For Disabled People, Flexible Working is Essential But Not Sufficient

Colorful upper body silhouettes of different working people as human resources and inclusion concept

Elliott Johnson

In December 2023, the International Public Policy Observatory (IPPO) published an evidence synthesis report which highlighted the ongoing effects of the shift in working patterns and conditions since the COVID-19 pandemic. In particular, the report focused on the role of hybrid working and the specific impact it has had on disabled people.

Disabled people have long been at the sharp end of working conditions. They have had to adapt to frequent national policy changes, inflexible work conditions (and informal expectations) and a highly conditional welfare system that has often created disincentives to physical, social and economic activity rather than supporting and encouraging it. For people with the most profound impairments, the transition from systems like Remploy in Scotland, which provided roles in government-subsidised businesses, to national cash-based support, like Access to Work, for workplace adaptations in the mainstream, open market, potentially provided a greater level of autonomy and inclusion, but at the expense of more-guaranteed employment. Meanwhile, reforms including the introduction of the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) and the moves from Disability Living Allowance (DLA) to Personal Independence Payment (PIP) and from Incapacity Benefit (IB) to Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) (and then Universal Credit) were branded as a means of focusing on what disabled people could do in work rather than what they could not. The result, however, was that many lost, or feared losing, their financial lifeline if they did not meet the very specific, and sometimes arbitrarily designed and/or implemented, criteria.

It is important to remember, then, that many disabled people feel, very reasonably, that they are constantly scrutinised and observed, both in their professional and private lives. Many also feel that their financial position is precarious in the extreme and that they are only ever days or weeks away from potential destitution. An interesting side-effect of the pandemic is that this feeling that disabled people have been accustomed to over decades has now extended to a much larger proportion of the population. Lockdown conditions brought a feeling of observation to the whole population, while people whose income was previously high and very secure, suddenly found themselves without work, without money and in receipt of benefits, or at the very least in government-subsidised jobs through the furlough scheme. But it also brought a shift to working from home, with managers grappling with a change in conditions that could be responded to either by trusting workers to be efficient, or by implementing potentially invasive systems of performance monitoring.

The pandemic highlighted that people need security. No-one can operate effectively, in economic terms or otherwise, if they feel constantly at risk of job loss or absolute destitution. The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (Furlough) ensured that many people were able to navigate the pandemic with a degree of security that others, who were forced into applying for Universal Credit, lost.

Autonomy and flexibility support wellbeing and productivity, while micromanagement crushes it. One study described this approach to management as one of ‘control and effort extraction’. Disabled people, like everyone else, should have as free a rein as possible in determining the work conditions that maximise their wellbeing and productivity and enable them to remain economically active. For some disabled people, working from home is an absolute necessity, for others it is preferable and for others still, an office facilitates a safe, adapted work environment in a way homeworking cannot.

Employers must consider that there are deep, evolutionary psychology factors underpinning some of the effects that approaches have on employee’s willingness to cooperate in work settings. The psychological power of spite has been highlighted in experimental ‘ultimatum’ games, in which people often reject sums of money offered to them if they feel the split with the giver is unfair, despite the alternative being zero. When people feel slighted, they are unlikely to want to contribute as effectively as they can.

Changes in national policy cannot necessarily prevent every instance of inflexible, hierarchical workplace policy, but it can ensure redress where this prevents disabled people, or anyone else, from working at their best. Indeed, this may be one area where disabled people have an advantage since they are protected from discrimination on the basis of their being disabled by the Equality Act from day one of employment, while non-disabled people often only receive protection from dismissal after two years (in areas not covered by the Equality Act).

For many disabled people, there remain very profound policy issues. Without a welfare system that truly supports their independence, acknowledges that impairments often fluctuate, and that benefits can improve some impairments while removing them can very seriously worsen them, adjustments to working conditions are unlikely to be sufficient to support and encourage economic activity. While some small changes in benefits assessment processes and guidance have been implemented since the reforms of the late-2000s and early-2010s, usually following campaigns from disabled people’s organisations, the system remains one that to most applicants feels like a battle at a time when they feel least equipped to respond. Indeed, an overwhelming number of appeals are successful once they reach the tribunal stage and evidence is finally looked at in the round, rather than focusing solely on narrow interpretations and processes. It is unsurprising that when such an adversarial system is in place, some disabled people fear risking any activity that might lead to losing benefits, or a long, drawn-out appeal.

Disabled people are unlikely to feel fully included in work and supported to do what is right for their financial wellbeing and health, until all systems related to it are overhauled to shift the emphasis from the minute proportion who abuse systems to the more than 99% who just need some support and want to do what they can to contribute and be included. Building on the universality of support experienced during the pandemic, systems like Basic Income, in which payments are made irrespective of income or needs, are one potential solution that could give disabled people, in particular, the freedom to pursue the work that they can when they can, while also guaranteeing a safety net that isn’t riddled with bureaucratic holes. At the very least, we must shift the emphasis in conditional systems from intense, almost paranoid, suspicion of applicants to support, benefit-of-the-doubt and autonomy.