Event round-up: Technology Taskforce Film Festival

By Dean Haynes

Monday December 7 saw the fourth annual Technology Taskforce event take place, generously hosted by KPMG at their Canary Wharf offices. This time, forgoing our tried and tested quiz show format, we decided to hold a film festival with a difference, and not forgetting the popcorn! The delegates were each issued with wireless two-channel headsets, which would allow them to hear the films’ original soundtrack, or with added audio description.

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The space at KPMG was transformed into a silent cinema, where attendees had the chance to see a range of films on disability-related perspectives. From short films by disabled filmmakers about their experiences, to thought-provoking videos produced by members of the Taskforce, the evening aimed to challenge assumptions and attitudes, and open eyes to the reality of living with a disability.

The evening got underway with an introduction from Taskforce manager Lucy Ruck, before she handed over to Walter Scott, the Assistant Head of Communications at the Ministry of Defence, who introduced the first film of the evening “My War With Words”. This profiled a number of military staff and their experiences working with a stammer, a non-visible disability that rarely gets the coverage it warrants.

Our next film came from American filmmaker Jenna Kanell, who gave us a video intro to her film “Bumblebees”, about her disabled brother Vance, who compares himself to a bumblebee in that according to the laws of physics it shouldn’t be able to fly. Leena Haque from the BBC was next on stage, describing her own neurodiversity and introducing her film “A Day In The Life”, which used a video game-like point-of-view to show how someone with neurodiversity tackles their day-to-day work life.

Next, our most intriguing film of the evening came from Gallaudet University in Washington DC, with a statement from Dr. Dirksen Bauman. The film revolves around the students and staff at the university, which caters for the deaf and hearing-impaired and itself is totally silent, which did cause some confusion for some, but made full use of the audio description channel!

The fifth and sixth films came from disability charity Scope, covering the fight for disabled rights with the introduction of the Disability Discrimination Act in 1995, and how it has impacted the lives of disabled people and the continuing struggle for equality some 20 years on (including a star turn from our very own Lucy Ruck).

Our final film of the night came from Hilary Lister, a quadriplegic record-breaking yachtswoman. Using a system of straws and “sip-puff” switches, Hilary has sailed single-handed across the English Channel, circumnavigated Great Britain and sailed the 1,500km across the Arabian Sea.


 

You can catch up with the evening’s proceedings by following BDF on Twitter (@disabilitysmart), and feel free to view a selection of the films here:

Jenna Kanell’s “Bumblebees” – http://sproutflix.org/all-films/bumblebees

Gallaudet: The Film – http://disabilitymovies.com/2010/gallaudet-the-film

 

“Trust me, I’m a doctor” – what do your line managers do when they receive a fit note?

By Christopher Watkins


File it away and hope it sorts itself out? Panic and phone HR? Or, exactly what it tells them to do?

Fit notes, or ‘Statements of Fitness for Work’ (for those with too much time on their hands) are a potentially invaluable tool in supporting people with disabilities or long-term physical or mental health conditions, but only if they are used appropriately by the managers that receive them. None of the reactions mentioned above are particularly useful to the employer but are all too common in some organisations, particularly in environments where line managers often have responsibility for large teams with high turnover.

Sometimes they’re just ignored – or, if a colleague’s absence is related to a disability or long-term condition, managers can be nervous to get involved and sickness absence can be left unmanaged to continue indefinitely, often on full pay. This is costly for the employer and of no benefit to the employee, whose employment prospects can be damaged as they lose the opportunity to pursue their career with some simple workplace adjustments.

Two people having a conversation at a desk

Sometimes managers just panic and phone HR. This is probably the least legally risky approach, but can put unnecessary pressure on often overworked HR service centres handling relatively straightforward queries.

However, it is perhaps most unhelpful for line managers to simply take everything written on the fit note as ‘gospel’, following the advice without further consideration, sometimes to the detriment of both the employee and employer.

In the most concerning cases, if an employee is being repeatedly signed off sick by their GP for stress, the line manager’s reaction can be to refuse to let them work. If the employee’s stress is related to factors outside of work, however, being prevented from working can exasperate the situation, leading to unnecessary sickness absence despite the employee feeling they were able (and continually asking to) work. This can be a highly stressful – and expensive – situation for all involved, and highlights the potential damage that can be caused by a last-minute tick-box and barely legible scrawl from an over-worked GP on her last appointment before lunch (and yes, believe it or not, over 80% of fit notes are still handwritten in 2015, five years after they were introduced as the efficient digital alternative to their predecessor[1]).

