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Disabled employees still struggling to get adjustments

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Getting workplace adjustments is not easy for nine out of 10 disabled employees, according to the Business Disability Forum’s (BDF) Great Big Workplace Adjustments Survey 2023.

According to the research, exclusive to HR magazine, most (78%) disabled employees had to initiate the process of getting adjustments, rather than their employers being proactive. 

 

Fragmented processes 

Angela Matthews, BDF head of policy and research, said the largest obstacle to getting appropriate adjustments was fragmented processes. 

Speaking to HR magazine, she said: “What we find is organisations have accrued a lot of different types of support and the processes to acquire that support are very disparate and require communication with different departments.” 

Matthews said HR teams need to become a central touchpoint for any queries about workplace adjustments to streamline the process for managers. 

She said: “What we see is a lot of employees don’t know the range of support that’s available in their workplaces so they’re expecting their managers to know, when the manager doesn’t know, they go to HR.  

“HR needs to be a single way into all of that support.” 


More about workplace adjustments:

Workplace adjustments – are we getting it right?

Reasonable adjustments for disabled workers in the age of hybrid working

Employees with invisible disabilities left to source support alone


For one in eight disabled employees, it took over a year to get the adjustments they needed.  

This was an improvement of 4% since the BDF’s last survey in 2019. 

Matthews said HR needs to be aware of the frustration and pain employees may be enduring while they wait for accommodations to be made. 

She said: “During the process of putting adjustments in place, managers are often thinking ‘we’re making adjustments, we are putting all of this stuff in place and being proactive’ because it’s lots of different decisions.  

“But what we saw in the survey was the employees don’t see it as separate adjustments.  

“They see it as one arrangement, and separate little paths to the process. 

“So, if employees need five adjustments, and they’ve only got two of them, the employee’s narrative is generally that their employer hasn’t made adjustments for them and that they are still struggling in the workplace.” 

 

Using looser language 

When employees tell managers they have a disability, 81% of managers said it is easier to make adjustments. 

However, Matthews said managers are afraid to ask questions in case they misjudge an employee’s capabilities and offend them. 

“We have some HR managers who responded to our survey and said they wanted it to come across as knowing they have got talented staff, but we also want to support them if there are areas where they struggle. So, how do we ask them and not offend or patronise?” she said. 

The best approach is to approach the issue with accessible, friendly language, she said. 

“Some employment policies are very much based around ‘do you have a disability? Do you have a health condition? We can support you with workplace adjustments’,” Matthews added. 

“But actually management and HR managers wanted to be able to say, ‘what are you finding difficult right now? And how can I help you with that?’ 

“This encourages the employee to tell the HR advisor what they’re finding difficult, and it engages them in forming the solution as well.” 

With a new condition, or when seeking a diagnosis, employees often don’t identify with words like ‘disabled’ yet Matthews added, so more general language can be helpful in breaking down stigma. 

“In effect, they are having the conversation about barriers and workplace adjustments without using some potentially stigmatised language or language that the employee isn’t quite used to yet, such as ‘disability’, ‘adjustments’, or ‘health conditions’.”  

The research found 18% of disabled employees said their adjustments have removed all barriers in the workplace, and less than half (44%) felt their employee assistance programme was accessible and inclusive. 

 

Flexibility over formality 

Flexible working can help cut down the number of formal adjustments, Matthews said, and improve accessibility from day one of employment.  

She said: “In this survey we found that if a disabled employee’s manager and team are flexible they have to have less formal conversations about adjustments. 

“It was with things like, ‘If I need to come in later tomorrow, because I need to go to the hospital because of my condition, someone will pick up the first hour of my shift for me’.

“In that kind of culture, the employee doesn’t have to request from the manager to have an adjustment to their shifts tomorrow.  

“It’s just covered by the team, just as part of being a good human being.” 

 

Prioritise reality, not data 

She said employers should prioritise the lived experience of disabled employees, rather than diversity statistics. 

She said: “We often find that a lot of our members want to increase their diversity figures.  

“They want more people to say they’re disabled. They want to raise the number of people who are having adjustments because that looks great on the diversity board report.  

“But actually, in some of the organisations that are less diverse on paper, disabled employees were saying how much they enjoyed work because of a genuinely flexible and empathetic culture.” 

 

The Great Big Workplace Adjustments Survey 2023 looked at the experiences of nearly 1,500 disabled employees and 400 managers around workplace adjustments and inclusion. 

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