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Diversity, disability and wellbeing

Some thoughts on the new opportunities presented by hybrid working, especially how this can help employers’ strategies for diversity & inclusion. This is now so important, not least as it ensures your Company gets the best people and retains them. It’s a competitive advantage.

The Paralympic Games currently taking place in Beijing are a welcome antidote to some of the trauma in the world just now. Watching inspirational athletes like Neil Simpson and Menna Fitzpatrick’s sensational achievements has lifted the hearts of millions. But the Paralympics should also give us pause for thought.

Over the years, great strides have been made in workplace diversity, with women and ethnic minorities now taking up more, and better-paid, jobs. Yes, there’s undoubtedly still work to do in both of these areas, the progress that has been made is in stark contrast to the lack of advances made in employing disabled people.

Disabled people have an employment rate that is 28.4 percentage points lower than their non-disabled counterparts.

A new opportunity for inclusivity in the workplace

Since the pandemic, and the resulting ‘new world’ of remote and hybrid working, we have something of an opportunity to correct the imbalance, and to further increase inclusivity. Meg O’Connell, CEO of Global Disability Inclusion, writes in Forbes: “For decades, employees with disabilities have called for remote and flexible work arrangements. Historically, employers largely said no, with little exception. In 2020, we found many companies could easily and effectively move to online and remote work. The new normal of remote work is not only entirely possible but means more people with disabilities can join the labour force.

In light of the underrepresentation of disabled people, the government is considering requiring all large employers to report on the proportion of disabled people in their workforce. Elsewhere, significant, positive initiatives have been developed. Over 20,000 businesses are signed up to the Disability Confident scheme, encouraging employers to put measures in place which break down the barriers for disabled people. The government has set a target of getting a million more disabled people into work in the next five years.

In order to benefit from the skills of the disabled workforce, businesses will need to listen to their needs. According to an article published by global HR lawyers Lewis Silkin: “With an ageing workforce, the need to support employees with disabilities and health conditions is going to become even more critical. An employer should, of course, make sure that the building housing its staff is physically accessible to a wheelchair user but that is just the tip of the iceberg. By understanding the wide array of conditions and needs, employers are better equipped to get the best out of their staff.

The importance of wellbeing

Perhaps the most crucial area employers need to look at when considering workplace diversity is employee wellbeing. Indeed, according to Chris Michalak, CEO of Virgin Pulse, wellbeing and diversity are entirely intertwined. “To enact meaningful change in the lives of employees, it’s critical for business leaders to address employees’ total well-being, including their physical, mental, emotional, and financial health; work-life balance; and social equity. Simply put, well-being is a central strategy to ensure that employees are able to contribute their best while navigating the myriad challenges that impact how they live, work, and relate to others. Failing to address the intersectionality of DEI [Diversity, Equity and Inclusion] and well-being does a substantial disservice to employees.”

Meg O’Connell argues: “Employees with disabilities will continue to advance workplace mental health practices, and as we create safe workplaces, they will deepen our knowledge around best-in-class workplace mental health strategies. New ways of working will evolve as employees with disabilities help create workplaces that work for all employees because employers are now listening.”

Mental health

The particular challenges faced by many people in the disabled community mean that they may have more specific physical and mental health requirements – and never more so than in the last couple of years. Statistics from the ONS show that among people who said that coronavirus had affected their wellbeing, 46 per cent of disabled people reported a negative impact on their mental health, compared to 29 per cent of non-disabled people. This simply confirms Michalak’s point that, without a considered approach to employee wellbeing, a diversity programme will always fall short.

One example of a successful workplace wellbeing programme is BuddyBoost. BuddyBoost is a proven employee wellbeing tool, where participants commit to doing at least 26 minutes of daily physical activity for 26 days in a month. The programme is designed with inclusivity in mind, and because everyone is able to choose their own activity, it is appropriate for all levels of fitness and mobility. The in-app activity selector even includes a wheelchair icon, for users who have been out exercising in their wheelchairs. To reflect this inclusivity, one of BuddyBoost’s main ambassadors is the World Champion wheelchair racer Samantha Kinghorn.

Many of BuddyBoost’s users have reported that taking part in the programme has had a beneficial affect on their mental health, as well as instilled a sense of togetherness with colleagues. The value of such results to an employer cannot be ignored. As the Business Standard points out: “Globally, mental health conditions are amongst the leading causes of disability and distress. As per the WHO, approximately 280 million people in the world suffer from depression alone, and the mental health challenges experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic have only exacerbated the situation. The lack of awareness and access to care remain the most significant obstacles to mental health care.”

Michalak concludes: “It’s imperative that companies implement programs and policies that holistically address employee well-being and DEI. There’s not a single solution for this, but a series of actions that employers should take to ensure every part of their population has the resources and information they need to address the special needs of marginalised employee populations. DEI and well-being are key business strategies. While the business community has made great progress toward both, they can no longer be treated as separate and distinct… To create a workplace that does right by its employees, leaders must understand and address their unique experiences and needs holistically. We will be better leaders and businesses for it


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