In such situations, the problem is not that the GP is wrong; indeed, there may be sensible health and wellbeing reasons behind the employee being unable to work. The danger lies where line managers take the advice on the fit note – advice written to the employee – as binding rules that they needed to follow, rather than useful medical guidance to discuss with the employee. A conversation with the employee, the GP and possibly a second opinion from an Occupational Health advisor can improve understanding of the reasons behind the absence, helping the employee back to work as quickly and supportively as possible, and saving the business considerable expense and legal risk in the process.

Deeper still, perhaps the issue is that we can’t know how often this is happening as the problem itself is that these issues aren’t escalated or recorded until things start to go seriously wrong. One can imagine many more cases where an employee with a long-term health condition or disability isn’t able to receive the support they need because (at least for the 20% of fit notes produced digitally), ‘computer says no’.

There’s been some fascinating research in recent months by the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) and the University of Nottingham into this area with some helpful recommendations; the key message to me being that GPs complain that employers don’t act on their advice while employers complain the GPs don’t give them any useful information[2].

It may not be a solution, but surely a starting point here is to get GPs and employers talking to each other. Particularly with the advent of the government’s Fit for Work service, this is likely to only grow as an issue for employers as the quantity – and hopefully quality – of medical advice landing on managers’ desks increases. Like the introduction of fit notes in 2010, this is a potentially very useful and cost-effective tool if managers are properly briefed on how to use this information. If not, conflicting policies and advice from different sources may quickly prove counter-productive.

What measures have you taken to prepare your policies and inform your line managers?

For more information on managing sickness absence and disability visit: http://businessdisabilityforum.org.uk/advice-and-publications/publications/line-manager-guide-attendance-management/

You can talk to Christopher at christopherw@businessdisabilityforum.org.uk or Tweet him at @chrispydubbs


[1] Nottingham University research ‘Getting the best from the fitnote’ (2015), pp. 19 (http://www.iosh.co.uk/~/media/Documents/Books%20and%20resources/Published%20research/Getting%20the%20best%20from%20the%20fit%20note.pdf?la=en) accessed 18 August 2015

[2] http://www.iosh.co.uk/fitnote

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.

It isn’t as simple as just saying employer culture needs to change

By George Selvanera


On Channel 4’s Leader’s Debate last month, a member of the studio audience asked “What do the Conservatives plan to do to get more disabled people into work?” Prime Minister David Cameron said:

“The culture of employers needs to change.”

I imagine it was a convenient shortcut for David Cameron to say the culture of employers needs to change. The ways culture needs to change, how these changes are made and the role of Government in influencing change – both directly and indirectly – doesn’t really make for a neat, short answer.

After all, it isn’t straightforward to make and sustain changes in systems, processes and practice generally, let alone when addressing disability – a wonderful catchall term for everything from dyslexia to dementia; to diabetes to wheelchair user; to mental ill health. That said, I am encouraged by increasing numbers of private and public organisations which are making real change, with more than a hundred large private and public sector employers using the Business Disability Forum (BDF) Disability Standard to help guide their disability performance improvement.

Office environment with focus on man working in foreground

Last year’s Government disability and health employment strategy wasn’t especially practical when it pointed to BDF Partners Sainsbury’s, BT and Lloyds Banking Group (LBG) as examples of businesses that have a strong record of recruiting disabled people and then called on other businesses to do the same.

Sainsbury’s, BT and LBG each have senior disability sponsors championing a whole organisation approach to improving their disability performance. They all have networks for their disabled staff that inform employee and customer innovations for disabled people. They all invest in improving the skills and confidence of line managers to manage the needs of staff members with disabilities and long-term health conditions. They all operate workplace adjustment processes that enable access to adjustments for employees so they can be productive and happy in the work environment. They also increasingly deploy disability-smart procurement processes. The latter point is essential given the number of outsourced functions that directly impact the ability of any business to deliver for disabled people in areas such as facilities management/property, technology, recruitment and occupational health. So yes, they do well in recruitment of disabled people, but it is because they are prioritising and investing in improving disability performance across the whole organisation.

