At a glance
  • Paul Avis of Canada Life debunks the myths surrounding hiring disabled employees
  • He explains how employers can achieve a diverse and equal workforce by using group risk products to enable disabled staff to stay in work
  • The 2010 Equality Act and why employers must ensure there is no discrimination against workers on the grounds of disability
4th October 2016

Disability – the equality challenge

Words by Paul Avis, Marketing Director of Canada Life.
Reproduced with the permission of Canada Life.

If you’re disabled and out of employment, the odds of finding a job are stacked against you. There’s a big gap between the employment rate for disabled people and non-disabled people, with an estimated employment rate of 45.6% for those with a disability, compared to 79.4% for those without [1].

We know discriminating against someone in the workplace on the grounds of a disability is unethical. But are employers aware it is also against the law? The introduction of the 2010 Equality Act made it illegal to discriminate against employees because of a mental or physical disability. Under the Act, a person is considered disabled if ‘they have a physical or mental impairment which has a substantially adverse and long-term effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities’.[2] The 2010 Equality Act strengthened individuals’ rights but some employers – particularly SMEs – may have difficulty fully understanding their responsibilities in ensuring there is no discrimination against their workers on the grounds of disability, arguably due to the preconceptions of capability.

Discrimination can be direct, (e.g. refusing to hire or fire someone specifically because they are disabled) or indirect. An example of indirect discrimination is when an organisation has a rule or practice that is applied to all employees, but which puts those who are disabled at a disadvantage (unless the rule is necessary for the business to work).

One of the most common forms of discrimination is failing to make necessary adjustments for disabled employees. Employers have a duty to make reasonable adjustments in the workplace for disabled people. These adjustments may cover employee training or mentoring, finding ways to help them back into work after a long absence or re-deployment to a more suitable job.

This legislation covers not only people who have physical disabilities, but also those who suffer from mental illnesses, like stress or depression, affecting their ability to carry out their jobs.  Unfortunately these illnesses are an increasingly common reason for absence, with over half (57%) of UK employees having suffered from mental health problems while in employment, even if not classified as disabled[3].

Furthermore, the removal of the Default Retirement Age (DRA) in 2011 means that, unless an employer can objectively justify a compulsory retirement age, the only legitimate ways in which an employee will leave service are resignation, redundancy or dismissal for misconduct/capability issues. Employers cannot legitimately dismiss someone simply because they are sick without making suitable efforts to get the person back into work.

Debunking disability myths

Making the case for employing disabled people isn’t hard. Many will have worked before and hold valuable skills and experience. There are over 6.9 million disabled people of working age in the UK, representing 19% of the working population – so to avoid hiring disabled people is to miss out on a significant pool of talent[4]. A report studying the costs and benefits of workers with disabilities found disabled employees to have low absence rates, long tenures and be ‘loyal, reliable and hardworking.’[5]

So why aren’t employers hiring people with disabilities? Unfortunately myths and misconceptions are still prevalent among many employers. One of the biggest misconceptions is that it’s too expensive to hire a disabled person because of the adjustments that need to be made to the workplace.

We need to debunk such myths: reasonable adjustments can generally be made at little or no cost to the employer. Many adjustments will cost absolutely nothing to implement, such as allowing for flexible working, changes to the dress code or allowing someone to sit instead of stand (or vice versa). According to The Disability Rights Commission, the average cost of adjustments is just £75[6].

The Government has been vocal in its commitment to reducing the disability gap, with ministers pledging to raise the disability employment rate to 63% by the end of the decade[7]. It also revived its Disability Confident Campaign in 2015 to raise awareness of the benefits of employing disabled people, dispel common misconceptions and improve understanding of disability.

Both policies have come under criticism, with the Disability Confident Campaign being described as having ‘minimal requirements’ and at risk of becoming a ‘box ticking exercise’[8]. Analysis from the Trades Union Congress also suggests the government is ‘years behind schedule’ in terms of improving the disability employment rate, and based on current rates of progress it will take until 2030 to achieve its target[9].

Nevertheless, financial support is available through the government via its Access to Work scheme. This provides grants to cover support such as aid and equipment in the workplace, adapting equipment and helping disabled staff to travel to and from work[10].

