Using the ‘nowhere office’ revolution to narrow the disability employment gap

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  • Picture of Catherine Hale
    Catherine Hale
    Founder and Director, Chronic Illness Inclusion. Disability inclusion policy, research, consultancy
  • Future of Work
  • People & place
  • Accessibility & inclusion
  • Fellowship

The RSA Fellows' Inclusive Work, Disability and Ageing Network is inviting comment and ideas on 'people-shaped work'. And with the growth in home-working, everyone seems to be saying the future of work is flexible, with the Government pushing new legislation. But Catherine Hale, FRSA, says that for disabled people, proposed laws don’t go nearly far enough

The future of work is flexible, according to thinktanks, policy makers and businesses alike. The pandemic has ushered in a new era of work less tied to the geographical office and 9-to-5 schedules. Remote working, with the flexibility it brings, has been linked to greater wellbeing and job satisfaction, and is touted by Harvard Business Review as key to Diversity, Equality and Inclusion (DEI) in the workplace.

In response, the Government is proposing to strengthen workers’ rights to request flexible working. But a number of disabled people’s organisations are disappointed that, once again, disabled people are the afterthought when it comes to equality at work. The consultation document from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) on making flexible working the default has much on the benefits to women and carers. It mentions disabled people just three times.

Remote working is not a panacea for all disabled people by any means. But 83% of disabled workers who work remotely say it's essential to their staying in work. One key group to benefit from flexible and remote working is the 4.7 million disabled people with energy limiting conditions (ELCs), which curb both the amount and the reliability of the work they can produce.

Chronic Illness Inclusion (CII) represents grassroots communities of disabled people with ELCs including Long Covid, other post-viral conditions like ME/CFS, and many other neurological, musculoskeletal and auto-immune diseases. We in the chronic illness community were ahead of the curve in adopting the technologies and practices of flexible remote work as tools for inclusion. Within CII we started meeting online from beds and sofas across the UK in 2018, when Zoom was virtually unheard of. Many of us experienced lockdown as a time not of shutting down but of opening up, as the world caught up with our way of doing things and finally enabled us to join in.

CII’s research on ELCs and work bears out the idea that ELCs and flexible working go hand in hand. Participants’ top requirements for inclusive work were adjustments to the time, pace and place of work. Reduced hours of work are necessary when one’s overall ‘budget’ of energy to spend in any one day or week is severely limited, (‘energy impairment’). Flexibility over the pace and timing of work are essential for managing the fluctuation in symptoms and energy levels that come with many systemic diseases. And working from home is key to releasing productivity at work by avoiding energy-draining travel and the sensory overload of office environments.

When we bring Long Covid into the ‘future of work’ debate, the case for linking flexible working to ELCs is even more compelling and urgent. Over a million people report symptoms following infection, the most common and debilitating being fatigue: energy impairment. Some are slowly recovering while others face ongoing disability. Research by the TUC among 3,500 workers with Long Covid in 2021 saw more than four out of five respondents saying they needed some form of flexible working to avoid falling out of employment altogether. Yet these were the measures most likely to be refused by their employer.

Increasing the number of disabled people in work has long been a Government target. The disability employment rate was 52.7% in 2021, compared to 81.0% for non-disabled people. Closing this ‘disability employment gap’ is a key part of the Government’s National Disability Strategy. So it's all the more disappointing that the flexible working revolution is not being promoted as a levelling-up tool to create more inclusive employment opportunities for disabled people.

We must strengthen rights to flexible working for disabled workers for two reasons:

Firstly, existing rights are weak. The Equality Act places a duty on employers to make ‘reasonable adjustments’, for example, to the time and place of work. But this only comes into force once someone experiences substantial impairment for more than 12 months and so meets the legal threshold for disability. This comes too late for workers with Long Covid and similar conditions characterised by uncertain diagnosis and prognosis. Jobs and livelihoods can be lost in those 12 months.

Secondly, what constitutes a ‘reasonable adjustment’ for a disabled person in work must evolve. Ramps and assistive technology are important, but so is taking a rest break at work, or having an annualised hours contract, to accommodate fluctuating health.

Those of us with energy-limiting conditions are the lockdown lifers. As pandemic restrictions end, our lives continue, as before, to be anchored mainly within the home. Remote and flexible working aren’t a perk for us, but often the only way we can contribute to society and the economy.

According to Disability Rights UK, strengthening the right to flexible working should be a key plank of the National Disability Strategy. Flexible working arrangements should be promoted among employers as key to disability equality and inclusion, under the Equality Act, but also via a strengthened right to flexible working. And to really shift the numbers on people with ELCs entering work, flexibility must be built into the design of jobs, not something an employer may or may not grant once we’re in the role.

Catherine Hale FRSA is the Founder and Director of Chronic Illness Inclusion. CII’s mission is to change policies and perceptions around energy limiting conditions and chronic pain. Catherine is also Lead Researcher at inclusive employment charity Astriid.

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  • Thanks Catherine. Really insightful. There is a great fear amongst the ELC community that the "return to normal" after Covid will reverse the access that has been opened up to those who have been enabled to work from home.

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