Employers will have a different Focus as we Return to Work
Long Covid is not classed as a disability – although it might be – if time proves that it meets the conditions of being ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’. It’s too soon to tell. However, regardless of diagnostic code, an estimated one-in-10 is thought to have been affected, with symptoms ranging from fatigue, heart and lung damage and limited mobility, to headaches, and ‘brain fog’. Long Covid is likely to loom large in the workplace.
And as if that’s not enough, the number of workers with mental health issues is expected to soar this year, borne of long-term isolation, job insecurity and financial hardship. Employers from every industry will have to step up when it comes to supporting their staff as their workforce returns.
So what could an increase in health and disability issues mean for future access and inclusion in the workplace?
Existing Issues around Access and Inclusion
It’s no secret that employees with disabilities already struggle to get the support they need. Despite employment law guidelines, the Equality Act and Human Rights charters, many employers still struggle to see that the problem is not the person’s disability, but a mismatch between their abilities and their working environment.
This concept of a Social Model of Disability remains a point of interest but not of action for the wider working world.
And in a predominantly non-disabled workplace culture, disabled people’s needs continue to fly under the radar of many employers. Or at the very least, the process of identifying and accessing that support can become an issue of procedure rather than one of care and compassion for fellow workers.
Workplace culture also has a huge role to play in how protected and supported disabled employees feel. Co-workers often don’t understand what it means to have a disability and how it can affect our lives. We can often be reticent about seeking help, fearful of our perceived ‘expendability’ in large businesses, and reluctant to cause staffing difficulties in smaller ones.
This may well be why so many choose simply to ‘get on with it’, risking further health complications further down the line, rather than exercise their right to access reasonable adjustments.
By encouraging a more compassionate and open-minded approach at all levels in the workplace, we can help change how disability is seen and understood. But is that on the cards?
Better Support or less Capacity to Act?
Whether employers fear being on the wrong side of employment law or genuinely recognise the need for improvement, change is certainly coming in some form.
With more workers experiencing short, long-term health conditions, or disability, they will be seeking the support they’re due. And perhaps too, in more significant numbers, employees will be less likely to ‘just get on with it’.
For that reason, one might assume that this could – at least in the short-term – improve focus on workplace wellbeing, inclusion and accessible working environments.
However, in practice, it may not be quite so simple. With increased demand on Occupational Health staff and budgets, we may find that employers’ capacity to make adequate, reasonable adjustments are limited – and may even reduce their willingness to do so.
This is particularly the case with smaller businesses, which may struggle more to make adjustments for a modestly-sized workforce. I know that many small companies trying to do right by their disabled employees already find it challenging to provide adequate access to the adjustments they need.
So, on balance, I think the reality is probably going to be a bit of a ‘mixed bag’ in terms of what the post-Covid era (if we can ever truly call it that) may do for access and inclusion in the workplace.
Yes, employers will likely recognise the need to be more inclusive and aware of health issues and disability in general. We may even find that workplace wellbeing is more pro-actively encouraged by management and adopted at ground level into the workplace culture. This will perhaps make it easier psychologically for those with a disability or health condition in the workplace. And that is, of course, a great thing.
But sadly, I believe that, even with a more compassionate and supportive workplace culture, practical, tangible support for disabled people and those with long-term health conditions will not improve by much in the short-term. Most likely, when the dust settles, we will still have a very long way to go before access and inclusion are adequately addressed in the workplace.