Talking human to human: disability in a pandemic

In this episode of the Acas Podcast, we ask how workplaces and individuals can respond successfully to the likely disproportionate impact the pandemic will have on disabled staff.

We're joined by:

  • Jane Hatton, CEO and founder of Evenbreak
  • Caroline Sandy, Acas workplace adviser

We discuss:

  • what a good conversation around disability looks like
  • common myths
  • how to ask for adjustments, especially when you think your workplace may not be supportive

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This is a conversation about managing disability in a pandemic between Sarah Guthrie, Acas communications manager, Jane Hatton, CEO and founder of Evenbreak, and Acas workplace adviser, Caroline Sandy.

Sarah Guthrie: Welcome to the Acas podcast. I'm Sarah Guthrie and today we're focusing on how we can support disabled people during the coronavirus pandemic. I'm delighted to be here with Jane Hatton, who is founder and Chief Executive of Evenbreak, which connects disabled jobseekers with inclusive employers. And also Caroline Sandy, who is Chair of the Acas staff disability network and a workplace adviser. Thanks for joining me today.

Jane Hatton: Pleasure.

Caroline Sandy: You're welcome.

Sarah: Disability is a huge topic. And so it's obvious that we can't cover everything. So I just wanted to flag that we will be doing related topics later, like mental health in more depth. But I'm thrilled to be today delving into the details of how we can support disabled people who are working at this very challenging time. So what do we need to be aware of when we're thinking about disability in the workplace, at this point in the pandemic. Jane?

Jane: Yeah, I mean, so many things, the obvious one is about workplace adjustments. So many people, disabled and otherwise, are now working remotely. And workplace adjustments are just as important for someone who's working at home as they are for someone in the workplace. So I think things like technology, furniture, making sure that someone has space within the home that they can use, which is difficult if you're sharing, you know, shared accommodation with other people if you've got young children or whatever. But as far as possible, make the working environment at home, as barrier free as you can. And for people who are in work, really a lot of the same as you do for anybody else about making it COVID-safe, so that they are less likely to be, you know, to catch this horrible virus because it's, you know, not something that we want any employees to come down with.

Caroline: And I think as well, keeping in touch as you would with any employee, particularly if you're aware that you've got staff with disabilities, making sure that the adaptations you've put in place are working, and maybe, be a bit more aware of, you might get requests that you've not had before. So you might, for example, get somebody asking for support with travel to work. And I think it's to be open-minded, look at things from a can-do point of view. And if you look at it that way, and then you find you can't do it, at least you've approached it in the right direction.

Sarah: And from your experience, what kind of barriers come up often that are actually quite simple to remove?

Caroline: The perception that things are costly to put in place, which is very often not the case. Fear about having a conversation, you know, what can I say? Well, you know, disabled people like anybody else are human beings, they can talk. So talk to them on that human level without any pre-judgement of either what somebody might need, or what the impact the condition has on them.

Disabled people tend to know themselves very well, know what their limitations are, know what they need, so don't make any assumptions. And sick absence is another one that people tend to think, that employing somebody with a disability is going to give you increased sick absence. And that's very often not the case. If anything, sick absence with the right level of support is quite minimal in most cases.

Jane: Yes I'd echo that, I did some research a few years ago, which I wrote up in a book about the business case for employing disabled people. And one of the things was that on average, disabled people have significantly less time off sick than non-disabled people. I think that thing about keeping in touch with people is very important, because if everybody's working from home, you can feel quite isolated.

And we all work from home at Evenbreak routinely, we always have done, so we felt a bit smug at the beginning of the pandemic because we were already experts in this. But what we started doing in the beginning of the pandemic was starting our team online meetings with just a kind of check-in about how people were feeling. And I think it's important that leaders genuinely lead the way there. So, you know, I made a point of sometimes saying, I'm getting a bit fed up with this now it's not funny anymore, is it? You know, or, not saying, Oh, isn't everything wonderful, but accepting that this is difficult, and you know, some people are really struggling, and just allowing people to say how they feel without fear of judgement or any other kind of impact.

Caroline: As well just sort of broadening out a little, you might not be talking to somebody that has a disability themselves. They either live with somebody that has a disability, or they care for somebody, and in this pandemic environment that brings additional challenges to that individual, even though they may not be disabled themselves.

