This UK Government has committed to delivering a new National Strategy for Disabled People, which is very much needed. We hope it will adequately take on board the ability of people with a disability to not only access employment opportunities, but progress and fulfill their potential at work. The CIPD has recently contributed to the development of the national strategy through the new Centre for Social Justice Commission on disability, led by Lord Shinkwin.

As well as committing to publishing a new National Disability Strategy, the Government has also committed to reducing the stubborn disability employment gap that exists in the UK. The CIPD has recently submitted evidence to the Work and Pensions Committee’s Inquiry  investigating the gap between the employment rates of disabled and non-disabled people and how the DWP can better support disabled people in the labour market. This inquiry is very much welcomed: we need urgent and sustained action on several fronts to make a quantifiable difference in narrowing the gap, particularly in the light of COVID-19 and the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on many people with a disability. 

Closing the disability employment gap

We welcome the progress reported in the latest House of Commons’ Library research briefing on closing the disability employment gap In April-June 2020, the employment rate for disabled people was 53.6% and the rate for people who are not disabled was 81.7%, a disability employment gap of 28.1 percentage points. Between April-June 2013 and April-June 2020, the disability employment gap reduced by 5.0 percentage points.

We need a considerable step change in public policy and employment practice relating to the support and management of people with a disability (and those with a long-term health condition) if the UK is to make significant progress in closing the disability employment gap. The latest ONS figures don’t capture the full impact of the ongoing health crisis and economic recession, including significant job loss in the labour market, on people with a disability. 

Furthermore, the disability employment gap relates to far more than the rate of disabled people in employment. 

As part of CIPD’s annual UK Working Lives survey we follow a panel of 2,000 workers to assess the impact of the pandemic on the quality of their working lives. The research shows that, overall, some disadvantages faced by workers with disabilities continue as before and others have worsened since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the UK. For example, assessments of workload were previously equal but have increased for those with disabilities; potentially creating a new disability gap. People with disabilities were already more likely to say that their jobs negatively affect their physical health and this gap has now widened since the pandemic (i.e. those with disabilities feel that work is less physically healthy for them). However, there is no difference in the impact of work on people’s mental health.

Overall we did not find a disability gap in people’s ability to work remotely during the lockdown, but the data (measured at July 2020, at one point in time) did find a disability gap in anxiety about returning to one’s normal workplace due to COVID-19, and workers with disabilities felt more pressure to return to work.

Meanwhile, a survey of 6,000 people by Citizens Advice, found more than a quarter (27%) of people with a disability were facing redundancy (compared with 17% of the overall working population) – increasing to 37% among those who said their disability had a large impact on their day-to-day life. Action is needed now to ensure this already disadvantaged group do not suffer increased disadvantage in the labour market going forward. It will be much harder for those with a long-term health condition/disability to re-enter the workforce if they do fall out of work. According to a report from Leonard Cheshire, seven-in-ten disabled people (71%) in employment in March this year were affected by the pandemic, either through a loss of income, being put on furlough or being made redundant. This increased to 84% for those aged 18 to 24.

What action is needed?

DWP (2013) rapid review of international evidence from the European Union (EU) and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) was commissioned to establish ‘what works’ to help disabled people into employment and to remain and progress in work. The review highlighted that: 

  • interventions should focus on both individuals and employers; 
  • availability and awareness of support are important – many of the more successful interventions were small scale or have low take-up;
  • early intervention is key, both to prevent individuals leaving employment due to the onset of an impairment, and to ensure early access to the right support for those on benefits;
  • employment interventions are only one element of the range of possible initiatives; in particular, focusing on preventing individuals leaving work may have a greater impact on the numbers on disability benefits than employment programmes themselves.
No single public policy initiative will achieve the step change needed in the willingness and confidence of employers (particularly SMEs) to effectively manage and retain people with a disability or health condition. In terms of employment, the National Strategy therefore needs to cover a broad range of areas if real progress is to be made in closing the disability employment gap and ensuring that disabled people can not only access quality jobs, but reach their full potential. Key areas for public policy reform include:
  • Better careers advice and guidance: Cultural and societal attitudes around health and disability do not begin with employment and attitudinal change needs to start at the earliest opportunity to have an impact on the expectations of young people entering the labour market, as well as those of their peers.
  • National and organisational disability data reporting (e.g. pay gap reporting): Government and employers, and business/professional bodies, need to do much more to publicise, educate and engage with employers around the existing voluntary reporting framework, with the aim of building on this to introduce a mandatory approach.
  • Greater availability and promotion of flexible working opportunities: The CIPD is calling for employees to have the right to request flexible working from day one of their employment, rather than the 26-weeks as currently required. Flexible working, such as the greater use of home working, will make work more accessible and sustainable for all, particularly for people with some disabilities and health concerns.
We also need to achieve cultural change and good practice within the workplace, and reframe the conversation around talent, for example:
  • Commitment from senior leaders and managers: employers need to develop a working environment that fosters diversity and does not tolerate bias towards people with a disability, even if it is unconscious. Leaders need to speak publicly and authentically about the importance of inclusion and drive cultural change that shifts the narrative to one of opportunity that embraces the social model of disability. 
  • Supporting a climate of disclosure: if individuals don’t feel comfortable to disclose their condition, they will not receive any organisational support. Many employers are aware of their need to act on health and disability issues, but many feel ill-equipped to do so. With disclosure often seen as the biggest barrier, it creates a vicious circle for both individuals and employers.
  • A robust organisational framework of health and disability related policies and support: this will provide the bedrock for encouraging a positive and open culture; employers should understand their legal obligations under the Equality Act in managing disability, and making reasonable adjustments when necessary.

Campaign and build awareness 

Government schemes such as Disability Confident and Access to Work have the potential to improve the capability of employers in creating inclusive workplaces and improving the employment of disabled people.  At the CIPD we are a Disability Confident Leader and have worked with the DWP to produce Disability Confident guidance for people managers on employing people with a disability or health condition.
We believe there needs to be much greater promotion of available support and schemes like Disability Confident and Access to Work by Government as part of a well-funded national campaign, in collaboration with employers, and relevant special interest group and stakeholders.

About the author

Charles Cotton, Research and Policy Adviser, Performance and Reward

Charles has recently led research into the business case for pensions, how front line managers make and communicate reward decisions, and managing reward risks, as well as the creation of a good practice guide on the annual pay review process. He is also responsible for the CIPD’s public policy work in the area of reward and is a Chartered Fellow of the CIPD.

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