A Diverse Approach: Making Flexible Working Fit For Disabled Employees

A man in a wheelchair writing on a whiteboard.

A growing appetite for flexible working

TUC spokesperson Alice Arkwright agrees. “We had anecdotal evidence that many disabled workers would have liked to have worked from home, but those requests were being denied,” she said.

Covid, a catalyst for hybrid working

Yet, the pandemic has acted as a catalyst with all employees demanding flexibility. Of those who quit in 2021, 21% said they did so because of a lack of flexible working.

Disabled workers want to work flexibly and from home

A woman in a wheelchair working from home.

The benefits of home-working for disabled employees

There are definite benefits of home working for disabled workers. The TUC report, for example, found:

  • 63% said it gave them greater control over their working lives
  • 47% had been able to change their work routine
  • 40% said home working reduced fatigue and tiredness

However, home working presents challenges, too, says Christopherson. “Because of the swiftness of the first lockdown, many people’s adjustments were left in the office. The TUC agrees, “The last 18 months have been dominated by discussions about flexible working [but] the experiences of disabled workers have largely been absent from these debates.”

A lack of adjustments negatively impacts mental health

The TUC found that many lacked the equipment to do their job such as a desk, chair or computer (34%). Others experienced difficulties participating in online meetings (9%) and lacked the specialist software they needed to do their jobs (7%).

A lack of proper equipment negatively impacted disabled workers’ mental health. Workers whose mental health had worsened because of working from home were twice as likely to say they lacked adequate office equipment and three times as likely to report lacking the software or computer programmes needed to do their jobs.

Scrabble tiles spell out mental health.

“People with disabilities will generally want to have access to certain tools. The tools give them back certain elements they need to get back onto an even keel. For example, a disabled person might use Jaws or Dragon to communicate effectively,” said Lobb.

Reasonable adjustments for flexible home-based working

An individual approach to flexible working is vital, and we can’t afford for flexible working to become a “catch-all” for disabled workers. “I think there shouldn’t be an assumption that because we’ve seen this shift in hybrid working, we’ve solved all the problems,” said Arkwright.

“Working from home is very popular amongst disabled workers, but we’re seeing some employers don’t necessarily implement it in the best way for disabled people. Employers still have a requirement to provide reasonable adjustments when someone is working from home,” she added.

A woman in a wheelchair working from home.

Flexibility goes beyond home-working, and employers must consider all types of flexible working. “For some disabled workers, it might be adjustments in working hours that they need, especially for those who can’t work from home. So, we must ensure that those things are still happening as well,” said Arkwright.

Arkwright added: “Flexible working covers a huge range of different options. And adjustments for disabled workers include a huge range of different options. So, it could be hours-based flexibility, changes to break patterns, different start, finish times, part-time working job shares and things like set shift patterns for others.”

Cultural change: adjusting for an inclusive future

There are clear benefits of flexible working for disabled and non-disabled employees For employers is an opportunity to widen the talent pool and to recruit the best candidate regardless of location.

“It’s difficult to accommodate everybody’s needs, and that’s where the technology piece comes into play,” said Morgan Lobb. “If we use it to our advantage, then we can have a wider audience available to us where we were restricted by geography.

However, to create a truly inclusive environment, goes deeper and requires an inclusive culture. “We can employ people from all over the country. Where I want to get to as an organisation is also creating a sense of belonging,” said Lobb.

It also means ensuring that the workplace is accessible for people that want to go to an office. “There could be things at home preventing us from doing our jobs such as an abusive partner, or a sick pet or personal arguments. “We want people to have an accessible environment that they can use. We want to design a place where people feel that they want to be and belong in a group because human interaction is very important,” Lobb added.

“There’s been studies about how people, when they meet each other, and they shake hands, unknowingly people within one minute of shaking hands with an individual smell their hand. We give off pheromones that we use to communicate with each other.”

A flexible future; baking it in

The pandemic has shifted the debate on how, when, where, and how long we work. It’s a welcome change for all workers, and disabled workers arguably make it easier to ask for adjustments that were already a legal right. However, there is still work to be done.

For example, employers need to offer flexibility within their job advertisements, says Arkwright. “We think employers should put possible flexible working options in job adverts. That would normalise flexible working. So, people would know before they apply for a job.”

She added, “Making flexible working the default is important because it reduces the stigma, normalises it and just makes it easier for everyone to be able to work flexibly. We know that many people don’t feel comfortable asking for reasonable adjustments because of fear of negative consequences or being turned down.”

However, it’s also important for employers to recognise that someone can need a reasonable adjustment at any time. “It can happen at any point during an adult’s working life,” said Lobb. “Most disabilities, for example, are acquired during working life, very disproportionate to the number of people born with a disability.”