Bringing your whole self to work

By Vanessa Hardy

“How can employers make it easier for disabled staff to share information about their disability and how can disabled employees be more disability confident themselves?”panel 2

This was the broad topic of discussion at our recent ‘After Hours’ event hosted by our Partners at HSBC and chaired by our Associate and authority on disability and disclosure at work, Kate Nash OBE.

Kate was joined by an expert panel of disabled people from across our membership: Andy Garrett, recently retired Chair of Disability Staff Association, Metropolitan Police Service; Zoe Davies, Enablement Network Lead, Accenture; Roland Chesters, former Diversity & Equality Policy Officer at Foreign Commonwealth Office; and Brendan Roach, Senior Disability Consultant at Business Disability Forum.

Kate kicked the evening off by outlining some of the key themes from her 2014 research on disability and disclosure at work ‘Secrets & Big News’.

  • The need to understand that acceptance of a newly diagnosed disability or health condition is a unique journey. Some people will be comfortable sharing personal information about their condition after a few months others may take decades before they feel able to bring their whole self to work.
  • The main reason people choose to share information about their disability is when they need their employer to make a practical adjustment. So for those who can develop their own work-around they will have a choice as whether to share or not share personal information
  • Of the 2,500 disabled people surveyed, 36% suggested that it’s a big personal step to actually associate yourself with the word ‘disability’.

Mind your language

The first hot topic of the evening was whether there might be a better way of referring to disability in the workplace.

The views of the panel were split on the issue with some preferring more positive enabling language and others feeling the need to say it as it is. Andy Garrett explained that when someone becomes injured in service, the police use the language of capability and capability assessments.

Brendan Roach described how Business Disability Forum uses the social model of disability when giving advice on disability at work. The social model says that ‘disability’ is caused by society, rather than by a person’s impairment and it looks at ways of removing barriers that restrict access for disabled people. For example a member of staff could be ‘disabled’ due to a physical barrier such as no lift access to a training room.

Roland Chesters shared the example of renaming the Disability Action Group at the Foreign Office to ‘Enable’ resulting in a membership increase of 80%. Yet he acknowledged there was still a need to explain what ‘Enable’ was about to non-disabled colleagues.

Members of the panel and audience felt it important to recognise that many disabled people covered by the Equality Act legislation, embrace and hold dear the term ‘disabled’ in terms of its association with the disability equality movement.

To share or not to share

Monitoring on disability was one of the key topics in Kate’s book Secrets & Big News. The study showed that people are most reluctant to share personal information when they are suspicions over how the information will be used. For example, if the individual was being asked to share information about their disability in the context of career progression, they might fear that this would have a negative impact on promotion.

The clear advice from the 2,500 disabled people who took part in the research was that employers should be upfront about why they are gathering information by providing context and advice on how the information will help the business. For example, asking an employee about their disability because the organisation is trying to improve access to a workplace adjustment process.

Creating an inclusive working culture

The discussion moved on to what employers are doing to create a culture where it’s openly acknowledged that people will acquire disabilities and need adjustments during their working lives.

Zoe Davies explained how Accenture is working to make ‘disability’ a business as usual issue. The organisation encourages people with disabilities to share their stories on a company blog and through newsletters and events. Accenture has noticed a lot of senior leaders helping to lead the trend by talking about themselves in terms of managing a medical condition or having gone through a period of stress.

Kate mentioned similar campaigns like Shell’s ‘Be Yourself’ videos, HSBC’s video profiling people like Gary Denton, and people who are part of the Ability network and Barclays’ ‘This is Me Campaign’ on mental health. Like Accenture’s campaign, all these campaigns featured disabled employees talking openly about their lives and work.

Peer to peer support

Kate Nash Associates champions the role of employee networks in helping disabled employees to become more confident at work. Accenture has over 200 members in its Mental Health Allies network where colleagues volunteer to be a first point of contact for others worried about their mental health. They recently ran a series of workshops for the ‘Time to Talk’ campaign encouraging people across the organisation to talk about stress and mental health at work. A typical session would include staff from directors down to analysts and in a typical session around 80% of them shared details of their own mental health condition.

Through his experience leading The Met’s disabled employee network, Andy Garrett felt that one of the most powerful things that can help a newly diagnosed member of staff is being put in touch with people with the same condition who are further down the journey with the experience of navigating support in your organisation. BT echoed the value of an employee network being able to connect a newly diagnosed member of staff to somebody else who has had the same condition.

Workplace adjustments

The request for a Reasonable adjustment is cited as the main reason for needing to share information about disability at work by 2,500 participants of Secrets & Big News. Reasonable adjustments are the cornerstone of legislation about removing barriers for disabled people in all areas of life, yet the term often means very little line managers or to the average person who acquires cancer or a back problem.

Secrets & Big News puts forward the argument that the word ‘reasonable’ suggests a legal process that puts employers in control of deciding what support to give disabled staff rather than taking a best practice approach to making changes in order to help people to perform at their best. Those employers who do have a good track record in encouraging disabled people to be ‘out’ at work have reviewed the language they use and started to refer to ‘workplace’ adjustments a much clearer definition.

Equally important is making your staff aware of your company policy for workplace adjustments. By presenting the process in a business as usual way, people don’t feel the need to disclose or come out and it just becomes about asking for adaptations and changes that will help you be more effective in your role.

BT is one of the leading employers in terms of managing and promoting the workplace adjustment process. They have championed the Disability passport to address the problem of changing line managers. It is a simple document that records your adjustments and anything you want the line manager to know about such as contact details, details of when you need to take your medication or require occasional flexible working.

Tips for becoming a more disability confident employee

The final discussion of the evening was around how as disabled employees do you become well practiced in sharing personal information, or asking for workplace adjustment?  The panel and audience shared these thoughts:

  • The more you tell people, the more comfortable you become in the information that you have shared.
  • Practice very quietly and very singularly with people you trust and who can keep this information in confidence.
  • Work out what is relevant to share about your disability at work so that you can get the support you need to do your job – use your disabled employee network for support with this.

Tips for employers

Kate brought the evening to a close by summarising three top tips to help employers to normalise difference and help disabled people to bring their whole selves to work:

  1. Use imaginative campaigns to help your own home-grown disabled talent share their stories. Look at examples from Accenture, Barclays and HSBC for best practice guidance.
  2. The ease of use of the workplace adjustment process.
  3. Encourage and support disabled employee networks – an invaluable source for developing an authentic narrative about how it is to have a disability and get on at work.

For more information and guidance on supporting disabled colleagues to be themselves at work, visit our website at businessdisabilityforum.org.uk.

For more information about Kate Nash OBE and Secrets & Big News visit the Kate Nash Associates website.

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