A diverse workplace providing opportunities for everyone to reach their potential. That doesn’t exactly sound controversial; in fact similar aims will appear on any CSR checklist. Yet when it comes to disability employment, many organisations haven’t yet realised the genuine business benefits that it can bring.
Over 7 million people of working age (17.5%) in the UK are disabled or have a health condition, representing a vast and potentially deep pool of talent. It’s also worth noting that research shows people – particularly millennials – want to work for organisations that are doing the right thing. And there are many other good commercial reasons to employ as wide a range of people as possible.
Over 80% of people with a disability acquire it while they’re in work. And when you consider the fact that the nation’s workforce is ageing, it’s easy to see how health issues will come to affect more workers in the coming years. A loyal and skilled employee is an asset to any business, so we need to do all we can to keep them healthy and engaged. Building an environment where health and wellness is prioritised – with programmes that make workplace adjustments for people who become disabled – will become increasingly important. This will also help reduce absences through sickness.
Employing disabled people can have a real impact on the culture and sense of engagement within teams, too. At a company like Channel 4, the inclusivity agenda is embedded into the company culture; people just don’t even think about it. At Sainsbury's we’re striving to create an inclusive environment where our managers feel they can have great development conversations with all their colleagues, and not worry so much about ‘saying the wrong thing’ – instead they’re proactively thinking about how everyone can work better together.
Encouraging these constructive conversations can also improve productivity. By asking disabled team members about their needs, many managers quickly realise their employees are capable of doing more than they’d assumed they could. Some disabled people may benefit from working flexibly one day a week, or splitting their regular five-hour shift into two of half the length.
Others may need adjustments to their equipment – the government's Access to Work grants can pay for all sorts of practical support, from fitting special computer screens or keyboards, to fares to work if people can’t use public transport. Often small changes can help unlock a colleague’s full potential, which in turn is beneficial to the employer.
At Sainsbury’s, we train our in-store colleagues in how to provide assistance for elderly and disabled customers, including wheelchair users and the visually impaired. We have also trialled in-store adjustments to make our stores more dementia- or autism-friendly, providing quieter times that people can find easier to deal with. We want our customers to feel as comfortable as possible when shopping with us, after all the spending power of disabled people is reported to be £249 billion. Our disabled colleagues have provided valuable insights of their own, which have helped us design our training and make changes to give our customers the best experience.
But to have real impact, any gains in this area have to be truly authentic. I now chair the Business Leaders Group, set up by the government earlier this year to share ideas around disability employment. Here I've met representatives of some of the largest employers in the country, from Royal Mail to Barclays and Mars. We’ve discussed the benefits disability employment has brought to our organisations, shared real examples, and talked about how engaged our colleagues have become. We've explored how we can recruit more disabled people, how can we retain them, and how we can learn from them. We are at different stages of our journeys and there’s lots more each of us can do. But we all want to encourage organisations to join us in giving broader opportunities to anyone who needs some extra help in getting into the workplace.
Organisations may encounter some fear about starting the conversation. As such, the government’s Disability Confident initiative is an excellent place to start. By openly discussing the issue of disability, you'll quickly establish what your journey is going to look like.
While demonstrating fair employment practices has become the baseline, there’s always more you can do to improve the disability agenda. Don’t let the name Business Leaders Group fool you. We’re all on a journey in this respect. We're encouraging organisations to learn from each other.
Seven reasons to become Disability Confident:
1. Attract and hold on to valuable skills and experience
2. Gain access to the widest pool of talent
3. Improve your company culture
4. Become more productive
5. Reduce absences through sickness
6. Tap into the spending power of disabled people
7. Improve your brand reputation
The Business Leaders Group was set up to drive awareness and encourage more organisations to join the Disability Confident initiative, which helps leaders see past common misconceptions and understand the benefits of employing people with disabilities. Almost 4,500 organisations have already signed up to Disability Confident. Click here to join them