Jane: And not forgetting of course that you will have disabled people that you don't know are disabled because they haven't told you. They're in most organisations, people won't be open about their impairment, because they may feel that they'll lose out on promotional opportunities or development opportunities. Most impairments aren't visible anyway. So you will almost certainly have neurodiverse people or people with diabetes or mental health conditions that you have no idea of. Sometimes they may have no idea of, because they may not have been diagnosed. So it is about being sensitive with everybody really.

Sarah: And you've both mentioned there that sometimes people don't disclose that they are disabled people, and that sometimes people find it difficult to talk about this topic. What advice would you have about what a good conversation on this looks like and what it doesn't?

Jane: I think if you have an open culture, then this isn't an issue. And by open culture, I mean that you can talk about disability or mental health in the same way that you can talk about what was on EastEnders last night, or what the weather is going to be like at the weekend. So it just becomes another topic of conversation. And that's easy to say, it's not so easy to do, because people do feel, especially people who've had a history of being discriminated against, or disadvantaged in things like career opportunities, because of their disability, why would you be open about it?

But I think that, you know, if you have a culture where senior people within that organisation are open about their issues, so whether it's someone who's gay, or someone who has mental health, or someone who's caring for, you know, whatever it might be, it suddenly becomes ok for everybody else in the organisation to be human too. But it's really for leaders and managers to make it easy for people to say, this is who I am. And I need some help. Because we all need help sometimes, disabled or not.

Caroline: Well, sort of following on from what Jane's just said there, the importance of acceptance by a manager about whatever’s shared, confidentiality, that you know that you are sharing something and it's down to you to choose whether you share more widely than that. And also something Jane said earlier, somebody may not either be aware they're becoming unwell, or may struggle to accept a diagnosis that leads to them being disabled. So they may well talk about difficulties that they have. But it doesn't need to have that label of disability on it necessarily to say that they need extra support.

Jane: Whether somebody under the legislation will be described as disabled, you know or not, is actually irrelevant. What you want to do is make sure that your employees are able to carry out their job to the best of their ability, and whatever they need to do that is in your interests to supply.

Caroline: And sometimes to be brave to try something you haven't done before can open all sorts of gains that you wouldn't have envisaged.

Sarah: Have you found that to be true at Evenbreak, Jane, in your experience leading that organisation?

Jane: Yes, and well, in our case, it's fascinating really, because we only employ disabled people, for a number of reasons. One is why wouldn't we because they're all so talented? But also we want to be demonstrating to other organisations, you know. And also, I think it's important that we lead from a position of lived experience. So it's disabled people talking about disabled people, rather than, you know, historically non-disabled people telling other non-disabled people what disabled people needed.

I mean, we have a terrifically diverse team, not just in terms of lots of different kinds of impairments, but also in terms of gender and race and age, and, you know, all sorts of other things as well. We're an incredibly diverse team. And actually, what I find is that a lot of the discussion isn't necessarily impairment related, it's person related. So you might have someone with an autistic child who's struggling at a mainstream school and needs extra support while they get that sorted out.

We all work from home anyway so that wasn't particularly new for us. But most of the adjustments is exactly as Caroline said, it's about flexible working. So although everybody works remotely from home, we all will work different hours. And we'll work them at different times, and we'll work them at times to suit us. The skill is as a leader to enable that to happen so that people feel that they can ask for things which may seem out of the ordinary. You know, we have people who work, you know, at weekends because they like to have time off during the week. I'm a bit of a night owl person, so I don't function very well before double figures in the morning. But I'm quite often still working at 11 at night, but that's out of choice. And I make it clear that I don't expect employees to be working at 11 at night or instantly respond to emails I might send at that time.

But just to, you know, we all work differently and just respecting that, and I think that makes for an organisation that works seamlessly together and really well as a team. And we all work at our best. And certainly the organisation doesn't suffer. In fact, I think it gains from that because it does mean you get more productivity from people. And they're not sitting there worried about 'oh I need to pick the kids up', or 'oh, I've got this hospital appointment'. How am I going to do that? Because it just is fitted in automatically. It's not a deal anymore.

