Diane Lightfoot: Why talking about disability is vital for health and wellbeing strategies

Diane Lightfoot

Often, when people think of disability, they imagine a wheelchair user, and consider it to be something present from birth. In reality, the majority of conditions are not immediately visible, and most are acquired.

As the likelihood of acquiring a disability increases with age, an ageing workforce means that more people will be living and working with a disability or condition than ever before.

Talking about a disability with colleagues and managers can be difficult, and many people choose not to. It is, therefore, up to HR teams and senior management to develop cultures where open discussion is encouraged, along with providing training for managers on the support available for disabled colleagues.

Recognising and incorporating the needs of disabled colleagues into health and wellness initiatives can promote understanding, as well as improving staff motivation and productivity.

Awareness days are a good start, but to create lasting change, a more strategic, top-down approach is needed. Senior leaders must be willing to talk about their own experiences of disability and to drive forward change by becoming champions.

Health and wellbeing initiatives also need to be inclusive and thought-through. For example, an Ironman challenge, organised in isolation, will encourage physical health, but might also reinforce unhealthy stereotypes around men’s physical wellbeing being more important than their mental resilience. This can undermine wider organisational messaging around encouraging people to talk about their mental health, unless carefully considered as part of a holistic programme of activities looking at all aspects of health and wellbeing.

Many employers are now taking steps to encourage good mental health in the workplace, but stigma does still exist, or is at least perceived to.

A survey of 1,000 16 to 24-year-olds, conducted in October 2018 by Business Disability Forum, revealed that, while the majority felt that it was an employer’s responsibility to support good mental health, only a third felt comfortable talking about their mental health at work or at university. Most importantly, 65% said they would consider leaving a job if they felt their mental health needs were not supported.

It is vital that we create workplace cultures in which good health and wellbeing is promoted and discussed. Not only because it is the right thing to do, but because it is crucial to business sustainability. Openness and visibility around disability must be part of that.

Diane Lightfoot is chief executive officer at Business Disability Forum

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