Of course, encouraging employers to employ more disabled people is only one side of the coin. Over four in five (83%) disabled people acquire their disability while employed[11], so what happens to them? Employers with defined benefit pensions can routinely and acceptably ‘manage them out of the organisation’ if they qualify for an ill health early retirement pension; something which would be deemed completely unacceptable for gender, race or sexual orientation reasons. There are few such arrangements left.

Supporting newly disabled employees back to work

Employers can often be quick to write off newly disabled employees rather than helping them return to work. No-one benefits from this situation and line managers/supervisors are often ill equipped to deal with absence cases, specifically running scared of anything to do with mental health, stress etc.

An organisation loses an experienced member of staff and the employee loses their job with the latter potentially facing a serious challenge in looking after themselves as a result.  Employees from April 2017 will have their income cut from the current £5,312 to £3,801[12] with 74% of them believing that State Benefits will reduce further and be harder to qualify for.[13]

For an organisation, with costs estimated at £30,614[14] to recruit a new employee, clearly the focus should be on retention and things such as redeployment registers for larger organisations can assist here.

This is where employers can do more to support both themselves and their staff, particularly in terms of effective absence management and support measures.

The cross-Government Health, Work and Well-being Strategy Unit (HWWB) in conjunction with the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) revealed some startling figures following their Health and Well-being Survey of Employers, gathering evidence from employers on sickness absence; attitudes to health and work and the promotion of health and wellbeing at work.

The survey found that 21% of employers do not have a system in place for recording sickness absence[15] and two thirds take no action to help employees with health problems stay in work or make a return after an absence. [16]

In addition, 83% of employers said they do not provide any stress management advice or support measures[17]. Yet our research shows stress (43%) is the most prevalent mental health issue experienced by employees[18] and at 28% of all of our Group Income Protection (GIP) is the largest cause, 5% more than cancer.[19]

Only a small majority of employers surveyed felt that the ‘financial benefits of investing in employee health and well-being outweighed the costs’. Yet with sickness absence costing employers an average of £16 billion in 2014, organisations cannot afford to ignore the issue.[20]

So why are employers adopting an ostrich like approach? Perhaps dealing with all these issues seems too complex and the solutions too costly? This is an area in which GIP can offer real benefits, providing both employers and their employees with support above and beyond what the government provides. GIP cover costs as little as £75 per employee per annum for basic cover, rising to just under £500 for a five star package. It should be a priority purchase.[21]

GIP is designed to provide an employee benefits if they are off work due to long term sickness. It takes the pressure off the employer if an employee is genuinely unable to work due to incapacity or disability.  By remaining in service, the employee continues to be covered by the private medical and death benefit schemes provided by the employer at a time when they are most needed. Many additional services are also offered by insurers alongside the GIP scheme that will help prevent and manage absence including employer helplines, second medical opinion services which support clinical certainty and vocational rehabilitation. 

Claims Management Services provide work reintegration through medically-endorsed return to work plans that help employees and also look at adjustments and adaptations to the workplace to achieve this. Vocational rehabilitation specialists work with both the employer and employee to help facilitate a return to work when this is medically appropriate.

Where employers take advantage of Early Intervention Services, which help resolve sickness absence at an early stage, it has been found that 90% of employees will make a successful, sustainable return to work with an average absence duration of seven weeks before a claim payment is required thereby reducing occupational/statutory sick pay costs. [22]

Additional benefits are in place to assist employees too. Employee Assistance Programmes, second medical opinion and treatment sourcing services, aligned with employer online document creation and legal helplines offer further information and support to both employer and employee without any additional charge (included within premiums).

Employee absence costs are such that employers would do well to invest in these measures to either prevent it in the first place, or else make sure they have procedures in place to assist employees in their vocational rehabilitation.  GIP is a low-cost, effective starting point on both, and can be an invaluable tool in helping employers maintain a disability diverse, engaged and productive workforce.

[3] Canada Life Group Insurance Mental Health research, December 2015

[9] See footnote 7


[13] Canada Life Group Insurance – State Benefit research, December 2015

[18] Canada Life Group Insurance Mental Health research, December 2015

[19] Canada Life Group Health Balance Scorecard 2015

[21] Canada Life Group Insurance research - 2014

[22] Canada Life Group Insurance – EIS Statistics 2014