide valuable, accessible advice on a range of key issues, such as:

  • how to attract a wide range of talent
  • welcoming new starters and creating an accessible induction
  • the day-to-day management of employees with a disability or health condition
  • the duty to make reasonable adjustments
  • disclosure and confidentiality
  • an effective framework for retaining people
  • managing performance and development
  • career progression.

We need to speed up the rate at which we are narrowing the disability employment gap in the UK, and we believe the CIPD’s community of people management professionals have an inspirational as well as a practical role to play. As Minister for Disabled People Sarah Newton said in her recent blog for the CIPD, the guide has been developed in partnership with us from the very start, and was first suggested at a roundtable with CIPD members, who told Government that line managers play a critical role in creating an inclusive working environment.

About the author

Rachel Suff, Senior Policy Adviser, Employee Relations

Rachel Suff joined the CIPD as a policy adviser in 2014 to increase the CIPD’s public policy profile and engage with politicians, civil servants, policy-makers and commentators to champion better work and working lives. An important part of her role is to ensure that the views of the profession inform CIPD policy thinking on issues such as health and wellbeing, employee engagement and employment relations. As well as conducting research on UK employment issues, she helps guide the CIPD’s thinking in relation to European developments affecting the world of work. Rachel’s prior roles include working as a researcher for XpertHR and as a senior policy adviser at Acas.

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