Following ONS’s reporting of half a million more people out of work because of long-term sickness absence, the government announced a review of issues holding back workforce participation in its 2022 Autumn Statement. This, taken with other recent developments, is a clear indicator of the direction of travel towards closing the disability employment gap for 2023.
When the government announced last year that it had met its manifesto commitment of increasing the number of disabled people in employment by one million, five years early, it was hailed as great news but the fact remained that, at that time, only 54 per cent of people with disabilities were in employment, compared with 82 per cent of people without disabilities, so there’s still a long way to go before we see businesses reporting that they’ve successfully closed the gap in their own organisation.
The fact that the target was achieved five years early indicates that the bar wasn’t set high enough. There’s no doubt that further closing the disability employment gap will remain high on the government’s agenda going forward.
Although the government has yet to make disability reporting mandatory, its consultation response on this is currently outstanding, so larger employers in particular would be well advised to keep an eye out for developments.
It can be useful for employers to understand their numbers in order to focus on helping those with long-term health conditions and disabilities to enter and stay in their business but GRiD’s latest research indicates that 46 percent of employers do not report on the number of disabled people they employ.
Of those businesses that do currently collect information on the proportion of people with disabilities in their workforce, GRiD found that a third (33%) do so to inform diversity and inclusion (D&I) practices and initiatives. A further 30% use the data to track progress made on their initiatives, 17% do so to inform recruitment practice, and 16% do so to inform talent management practice. In fact, 68% agree that transparency on disability reporting in the workplace could help to reduce the disability employment gap by leading to more inclusive practices.
The perceived wisdom is that what gets reported gets done but it’s important to understand that not all disabilities are obvious or visible (such as a mental health condition, autism or diabetes), many employees prefer to not divulge that they have a disability or long-term health condition, and others may not think of themselves as “disabled” or having a particular need that shouldn’t be catered for by their employer wanting to empower people to do the best that they can.
So language and the way in which information is requested is important. For example, rather than asking whether someone has a disability, it is often more effective to ask if there is anything that could help make it easier for someone to work effectively, such as different hours, assistive software or modified equipment.
That way, employees can see the purpose of the reporting and how it could benefit them to disclose their disability or long-term health condition. They can also see the effectiveness of any reasonable adjustments made for colleagues, which could in turn encourage further disclosures.
Whilst many employers do recognise the value of supporting the health and wellbeing of those already within their workforce, the real progress to be made is in getting more people living with a disability or long-term health condition into the workplace in the first place.
That’s where the government’s Disability Confident employer scheme can help. The aims of this programme are to help employers with their thinking on disability in the workplace, and to help move them towards improving how they attract, recruit and retain workers with disabilities and long-term health conditions. It provides toolkits, guidance, and an accreditation scheme at three levels, so a business can access a wider pool of talent, and formally demonstrate commitment to employing and supporting workers with disabilities.
Employers will also find help available within their benefits package – via their occupational health, private medical or other benefits. For example, as well as meeting the costs of long-term sick pay, a group income protection policy will include access to help from vocational rehabilitation experts, and access to advice and support with making reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act 2010. An insurer might even help with the extra costs of keeping someone in work (such as providing or modifying equipment) on an ex gratia basis.
As well as providing financial independence, work plays such a vital role in promoting mental wellbeing, building self-esteem and identity and providing fulfilment and opportunities for social interaction, so it’s not surprising that government continues to focus on encouraging more employers to provide the opportunity for employment to a wider pool of people.
As the government works towards getting more people with a disability or long-term health condition into employment during 2023 and beyond, employers will find that ensuring employees and candidates are supported to do the best that they can is good for business too. It can extend a business’s appeal as both an employer and business partner, especially in light of the ESG agenda. It can ensure that the best talent is recruited and retained and demonstrate to staff that everyone is valued for who they are – thus positioning the business as caring and inclusive.
Katharine Moxham is spokesperson for the group risk industry body, Group Risk Development (GRiD). Katharine works to generate a wider awareness and understanding of group risk products (employer-sponsored life assurance, income protection and critical illness) and their advantages for employers and employees. Katharine regularly contributes to industry and business publications and debate.