Government must think more expansively about how we define disability and ill-health in the workplace

Posted On: 
4th November 2019

The British Safety Council welcomes the government’s efforts to encourage inclusion in the workplace, but there must be clarity for employers and employees as to what is expected.

Writing for PoliticsHome today, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions says that it is a priority for her that “no-one is barred from pursuing a career because of a disability or health condition”. The British Safety Council shares this view and we welcome the government’s efforts to encourage inclusion in the workplace through Disability Confident.

The government is right to be asking how we can do more. It is estimated that ill-health at work costs the economy £100 billion a year and that sickness and absence costs employers around £9 billion. There are 12.7 working-age people with a long-term health condition, including 7.6 million who have a disability that reduces their ability to carry out day-to-day activities. Last year, one in five people between 50 and 64 left their last job because of their health. 

Therese Coffey MP: No-one should be barred from pursuing a career because of a disability

But we want to see the government think more expansively about how we define disability and ill-health in the workplace. Employers have a role supporting employees with health conditions that are not covered by existing disability legislation. Too often, however, employers are not aware of potential conditions and employees are wary of raising them; this is especially the case with mental health conditions.

Alongside Mates in Mind, we champion improving wellbeing at work, increasing awareness of mental health, and ending the associated stigma. In our joint response to the government’s consultation Health is everyone’s business: proposals to reduce ill health-related job loss we welcomed proposals to give employees a right to ask for workplace modifications on health grounds. There must be clarity for employers and employees as to what is expected, particularly the basis on which an employer might refuse to make modifications. We would like to see the government go further and extend the right to request modifications beyond narrow definitions of health – for example, someone going through the menopause might benefit from modifications, as might someone with caring responsibilities. Wellbeing at work goes beyond simply being in good health.

Finally, it is important to say that any measures that are aimed at reducing job loss from ill-health do not have the unintended consequence of increasing presenteeism. Research suggests that people are increasingly coming to work when they are physically or mentally unwell, or both. The fall in the number of sick days to its lowest since records began might seem a cause for celebration; it is more likely a sign of presenteeism. New technology and forms of job insecurity could be driving people to be at work when ill and to work longer hours than is healthy. Presenteeism undermines productivity, morale and employee engagement as well as damaging people’s health. While the British Safety Council will work constructively to ensure that people with disabilities, underlying health issues and other things that are affecting their wellbeing can make a positive contribution at work, this must never create a culture that makes absence a dirty word.

You can find out more about the consultation here and read the British Safety Council’s full submission here