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01 Dec 2023
by Maggie Williams

Flexibility, openness and peace of mind: how to better support disabled people at work

To mark International Day of Persons with Disabilities 2023, Maggie Williams explores some of the findings from REBA’s Disability in the Workplace Report, in association with Bupa

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Every year, 3 December is the International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD), which raises awareness, promotes inclusivity and mobilises support for all people with disabilities around the world. 

From a UK employer perspective, this year’s timing is particularly apt, with the relationship between state benefits and employment recently making headline news. 

Enabling people with disabilities to not just be in work, but to thrive in their careers, requires input from employers as well as employees. Inclusive and flexible work environments where employees feel listened to can help everyone get the personalised support they need.  

For REBA’s Disability in the Workplace Report 2023, in association with Bupa, we asked 303 employees who are disabled, have a long-term or chronic illness, impairment or condition about their workplace experiences. We also surveyed 277 employees who were not disabled, and interviewed reward, benefit and HR professionals from organisations including Centrica, Vodafone and Jaguar Land Rover to find out how businesses are supporting disabled colleagues in the workplace. 

Flexible working needs a personalised approach 

Our findings show that the majority of disabled employees (51%) believe their disability is a barrier to career progression, but many (65%) are keen to work with their employer to help them better understand their condition. 

Flexibility at work is particularly important – but this is an area where a one-size-fits-all policy is unlikely to be sufficient. We were interested to see that only 18% of disabled employees said they had access to flexible working, compared with 30% of employees who did not identify as disabled.  This could mean that present flexible working policies (such as set days working from home) don’t meet individual or personal needs. 

One respondent said: “[I’d like] flexible working that is actually flexible – I feel like I am being punished for my condition despite quite minimal needs, like doctors’ appointments and pain management.”

Our respondents also listed other, relatively straightforward adjustments that would help, such as quiet working spaces, longer lunch breaks for employees who need longer to complete routine tasks, and regular check-ins between employees and line managers.  

Listen to employees 

We asked respondents what they felt their employer could do better. In many instances, employees simply wanted their employer to be prepared to listen and engage. “I want to feel as if I am listened to and not just a chore,” said one. 

Sally Nesbitt, Senior Employee Relations Manager at Vodafone, explains in the research how disability networks and communities help with listening and understanding. “We partner very closely with our disability network, which has around 1,000 members and is a very active community in the organisation. It does a phenomenal amount of work to promote our disability and accessibility agenda, and also acts as a feedback loop for us. Coupled with our engagement and pulse surveys, it helps us to understand where our gaps may be.”

Employee benefits to support disabled workers

We also asked employees to design their dream benefits package. Income protection was the most in-demand benefit, with 50% of respondents including this in their dream benefits. This may reflect the peace of mind this provides for employees should they need to take time off from work because of their disability, illness or condition.  

The disability charity Scope’s Disability Price Tag research in April 2023 found that the cost of living is higher for disabled people and their families. Households with at least one disabled adult or child have extra costs of around £975 a month on average. Our research reflects this, with benefits such as help with everyday medical costs also ranking high on employees’ list of dream benefits. 

Many respondents also reported losing pay or having to make up hours missed when they needed to go for medical appointments. “I’d like time off for my hospital appointments - I have to pay back the time or they will deduct it from my wages,” said one disabled employee. 

The findings from REBA and Bupa’s research show that basic but personalised adjustments, a culture of flexibility, open communications and benefits that provide peace of mind can make a significant difference to the working lives of disabled employees. 

Download the research report to find out more about the experiences of disabled employees at work, as well as how senior reward, benefits and HR directors are building more inclusive workplaces and strategies.