Talking about disability in the workplace can be a daunting task, for both employees and managers.
Perceived discrimination, privacy, legal concerns and lack of knowledge of how to do it, can deter businesses from approaching the subject of disability and illness with staff.
Similarly, employees can be resistant to sharing information about their own health condition, out of concern their situation will not be understood, they will be looked on less favourably, or simply because they don't believe they need any assistance.
Why talk about it?
With now over 2 million working Australians identifying as having a disability, chances are you already have staff with a health condition or injury, whether you know it or not.
Talking about disability and illness in the workplace signals to your current and future staff, customers and clients that your business is an open, supportive and inclusive environement.
It should be thought of as business opportunity to:
support your current and future staff to stay healthy, happy and productive
retain talented, valuable staff
attract top candidates
avoid possible discrimination complaints
market your business as an inclusive leader, attracting like-minded customers
Simple steps before you ask
There are some simple steps that can make talking about employees' disability safe and easy.
Create an environment that celebrates diversity and inclusion.
Make it comfortable and easy for employees to come forward with issues around their health and wellbeing, knowing that they will be treated appropriately and with minimal fuss.
This can involve:
establishing processes and systems for employees to approach management
proactively implementing workplace adjustments such as ramps and accessible toilets
proactively offering flexible work practices, such as working from home
promoting relevant internal and external resources, such as diversity and inclusion policies, and your Employee Assistance Scheme provider
celebrate the achievements of staff with disabilities
Educate managers about disability
Build your own, and your managers' confidence to address employee's concerns about their health and wellbeing. With employees more likely to approach a coworker or manager than HR, it is crucial that managers are equipped with the knowledge and skills to support staff with disability and health issues.
Training and resources for managers can include:
Castle's Disability Awareness Guide
Australian Network on Disability's Access and Inclusion Self Assessment
Be open and honest about what you are asking
Whether you are monitoring your business's diversity and inclusion progress, or hoping to encourage employees to ask for assistance, it is important to assuage any fears of discrimination or other, that will prevent employees from sharing.
Communicating your purpose openly and showcase the benefits that responses can have, such as an increase representation of disabilities amongst staff that was not previousy known.
A message from the management addressing your goals, reasoning, assurances of privacy, and ongoing strategy, can build trust and encourage more honest respondents.
Report the results back to your workforce, the steps you are undertaking as a result, and the timeframe for implementing them.
When, and What to Ask
There are a number of ways to approach the subject of disability and health conditions with staff, depending on the circumstances.
Although some employees and applicants will be proactive with sharing personal health information, especially those with more 'visible' disabilities, it can be safe to assume many won't.
Knowing when, what and how to approach the subject can make a huge difference in helping employees feel comfortable and confident to respond openly. Some of the following examples can also simply create an opportunity where an employee can come forward.
Advertising a role should state that people with disabilites are encouraged to apply.
Each applicant should be asked if they need adjustments to participate in the recruitment process, such as a phone interviews or flexible timing
Medical or Physical Assessment
Psychological or physical tests given to all applicants should be directly related to the role, such as lifting or maths aptitude.
In a letter of offer, ask if the employee requires any adjustments made to the workplace or role, even if they haven't disclosed the need prior.
As part of employee inductions, ask all new staff if they require any adjustments, again, even if they haven't disclosed requirements earlier.
Remind staff during performance appraisals that adjustments can be made to accomodate health conditions and disabilities, without impacting career progression.
Include questions about disability and health conditions in regular staff surveys. Be clear whether responses are anonymous or not.
It is important to assage any fears of discrimination by ensuring that every applicant and employee is given the opportunity to disclose a disability or health condition, not just the people you think need help. When asked at a number of stages from recruitment right through to promotion, employees have a chance to disclose a disability they might not have felt comfortable doing initially.
What to ask, and what not to ask
Depending on the individual circumstances, there are several ways to approach the topic of disability with staff and candidates.
Remembering that the vast majority of illnesses and disabilities are invisible (up to 90%), it is important that you treat everybody equally, creating an environment where they feel comfortable sharing personal information.
Before and during an interview Focus on the employee's ability to do the job and particular tasks, not their disability. Legally, it is entirely up the the candidate to disclose an illness, injury or disability. What not to ask "do you have a disability/medical condition?" "do you have any past injuries/workcover claims?" "will you need lots of extra time off?" What you can ask instead "do you need any adjustments to the interview/recruitment process?" "how can we provide additional support to you in the workplace" "is there anything preventing you from doing specific tasks safely?
Inductions and on-boarding assessments Again, focus on the specifics of the job, rather than disability in general. What not to say "what does your disability/condition stop you from doing?" "declare now if you have disability or health condition" What you can ask instead "reasonable adjustments are provided to staff with health conditions, we invite you to let us know how we can support you in the workplace" "Do you have any injuries that impact your ability to lift heavy objects?" "Do you have ideas how for making your job easier/safer?"
Engagement Survey Incorporate questions about disability into your regular staff engagement surveys to allow you to monitor trends in your workforce. Disability and health issues are constantly changing in the workplace, so it is important to maintain regular communication. Tips Making the responses anonymous can encourage greater engagement and ask more direct with questions. Give the respondents the option to 'prefer not to answer', and remind them of who to contact if they require support for a disability or illness. What you can ask "Do you have a disability?" Yes | No | Prefer not to say "If Yes, do you require adjustments to your working arrangements?" Yes | No | Prefer not to say "What reasons do you if you have not requested adjustments to your working arrangements?" - Does not impact on my work - Concerned I may be treated differently - Concern it may disadvantage me now or in the future - Other______________________________ Avoid asking Type, name and cause of disability or health condition, are irrevelevant to their capacity to work and can lead to unhelpful labelling. Language such as 'declare' or 'disclose' can suggests they have something to hide Non-anonymous surveys can provide more information to track progress over time, such as participation in training, career progression and retention; and the proportion of staff with disability in different business units or divisions.
When an employee or candidate seeks 'reasonable adjustments' for their work arrangements, employers have a legal obligation to provide necessary or appropriate modification or adjustment to ensure or enable equal opportunity and participation. A reasonable adjustment could be an adjustment to work
hours, training or workplace equipment. For example an employee with physical disability may require modification of their desk/work area or an employee with vision impairment may require magnification of their computer screen.
For practical advise on 'reasonable adjustment' processes, contact the experienced team at Castle.
This article should act only as a guide for starting a conversation about disability with employees.
A business is obligated to comply with the Disability Discrimination Act 1992, Fair Work Act 2009 and relevant privacy responsibilities.
For more information consult A brief guide to the Disability Discrimination Act
Find out more
Australian Network on Disability