Building disability confidence is a permanent work in progress, and at BDF, it is exciting to see the way in which businesses and public sector organisations are learning from each other – sometimes even competing with each other – to get better at how they recruit, retain and do business with disabled people.

We are working with a group of BDF Partners that include Royal Mail, EY, de Poel Community and the Department of Work and Pensions to understand more about what helps and what gets in the way of organisations retaining their disabled employees. This working group is overseeing a large scale research project where more than 140 private, public and third sector organisations nationally have participated and shared their perspectives about their own skills and confidence and the quality of their systems and processes in retaining and developing disabled employees. The research will be published in June (watch out for the launch date) and sets out just how important it is to have people with visible disabilities in workplaces, effective workplace adjustment processes and organisational policies that encourage disabled people to achieve at work. It also makes clear that many organisations are getting better and want to do more.

The Government could help too. At BDF, we are often told that Access to Work remains overly complex, unfriendly and in need of substantial improvement. While some of the recent changes to Access to Work are good – most notably the end of the 30-hour guidance and the potential development of IT portals, the opportunity to make Access to Work better for business and subsequently better for disabled people, was not taken up. It seems very odd not to have an employer helpdesk or workplace based assessments that involve the employer and the employee or an accreditation scheme that would reduce red tape for employers who have a positive record of employing disabled people and interacting with Access to Work. Further still, it is extremely bad policy to introduce caps that will limit businesses capacity to recruit disabled people and so disabled people that might have worked and contributed to the tax pot, instead risk consignment to benefits.

Similarly, the Government’s multi-billion pound Work Programme would benefit from Welfare to Work providers proactively engaging with employers to ensure they are skilled and confident in managing the impact of particular disabilities for individual candidates in the specific workplace, and have the knowledge needed to support disabled staff to perform at their best.

Indeed, this approach is something for the wider recruitment industry so that they are working with candidates and employers to ensure that candidates with the right skills for a particular job are being ‘pushed’ to organisations that are confident about managing the impacts of a particular disability within a particular role at their workplace. Again however, I am encouraged by BDF work with the Association of Professional Staffing Companies (APSCO) who are keen to build the skills, confidence and expertise of the recruitment profession to do just this. In a similar way, the Recruitment Industry Disability Initiative Awards (RIDI) spotlight and celebrate excellent recruitment practices that are making a difference in securing sustainable employment for disabled people.

Increasing the number of disabled people in work and being fulfilled and achieving at work won’t happen overnight and yes, David Cameron is right about the importance of culture. But it isn’t anywhere near as simple as that. We all have a role. Government does. All parts of an organisation do – not just their recruitment section, but facilities, procurement, HR, learning and development, senior leadership, communications, IT etc. Suppliers and partners do. And as customers, we all can by transacting with businesses that state and deliver on public commitments to recruit and retain disabled people.

Why senior sponsorship/ leadership is crucial to improving an organisation’s disability performance

By Joanna Wootten


Why does leadership matter in regards to disability? Put simply, if employees or work streams aren’t told to think about disability, or prioritise disabled employees or customers, it’s unlikely to happen consistently or systematically. Of course, there will always be individuals doing their best ‘under the radar’. It is also important to note that many people are nervous about getting it wrong, or feel unequipped to address the issue of disability correctly. Organisations should support employees in getting it right – this means ensuring the appropriate systems are in place as well as having the right attitude.

Joanna Wootten giving a presentation

The Disability Standard – Business Disability Forum’s management tool to help businesses measure and improve their performance on disability, reinforces this idea of having strong leadership at the top. Amongst the ten criteria of the Standard – which include ICT, Workplace Adjustments and Recruitment, senior sponsorship remains fundamental. Such support creates both cultural and financial permission, while also empowering employees to tackle sensitive issues with confidence.

If, however, you are struggling to get your colleagues to ‘buy-in’ to your idea, it can be effective to begin with a single issue. This should help to catch people’s attention and imagination. I have witnessed some amazing achievements when companies have offered their support to a particular charity or organisation. People can get very enthused supporting a charity which has a knock on effect on their employee engagement, as well as increasing their understanding and support for diversity initiatives.

While it can be difficult to instigate the first step to becoming disability-smart, it is very encouraging to see an increasing number of organisations that are doing exceptional work within this area and using the Disability Standard to monitor their progress.

