Guest blog by Katharine McIntosh, Policy Officer at the MS Society
When Chris was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) five years ago, his first reaction was that he would lose his job – but when he told his employers, they reassured him straight away that he would have a role with them for life.
Unfortunately, positive responses like this aren’t as common as we’d like to see. A recent survey carried out by the MS Society found 44% of working age people with MS are currently in employment. Another found that half (49%) disagree that most employers do as much as they can to support people with MS to stay in work.
MS is a neurological condition which affects more than 100,000 people in the UK. It particularly affects people of working age; most people are diagnosed between the ages of 20-40. Symptoms are unpredictable and fluctuate; ‘invisible’ symptoms – such as problems with eyesight, severe fatigue, cognitive issues and pain – mean employers and colleagues can often underestimate the impact of the condition on an individual.
At the MS Society, we’ve been considering the role employers need to play for progress to be made on the Government’s ambitious goal of reducing the disability employment gap. Through roundtable events with employers, we’ve gained a better understanding of the challenges faced when it comes to employing people with disabilities. We’ve also learnt that quite often small and straightforward changes can have a huge impact. Below, we outline some of these changes that could help to break down the barriers to employment for people with a disability.
Understanding the business case
Holding on to valued staff members who become disabled (therefore avoiding recruitment costs), recruiting from a wider talent pool, and making the business accessible to disabled customers, can make businesses more efficient, and more profitable.
Understanding legal duties
Making reasonable adjustments is a way of levelling the playing field for disabled people to have the same chances at accessing or keeping a job as non-disabled people. It’s also a statutory duty under the Equality Act. But concerns over the costs these may bring, or fear of litigation due to ‘not getting it right’ can lead to negative ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ cultures.
In reality, reasonable adjustments are called ‘reasonable’ for a purpose. The larger the business, the more they will be expected to do to accommodate disabled employees. Conversely, the smaller the business, the lower the expectation of adjustments it is reasonable for them to make.
Improving knowledge of sources of support
There is a wide range of sources of support and information available for employers to manage disability at work, yet awareness of these remains low. Government schemes such as Access to Work. Fit for Work and Disability Confident provide recommendations about appropriate adjustments and offer free advice services. The organisation Acas provides advice about legal rights and responsibilities.
At the MS Society, we’ve heard from people with MS who’ve said that without the support from these services, they wouldn’t have been able to stay in work.
Creating a culture that embraces disability
Making sure that employees with health conditions such as MS feel comfortable about disclosing their diagnosis, and that managers respond well to disclosure, is crucial to providing the necessary support. While conducting research, the MS Society heard a range of good practice examples from organisations that have built cultures of openness and acceptance, including:
• Making sure recruitment processes are open to disabled people e.g. ensuring websites are accessible, and that adverts/literature include a positive message about disability, the availability of flexible working options, and reasonable adjustments for interview.
• Providing disability awareness training/information to staff.
• Including provision for adjustments for disabled staff in absence management policies .
• Setting up a disabled employee network. This can provide support to disabled staff, whilst also affording management an opportunity to gather valuable feedback.
Government action needed
People with MS feel that employers need both more support and tougher action by Government. We’ve made a series of recommendations to the Government, to do more to incentivise employers to improve policies and practices; increase employers’ awareness of their legal obligations; provide better information on how to adopt positive workplace cultures; and improve employers’ knowledge of the resources available to them.
Employment that works for people with MS
The MS Society’s MS: Enough campaign aims to make sure people with MS are getting the support they need to stay in work as long as they feel able, and to carry on living independently when work is no longer possible.
Our website provides helpful information for people with MS in work, as well as resources for employers to help them understand how best to support employees with MS: www.mssociety.org.uk/workandMS