UNISON is calling for disabled people in the UK to have the legal right to continue working from home when COVID-19 is contained.
According to the latest announcement from the Government, the lockdown roadmap they released says all legal limitations will be lifted from 21 June 2021. This is despite the current holdup in the UK’s much-lauded vaccination rollout that means people under 50 will have to wait far longer for a vaccination.
So, what happens when a disabled person who feels vulnerable to the virus wants to continue working from home, but their employer uses the law to force their return?
Disabled people want the right to work from home after the pandemic
A survey by UNISON in August 2020 shows that disabled people working from home due to the pandemic feel more productive and have had less time off sick. Compared with their productivity and sickness absences before the pandemic, it’s clear that working from home improves the bottom line.
I think that the union is right. They are asking the UK Government to implement a legal right for disabled people to work from home if they feel it’s better for them. Importantly, UNISON is asking the law to ensure that employers face penalties if they refuse disabled employees this right.
Currently, disabled workers are supposed to have the legal right to ‘reasonable adjustments’ under equality laws. It is expected therefore that employers will make every reasonable attempt to reduce the impact of the person’s disability on their health and wellbeing.
Now that the majority of businesses across most sectors and in most cases have proved that they can function with remote working in place, why are disabled people increasingly concerned about returning to the office?
Disabled people will lose Government protection
It is reasonable that some disabled people are more vulnerable to the risks of severe illness or death from COVID-19. The millions of people who are considered most vulnerable have been shielding on Government advice since March 2020. This means that Government and employer support was in place for any vulnerable disabled people to work safely.
This support will be removed from 1 April 2021, according to the Government. However, they are still more at risk. An easy solution for any clinically vulnerable disabled people would be to continue working from home. But when the legal requirement is removed, employers are likely to return to pre-pandemic expectations.
Under the equality laws, disabled people should be allowed to work from home as a ‘reasonable adjustment’. However, UNISON has been informed that the majority of employers do not consider this a ‘reasonable adjustment’ and refuse to allow it.
Working from home increases productivity and lowers stress levels
Statistics from the review of more than 4,000 disabled workers in the UK show that over half are working from home when lockdowns are in place. This is a massive increase on the 5% of disabled employees that are usually permitted to do so.
The same reviews shows that 73% of disabled workers are more productive when they are permitted to work from home. They feel more relaxed, get more done, take less time off and experience a boost to their mental and physical wellbeing. Around 54% said that they want to continue reaping these benefits by working from home when restrictions lift. Sadly, 37% of the group pf disabled people who want to work from home think that their employer won’t allow it to continue.
There is much frustration about the attitude of employers to disabled people, particularly as there is evidence to show that remote working benefits the bottom line too. This is not just about trying to help disabled workers (although that should be reason enough) but also boost productivity and save money from fewer absences.
The survey shows that disabled people who are more productive working from home can manage their disability better. This in turn means less stress, less pressure and less time lost through sickness. It allows the disabled person to concentrate fully on the task in hand.
What are the reasons behind disabled people wanting to work from home?
There are numerous reasons given by disabled workers as to why home working suits them better. These include the ability to work flexibly, to take breaks when they need to for health reasons and easier and more private access to toilet facilities. These issues just do not affect the majority of the workforce in the same way they impact disabled people.
Other reasons given by disabled people who feel that working from home helps their productivity levels is the lack of a commute. The daily travel to the office can cause pain and exhaustion to people with underlying conditions or a disability. Simply cutting this out allows more energy, creativity and productivity.
On the flipside, those that felt less productive when working from home because of the pandemic said they did so because their employer didn’t support them. For example, the lack of reasonable adjustments cited by some disabled people include the provision of speech-to-text software and adaptable keyboards. This is the other side of the same coin, with many employers unwilling to make the reasonable adjustments disabled employees are entitled to.
The pandemic has shown us the following:
- Working from home can be done simply.
- Working from home increases productivity, particularly from disabled workers.
- All kinds of traditional sectors have discovered that remote working is possible.
- More productive workers and less sick time means the company makes more money.
- There is no longer a reasonable excuse for employers to forbid disabled workers from working from home.
At the end of the day, disabled workers just want to do their jobs in the same way as everyone else. It is way past time for employers to adjust their attitude towards remote working and encourage disabled workers to do so.
Originally published at https://www.thelondoneconomic.com on March 30, 2021.