We have all seen the Barclays advertisements showing people with visual impairments using talking ATMs. Also, from a personal viewpoint, as a deaf customer, I really value Barclays’ commitment to accessibility as I have used both their online chat function, and accessed their services via a video interpreting service.

It’s apparent that there is leadership from the top as I have seen various senior people including their Chairman, CEO and CEO of Personal & Corporate Banking all talking about the importance of disability, stating it is not just a CSR issue, but fundamental to their business model.

I asked Paul Smyth, Head of IT Accessibility at Barclays, what the company had done to make disability ‘business as usual.’ He pinpointed an event called ‘Living in our customers’ world’ as being pivotal. During this event, attendees – including senior business leaders, were able to test Barclays’ disability simulation kits in order to feel the physical effects of different disabilities. As a result, attendees left the room with a personal insight into the challenges that disabled customers face, and were motivated to ‘use their influence and resources to deliver strategic and operational change.’

Kathryn Townsend, who leads Barclays’ Strategic Transformation – Accessibility & Inclusion, said:

“Barclays has really invested in this by investing in full time resources (mine and Paul Smyth’s teams) whose sole focus is accessibility. We are also given freedom and support to identify the ‘next big thing’ we should adopt, or the key internal issues we need to fix. Without a doubt, our Chief Executive not only believes, but really understands and champions that this is core to how we do business – not an add on.”

I recently spoke with Graeme Whippy, Senior Disability Manager at Lloyds Banking Group (LBG) who said how useful it had been having Mark Fisher, former Director of Operations, championing disability at the company. Graeme discussed how senior sponsorship had helped enable him and his colleagues to talk to people across the business and get them to take disability seriously. As a result, LBG significantly improved their performance across all 10 areas of the Disability Standard. This was particularly true regarding the company’s Workplace Adjustments policy which was completely transformed in 2010 into a centrally funded, award-winning service.

Senior sponsorship has also helped to ensure longevity of commitment at LBG, proven by the implementation of Key Performance Indicators in place, and regular reports to David Oldfield, the current Director of Operations.

Sometimes, however, something has to go wrong before leadership will take disability seriously. This was exemplified at the Civil Service after the organisation’s People Survey demonstrated very low engagement levels among disabled staff, partly because the systems were not in place to support them effectively.

A Civil Service Task Group on Disability found an employee who had been put on 18 months gardening leave because they were waiting for a £15-£30 mouse to be approved, tested and placed on their computer. Having discovered such issues, a Permanent Secretaries’ Reference Group on Disability was created. Now, the Department for Work and Pensions and BDF member leads the way in relation to workplace adjustments, and has shared its best practice with other government departments.

I asked Jenny Groves at Nationwide about the topic of Executive sponsorship. Jenny said:

“In business, the most effective way to achieve success, in whatever you set out to do, is to get your people behind your goals. Ambition is infectious and when you see leaders excited about, and dedicated to, such an important subject, it inspires everyone else. Improving disability performance is about much more than tangible, physical changes. It’s also about changing culture and the way we think, both as individuals and as a company. Whether it’s a business, a school or a community, an organisation’s culture is driven from the behaviours and actions displayed by those at the very top. We know we have the right people in place to increase Nationwide’s accessibility and become a disability-smart, disability-confident business with the support of our senior leaders and Business Disability Forum.”

Discussing the importance of leadership and why it is needed to achieve real change, Stephanie Smith, Director of Operations for Allianz Retail observes:

“Disability awareness and understanding has increased exponentially in recent years, but providing for disabled customers is still seen by many organisations as optional. However, with an aging population and the advent of social media, organisations that are off the pace are increasingly becoming exposed. Having the right services and products for all customers, has always been important of course, but now the impact of getting it wrong is becoming more tangible. So why is it hard for some organisations to focus on what is so obviously the right thing to do? A mind-set and language change is critical, and can only be led from the top. The diversity agenda needs life breathed into it, it needs to be omnipresent in everything you do in your business, from the top to the bottom. And you need to prioritise and invest – not massively, but enough to ensure that in a world where budgets are cut and investments curbed, diversity isn’t the thing always squeezed off the agenda.”

Ultimately, one must allocate resources in a way that will work for the business. For example, I work closely with Sainsbury’s, and they have a board member with responsibility for disability. He chairs two working groups that report to him on a regular basis: one focusing on customers, and the other focusing on employees.

