It’s 25 years since the UK introduced reasonable adjustments in the workplace. Part of 1995’s Disability Discrimination Act, these measures made employers responsible for making changes in their workplaces to remove the effect of an employee or candidate’s disability. Reasonable adjustment requirements were beefed up further by 2010’s Equality Act, and now employers and line managers are acutely aware of their responsibilities to people with disabilities.
The Covid pandemic has changed people’s perceptions around health. Suddenly large numbers of people who had never bothered themselves with health or disability issues at work found themselves ‘at risk’ and ‘vulnerable’, whether because of age or health issues they’d never seen as serious.
The number of people affected, as well as the health and safety rules introduced for everyone during the pandemic, has meant a big change in attitudes to reasonable adjustments.
We’re now in a world where everyone is concerned by health. Not only that, but it’s been completely normalised for individuals to take actions to protect other people. One effect of this is the normalisation and appreciation of workplace adjustments. Employers have adjusted working practices across their employee populations, regardless of whether the employee has a recognised disability.
I think this, alongside the rise of agile working, is indicative of the changing employer/employee relationship post-covid and post-Brexit. As I discussed last month, employee expectations are changing, and retention is much easier than recruiting. Good talent isn’t easily replaceable and making small changes can have a big impact on employee happiness.
My initial comparator would be with flexible working. When legislation was expanded in 2014 from parents and carers to all employees, employers who’d never considered home working and agile working began to go above and beyond the law, as it proved an important factor in recruiting and retaining staff. Of course, these are also the employers who were able to continue operating without huge problems when workplaces were closed in early 2020.
So I believe opening up workplace adjustments to all employees will become increasingly commonplace. I’ve already seen new starter budgets, where new employees are given a small budget to create the workspace they can work best in. This budget can be spent on things like specialist furniture, such as chairs or standing desks, or tech adjustments like noise cancelling headphones. Being available to all employees means reasonable adjustments aren’t seen as ‘special treatment’, but as a policy that any employee can access to produce their best work.
Use our Disability Fact Sheet to start conversations and encourage deeper thinking about disability and accessibility issues in the workplace.
A NEW NARRATIVE
This also helps shine a different lens on disability and accessibility. It normalises the idea of different needs, whether they’re because of a recognised disability, short-term health issues or just personal preference.
This helps change the narrative around disability from what people can’t do, to how can we help them do it. It means we can improve attitudes and ensure line managers know they’ll be supported if they hire a disabled employee, not left to sort issues themselves.
My favourite outcome of the pandemic is the end of presenteeism. It never should’ve been encouraged for people to come to work whilst clearly contagiously ill. It’s unpleasant for everyone, and downright dangerous for the vulnerable or immunocompromised.
Now that technical solutions exist for so many roles to be done from home, the main reason for presenteeism is line managers. It’s up to us in HR to make it clear as we head into winter that working from home with a cold is preferable to infecting the entire workplace. Tackling machismo ‘man-up’ attitudes to illness is a long term challenge, but one that should be part of your thinking around both disability and your wellbeing strategy.
WHERE TO BEGIN
There are a few things you can start thinking about today
Are you up to date with best practice? Is your organisation already actioning initiatives like adjustment passports (which allow adjustments to move with the worker around the organisation).
Employers are doing some great work around disability and accessibility, often with very low cost and high impact. You can identify success from award brochures or simply by putting out an appeal for help on LinkedIn. Most people are more than happy to share how they’re making work better for under-represented groups.
Change the language. This isn’t about political correctness and banning words, it’s about not highlighting difference. Making a workplace adjustment is something everyone does – changing the height of a chair is a workplace adjustment. In that context it becomes more about ensuring everyone is comfortable at work.
I hate the term reasonable adjustment. It suggests that some adjustments are declined because the request is unreasonable, instead of the real reason, which is often that the employee isn’t worth the financial cost of the adjustment.
Learn from Covid. You’ve just been through (hopefully) the biggest exercise in adjusting employee’s working arrangements you’ll ever have to do. What went well, and where did existing processes and procedures create problems?
Not only will this help make your workplace adjustments better, but also help with risk management. What happened with Covid is a good indicator of the government’s response to a future pandemic. And pandemics aren’t the only thing that may cause an organisational shutdown or limits to movement – the experience you’ve gained from Covid would be relevant to a cyber shutdown, climate event or other country-wide business disruption.