Workplace adjustments for disabled employees: time to move from ‘why’ to ‘why not’

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Workplace adjustments or accommodations are pivotal in enabling disabled employees to thrive. That’s the message we hear consistently from our 550+ members and partners and that’s why workplace adjustments are one of the 10 pillars of Business Disability Forum’s Disability Smart framework.

What do I mean by a workplace adjustment? Called a ‘Reasonable Adjustment’ under the UK Equality Act 2010, a workplace adjustment is any change to the way someone does their job which enables them to work in the way that best suits them.

Common workplace adjustments include assistive technology – like speech to text software; equipment – like an adapted keyboard or mouse or ergonomic chair; human support – like a British Sign Language (BSL) interpreter; or ‘soft’ adjustments like different working patterns or a quiet space in an office.

They are mostly very simple and inexpensive (though there is an important caveat here around BSL interpreters and the Access to Work cap – something BDF is lobbying on), and are often the difference between someone thriving or just surviving at work – or worse, falling out of the workplace altogether.

Diane Lightfoot: "This is about talent – which in a climate of skills shortages in many sectors we cannot afford to exclude."

But what’s the experience like of getting workplace adjustments in 2023? Earlier this year, we repeated our Great Big Workplace Adjustments Survey, first carried out in 2018–19 and once again generously supported by Microlink. This time round, we wanted to find out if and how the experience of getting workplace adjustments has changed post pandemic. We also broadened the survey to include a focus on wellbeing, occupational health and more. And we received almost 2,000 completed responses (up from 1,200 in the first iteration) – from over 1,500 employees and 400 managers.

Managers gaining confidence to make adjustments

The good news is that managers are much more confident about having conversations and making adjustments. 64 per cent said they were “very confident” to have a conversation with an employee who tells them that they have a disability or condition. This is really good to hear as, rather than any specific policy or process, we see consistently that the relationship between the disabled employee and their line manager is the single most important factor in enabling people to get the adjustments they need. 81 per cent of managers also said it is a lot easier to make adjustments when an employee tells them they have a disability or condition.

However, in our survey, when we asked employees if they’d willingly describe themselves as disabled, 43 per cent said they would, 27 per cent said they would not and a further 27 per cent said they might… depending on the situation. In the previous iteration of the survey we found that 34 per cent of disabled employees who would have benefited from adjustments had not asked for them because they were afraid they would be treated differently. The “what’s in it for me?” factor is critical here: do the (perceived) benefits outweigh the (perceived) risks?

The best organisations operate trust-based approaches that see the disabled employee as the expert in the 

There is a marked perception or experience gap between employees and managers. Only 10 per cent of employees had found getting adjustments “easy” and only 18 per cent said that adjustments removed all the barriers they experience in the workplace. Some of this gap may also be about increased expectations (in itself a good thing) – we are seeing that people are getting their discrete adjustments (kit or a workstation for example) but that doesn’t necessarily translate into wider inclusion – for example, in career progression or simply in being able to access other parts of the building. Disabled people want and rightly expect equity here too.

The limitations of workplace adjustments

We also need to remember the limitation of workplace adjustments, however good and effective they are and to remember that disabled people experience their disability in all areas of their life, not just at work or just outside work. One person said: “The adjustments help more than not having them, but they don’t remove all the barriers because the conditions are still there and still affect the working day. For example, they can’t help when I have a bad day and am in so much pain.”

Some of the things that people are asking for really aren’t – or shouldn’t be – adjustments at all. Things like inclusive and accessible communications should be standard practice that benefits everyone. Managers said they need support too – particularly during and since the pandemic and with different ways of working – and also cited confusion in knowing where to go with many different entry points in employers’ health, adjustments and wellbeing support. These need to be simplified in order to be effective and easy to navigate.

There is also a really important dimension here about trust. We hear too often about employers who require employees to go to occupational health for an assessment in order to get an adjustment – even when this is a straightforward replacement of a piece of equipment that they have already! This just doesn’t make sense; it costs more (in terms of the cost of the occupational health provision itself and also the cost of the employee both in attending the occupational health meeting and in not being able to work effectively because they don’t have the adjustments they need). It’s also bad for morale – and think what wider message it sends to others who are weighing up whether to ask for an adjustment or not.

Instead, the best organisations operate trust-based approaches that see the disabled employee as the expert. In our survey, 73 per cent of managers said it is a lot easier to make adjustments when the employee knows what adjustments they need. In the context of the public sector, safeguarding taxpayers’ money is often raised as a concern. But very, very few people ask for things they don’t need – and if everyone asks for noise cancelling headphones (an often-cited example), that probably tells you something about the usability of your office environment!

Role of senior leadership in allowing adjustments

Not surprisingly, we saw the impact of senior leadership here too – sadly there were incidences where senior leaders had blocked adjustments when managers had approved them. More positively, senior leaders have a key role in driving change including of course the process for how adjustments are delivered as well as creating a broader culture of psychological safety that enables people to ask for what they need.

Ultimately, we have to change the narrative. This is about talent – which in a climate of skills shortages in many sectors we cannot afford to exclude. It’s also about moving our thinking from “why?” to “why not?”; from “why should I fund this kit for you/let you work in this way?” to “why on earth wouldn’t I give you what you need to do the best possible job for us?”.

Read the full results and recommendations from the Great Big Workplace Adjustments Survey 2023 at: businessdisabilityforum.org.uk

Diane Lightfoot is CEO of the Business Disability Forum


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