If you aren’t sure how to begin improving your company’s performance on disability, using the Disability Standard and the help available at Business Disability Forum is a very useful starting point.

But it’s important to remember that it’s not just about beautiful systems and ticking the boxes, it’s about creating and/or maintaining the right environment so that people want to work for your company, or use your services. After all, as Winston Churchill said: “Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.”


For more information on using the Disability Standard, visit: https://www.disabilitystandard.com/about/

For more information on Barclays Accessibility Statement, visit: http://www.barclays.co.uk/Accessibility/Barclaysaccessibilitystatement/P1242641724754

Click the link to view the Lloyds Banking Group Workplace Adjustments case study: https://www.disabilitystandard.com/media_manager/public/86/Resources/BDF%20Lloyds%20BG%20Workplace%20adjustments%20case%20study.pdf

For more information on Nationwide, visit: http://www.nationwide.co.uk/

For more information on Allianz, visit: https://www.allianz.com/en/careers/allianz_as_an_employer/diversity.html

Life as a disabled entrepreneur – specialist disability consultant Rick Williams discusses what it takes to start a successful business

By Rick Williams

In 2014, 500,000 disabled people set up their own businesses. Forming part of a positive trend, this figure represents a further increase from the previous year. In order to support this growing number, Business Disability Forum recently asked me to reflect upon my own experiences as a disabled entrepreneur and discuss what it takes to set up a successful business. Image of Rick Williams In February of 2001 I set up my own business after 30 years as a career civil servant. I was bored and decided to see what I could do for myself in business terms. 14 years later, my company Freeney Williams Ltd is now one of the largest specialist disability consultancies in the UK and Europe. The point from where I started, to where I am now, was an interesting journey. It demanded hard work, effort and emotion, not-to-mention the sheer amount of hours. Despite this, I wouldn’t swap it or have gone back to being a ‘slave to the wage.’

My business idea was simple:

‘Go out and tell organisations how they should improve the way they employ, serve and do business with disabled people.’

‘What a good idea’! I thought. ‘Well was it?’ I talked to a number of people about this to see whether they thought it would work. In particular, I remember talking to Susan Scott-Parker who was CEO of the Employers’ Forum on Disability, which became the Business Disability Forum in 2012. Susan said, and I quote:

‘So you want to set up a business which means you need to talk to people who won’t want to talk to you about this subject, tell them things they don’t want to hear about, what they need to do differently and you expect them to pay you?’

Susan went on to say:

‘I’ve got to tell you, it doesn’t sound like a great business model.’

Actually, Susan went on to be very influential and supportive over the years and I’m not sure I could have achieved as much as I have without her advice, guidance and expertise – all of which she gave willingly.

Based on my experiences, the advice I would offer to disabled individuals who are considering a similar path would be to start by asking yourself the following questions:

  • What is my idea?
  • What is it I’m selling?
  • Will anyone pay for it?
  • How do I tell them about it and get them to buy it?
  • What is the competition like and what makes me unique?
  • How much money is it likely to make and is it enough?
  • Who can help me?
  • Will I enjoy it?

On top of that, of course, there are other questions around the practicalities associated with the effects of any disability. Providing advice on this subject is difficult as there are a wide variety of options available to assist disabled people in coping with the effects of their disability. It is, however, of major importance to utilise the advice and resources that are available to you. Despite what is often said, I found the Access to Work scheme very helpful, although I did have to ‘push’ a bit. Ultimately, I received the help I asked for which, in turn, helped me to understand what more I needed to make my business work. It is also very beneficial to speak with other individuals who have similar disabilities – it is amazing how much generosity and support is available.

When I started my business, I found that the key element was getting the basic idea sorted, and this then became my first priority. I remember it took me several months and a lot of pain to write my first business plan. My business mentor more-or-less threw out my first effort and made me start again, suggesting I be more realistic – something I have now done to others! After several attempts, my mentor eventually approved my plan, which ultimately proved very useful in helping me clarify what I needed to do and how I was going to do it. Without a good business plan, no one will take you seriously when starting up.