Sarah: It's interesting, as you were talking, I was going to chip in and ask you what you would say to an organisation that thinks it's going to be bad for the organisation to work this flexibly? And you've already answered that question, because it sounds like the gains in allowing that flexibility far outweigh the difference you have in terms of everybody working in the office at the same time.

Jane: Yeah, I think we've sort of had this history, which I hope COVID will change – you have to look for silver linings don't you in these crises. But you know, I think there was – even in 2020 early on – there was still a kind of assumption that people should work 9 to 5, Monday to Friday, 40 hours a week at a place of work. And it was still – and for some people, that will be the case, you know, if you're a nurse, you can't work from home. But for an inordinate amount of jobs that we have been told for decades couldn't possibly be done from home, when disabled people have asked for that as an adjustment, you know, we're suddenly discovering that lots of jobs can be done from home. And I think that, you know, that actually helps organisations to get the best from people.

But, you know, it's important not to make the assumption that, oh, everybody's going to want to work from home because some people hate working from home. So I think from an employer's perspective, if you want to get the best out of your people, and why wouldn't you because they're your most expensive asset, it's about how can we offer employees choice, so that they can work in a way that really works for them, but works for the organisation as well. And those 2 things aren't mutually exclusive by any stretch of the imagination.

Caroline: In a way the disability is irrelevant. It's, you know, what can we do, that means that we'll get the best out of you, and you'll give us the best, and treating me as an individual, not as a person with a label.

Sarah: And that's a very attractive culture for everybody. As you've been saying, this is not something that everybody else, in inverted commas, is going to be unattracted to. This is good for all of us. And I'm wondering, for somebody who's listening to this thinking, my workplace is just not there, I'm not getting the support I need, and it's really affecting me. How would they go about opening up a conversation to get the support that they do need?

Jane: I think definitely the first approach is the informal approach, rather than going straight to the union or whatever. And the way to frame it, I think, which can be helpful is to say to the manager, or the HR person, or whoever it is you feel you can talk to, look, you know, I would be far more productive if I was able to have this – whatever it might be. And, and it's about knowledge as well, knowledge is power. So if it's, for example, assistive technology, you know, if I had a bigger monitor, I would be far more productive because I wouldn't keep getting headaches, because I can't see it properly, and Access to Work will pay for it.

So I think it's about knowing what's available out there, and framing it not in a way that starts off by ‘these are my legal rights, and I demand to have them’ – although you can do that, of course. But I think the initial contact should be, I would be able to be much more productive, I would have less time off sick, it would make my life and your life much easier, if... Can we look at these? Whether it's, you know, and usually it's not a costing thing, it's normally something like flexibility, you know, different hours or whatever it might be. But if it is a cost thing, just remind the employer that actually you don't have to pay for all of this, that Access to Work will pay for some or all towards it. And it's a simple solution. And we'll all be happy.

And then escalate it obviously if you're getting no from there, you might want to escalate it. I think the initial one would be, look, we can all be better off if we just make this change.

Caroline: Yeah, I think Jane’s very right there. I suffer with SAD (seasonal affective disorder) very, very badly in the winter. So my agreement is I take more annual leave in the winter, than I do in the summer, and I work slightly different hours. I'm more productive in the summer. So I get most of my target time done in that time of year which allows me that down time if I need it in the winter without any anxiety coming in, because I know I'm where I need to be. But that requires you to have a dialogue. People can't read minds.

Jane: And almost always the employee will know what the solution is. And I do think that one of the other silver linings that's come out of the pandemic is that we're realising that the old way of working is not, you know, going to really come back again ever, I don't think. So what we need in our organisations are people who are flexible, who are used to working in different ways, who can find innovative ways around obstacles, who were used to remote working, and the absolute experts in all of those things are disabled people because we've been doing it all our lives. It was always the case. But it's even more obvious now that disabled candidates and employees are premium candidates and employees. It's nothing to do with pity. It's everything to do with additional skill and talent that we bring with us.

Sarah: That is a very powerful point chain. And I'm wondering, have you got any stories of where employers have moved from perhaps not quite getting it to becoming more inclusive, in your work at Evenbreak?

Jane: People are recognising now, I think some of the larger employers are recognising that things like their processes were not only discriminating against, albeit you know, unwittingly against disabled candidates, but actually not really very effective ways of predicting future talent anyway.