So, here are my tips:

  • Get a business adviser who knows what they are talking about and who you get on with
  • Consider finding a disabled mentor to help you through the issues about your own disability and the adjustments which might help you
  • Develop a realistic business plan but be prepared to be flexible
  • While developing your plan, talk to people to ask their advice, ask them if they think it would work and if they would pay for your services
  • Stick at it and do the things you don’t like doing as well as those you do
  • Remember, it is pointless having a great product no one wants to buy, or even worse, they don’t know about!

And finally, enjoy yourself!

Rick Williams CFCIPD

Managing Director Freeney Williams Ltd


For more information on Freeney Williams, visit: http://www.freeneywilliams.com

To follow Freeney Williams on Twitter, visit: https://twitter.com/freeneywilliams

Email: enquiries@freeneywilliams.com

Telephone: 01273 327715
Mobile: 07788 448428

A taboo too far? Supporting colleagues expressing suicidal feelings in the workplace

By Christopher Watkins


The words ‘stigma’ and ‘taboo’ are fast becoming something of a cliché in the world of mental health and employment, yet few could argue that there are some issues that managers and HR professionals feel uncomfortable dealing with. It is hard to think of a more difficult situation than a colleague expressing suicidal feelings in the workplace.

Last month saw the Office for National Statistics release data on the number of deaths recorded as suicide in 2013[1], showing suicide rates continuing to track upward since the recession in 2007. The groups at most risk (and seeing the greatest increase) are men between the age of 30 and 59; the group most likely to be in full-time employment. Suicide remains the most common cause of death for men under 35.

These figures are only the tip of the iceberg. It is estimated that only 1 in 10 attempts are fatal, and the majority of people experiencing suicidal feelings do not go on to attempt to take their own life. Collecting accurate statistics on this is next to impossible, but it is realistic to assume that in an organisation of 500 employees at least one will be experiencing suicidal feelings at any one time.

Colleagues having serious discussion

With recent ‘stigma busting’ campaigns working to encourage employees to be open about their mental health, it is reasonable to expect the number of employees expressing suicidal feelings to their manager or HR to increase. Our Business Disability Forum Advice Service has noticed this increase. While no manager or HR professional wants to find themselves having this conversation, the increasing openness of employees about these feelings presents an opportunity for intervention, support and ultimately prevention.

If you work in HR, this is an issue you are likely to come across at some point in your career – and it pays to be prepared. Navigating the initial conversation may be an intimidating experience. You are likely to feel out of your depth, but try to understand that the other person is probably feeling exactly the same way, particularly if this is something they are not used to speaking about. Don’t panic, judge or make assumptions; take the person seriously and accept that while you may not be able to help in the immediate term, you are very unlikely to make things worse.

Establishing boundaries and responsibilities at this early stage is absolutely essential. This is not something you can keep to yourself and it is not your place to become the person’s counsellor. When an employee tells you personal information about their mental health and has asked you to respect their confidentiality, it is safest to do so; but, you should still speak to HR (or BDF’s Advice Service) about the situation without identifying the individual. It may be appropriate to breach the employee’s confidentiality if they are at risk or their health is affecting their employment, and whoever you speak to should be able to advise you on this.

If they are not already receiving support from elsewhere, refer the employee to appropriate help. Depending on the circumstances, this could be to their GP, local mental health services, your EAP or Samaritans. If you feel that someone is at immediate risk of harming themselves, you should always contact the emergency services by dialling 999.

Finally, remember that suicidal feelings are rarely a ‘one-off’; this is an on-going situation that you may be supporting the colleague through for some time. These feelings may also be indicative of mental ill-health, so after the initial meeting and any urgent action required, you should sit down with the employee to explore the ways in which you are able to offer support. They may also need reasonable adjustments to their role, such as flexible working, more regular 1:1 meetings with their line manager, or a Tailored Adjustment Agreement

Christopher leads our Mental health: Handling serious situations masterclass, which equips HR and diversity professionals with the skills and knowledge they need to handle unusual and complex situations, including colleagues who are exhibiting suicidal feelings or unusual behaviour.

BDF members can also contact Christopher for advice on cases they are dealing with on christopherw@businessdisabilityforum.org.uk or 020-7089-2482


[1] http://ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/subnational-health4/suicides-in-the-united-kingdom/2013-registrations/suicides-in-the-united-kingdom–2013-registrations.html

[2] https://www.disabilitystandard.com/resource-category/resource/tailored-adjustment-agreement/