CVs tend to reflect history not potential. And if you're disabled, you're less likely to have had the opportunities to show what you’re made of, because you've been discriminated against, so your CV won't show your brilliance. And not everybody is brilliant at interviews. In fact, really, I think that if you interview someone, all you're doing is finding out the people who are the best at blagging at interviews. Unless blagging at interviews is part of the role, is that really what you want to test?

But I think that, you know, looking at some of the more forward-thinking organisations that we work with. I will name one, for example, HS2. They get a lot of bad press. But actually, their recruitment process is excellent, in terms of using what we call blind auditions. So if someone's going for a technical role, instead of having to go to an interview and be asked how good they are as a technician, they'll be given a technical task to do and they'll be, you know, assessed purely on how good they were at that task. And if they need adjustments to do it, they're given those adjustments. So I do think that organisations are finding that the more inclusive they are, the better calibre of candidate is applying and the better calibre of candidate they're actually appointing. The interesting thing is that every organisation that I know of who have employed disabled people actively have said it was one of the best things they’ve ever done.

Sarah: And on that, have you got any favourite stories about how someone has been supported by an organisation to really flourish?

Jane: I have an internal one, if that doesn't sound too big-headed?

Sarah: No, not at all.

Jane: So the first person that I employed at Evenbreak after myself was a young man of 16. He's quite happy for me to tell the story. He was 16 at the time, his mum phoned me to say, “Do you have any careers advice for my son?” She wasn't asking for a job for him. She said he has ME very severely such that he's not been at school since he was 10. So he's been home-schooled, but because of his condition, he can only really work for say, for 3 or 4 hours a week.

So he's now 16, he doesn't have qualifications, he doesn't have the work experience that you know, most teenagers do. And his careers adviser has told him that he'll have to live a life on benefits. And I can remember thinking – you can't write off someone at 16. But this was back in something like 2012. And it was when a million young people were unemployed. So he was up against a million other young people who probably had GCSEs, at least will have done that week's work experience from school, you know, and then I was thinking of the employers that work with us and thinking, well, he can only work for 2 hours a week, and he doesn't have any work experience. He can't work outside the home. What's he going to do?

And I had one of these, you know, light-bulb moments and I said, "Can he use a computer?" And she said, "He's 16, he was born using a computer." So long story short, he became a data entry clerk at Evenbreak. And he works 2 hours a week. And we worked out between us that actually working in 20-minute bursts is better for him because he gets too tired after 20 minutes. So he spreads his 2 hours across the whole week, in 6 lots of 20 minutes. He's been with us for 7,8,9 years, and he's never had the day off sick, and I don't think he's ever made a mistake. And that's someone who was written off. And when I tell that story, people start feeling sorry for him. And by the end of the story, they're saying, I want to employ him. I want someone who never goes off sick and never makes a mistake. And he's never had to go on benefits. And he will work with us for as long as we're going.

Sarah: That's fantastic.

Caroline: That's amazing, yeah. I've got a personal one when I had some unexpected time off. And for me, it was very empowering when I was asked by my manager to put together my own return to work plan. Was, you know, to have that empowerment to say what I was going to do, when I was going to do it, obviously with their agreement, but it was a case of me leading my return rather than being done to, which would have felt very patronising, would have felt very childish, if you like. I knew what I could do. I knew how I could do it. So to have the ability to be able to say, this is what I think, what do you think, is incredibly empowering. And obviously, because I put it together, I was invested in it, I made it happen. And it was incredibly successful.

Sarah: Jane, Caroline, thank you for sharing those stories. I feel incredibly uplifted by them. And I think what's really struck me is that these things that we're talking about are good for everybody. Although we have been talking about disability, things like flexible working, treating people as individuals, and helping everybody to work in a way that works for them best. All of those things really help organisations too, it's not an either or, often it's a both and, where what you can do for one individual will also help your whole organisation. So thank you for sharing that. And I'm sure that those insights will be good for everybody, not just those with particular disabilities. So thank you.

You've been listening to the Acas podcast. There's more advice, training and resources on our website to help you support those with disabilities. And in the session notes for this episode too, I've put links to a number you can call if you're looking for more bespoke support for your organisation. So don't hesitate to get in touch.

Thanks for listening.