‘Nobody has asked what would help me work effectively and comfortably at home…’

Disabled university employees say how they’d like to be better supported under the Covid-19 lockdown

By James Richards, Heriot-Watt University UCU Vice-President/CI on Heriot-Watt University DISC project

This article is based on findings taken from a trade union organised survey designed to capture early experiences of working under the Covid-19 lockdown. It focuses on what the findings have to say about how disabled university employees (grades 6-10) rate their experience of working under lockdown compared to their non-disabled colleagues. It explores why disabled employees believe they are disproportionately at the sharp end of such experiences. The social model of disability is used to frame how disabled employees come to have disproportionately poorer experiences of working under lockdown. The model is also used to frame ways to better support disabled employees in such circumstances. The article looks at how disabled university employees would like to be better supported under lockdown. However, first of all, summarised details of the study are provided.

The study

The study is based on a survey sent to members of the University and College Union, at one UK university, between 31 March and 3 April 2020, or four working days during the second week of lockdown (although some employees with underlying health conditions/caring responsibilities were allowed to “work from home” from 16 March). The survey had three parts to it. Part one asked for demographic details, including disability. Part two (based on closed questions and a 5-point Likert Scale) asked respondents to rate experiences of working based on nine specific facets of day-to-day working (see Table 1). A third/optional part allowed for open comments on experiences so far. More than 300 employees (n=306) fully completed the survey, with 17 self-identifying as disabled. Disabled participants accounted for 5.5% of respondents, a modest amount, but approximately double the proportion disclosed to the university.

How do disabled employee experiences of lockdown compare to non-disabled employees?

Table 1 summarises non-disabled employee experiences compared to disabled employees. The figures presented in Table 1 represent the percentage of respondents reporting unsatisfactory or worse experiences on nine work facets of everyday working, comparing non-disabled and disabled employee responses.

As inferred by Table 1 (above), the majority of disabled employees (63.3%) report at least average experiences of working under lockdown. However, disabled employees are 50% plus more likely than their non-disabled colleagues to have unsatisfactory experiences of working under lockdown. What is more, disabled employees may have rated experiences of well-being and voice in more positive terms than non-disabled colleagues, but Table 1 shows how disabled employees report substantially and disproportionately higher-levels of unsatisfactory experiences of hours worked, workload, communications (both levels) and equality.

Why do disabled employees believe they have disproportionately unsatisfactory experiences of lockdown?

Based on an analysis of open comments left by disabled employees, seven key explanations for an unsatisfactory experience of lockdown emerge. These are summarised below. 

  • Lack of consultation on operational changes
  • Not asked what would help to work effectively and comfortably from home
  • Rhetoric of health and safety of staff is of utmost priority
  • Communications at least implying it is “business as usual”
  • Blocks on procurement to enable homeworking
  • Contradictory advice and guidance messages from different levels of management

All employees are likely to be impacted in some way by such issues, but it is disabled employees who are evidently the most affected by a range of structures and attitudes designed to test the resolve of even the most privileged employee. More specifically, little concern seems to be given to anticipating adjustments to key decisions made by the university, and little concern seems to be given to adjustments that could follow or part compensate for major or urgent operational decisions. 

How would disabled employees like to be better supported under lockdown?

Disabled participants provided an extensive range of commentary on what they believed would work better for them. Such ideas are summarised as follows.

  • Recognise working under lockdown is not “the new norm”
  • Share work on an equitable and adjusted basis
  • Provide workplace adjustments
  • Amend performance targets/suspend performance and development review
  • Check in with staff on a regular and meaningful basis
  • Consult with staff
  • Create “safe space”
  • Clearly sign-post routes to wider support
  • Show empathy
  • Care for employees as much as students
  • Clear and consistent communications

As can be seen from suggestions above, a range of key themes related to better support emerge. First, especially in a crisis situation, changing management and decision-making structures in a large and bureaucratic organisation is probably too much to ask at the moment, so universities should instead concentrate efforts on developing more meaningful attitudes towards staff. At the least, treat employees as an heterogenous group and treat all employees as part of a strategic HR strategy to hold the university together in such challenging times. Two, much of the above is simply standard “good practice”, adopting such ideas will have a positive effect on the entire workforce, which should in turn improve organisational effectiveness in such uncertain times. Finally, universities cannot do all this alone. For instance, there is a role to play for line managers and team leaders, HR staff, trade union representatives, self-organised social groups and a range of external organisations.

Summary and key message

The article is based on attempt to take you through a survey allowing disabled university employees to rate their experiences of working under lockdown, offering explanations as to why many have had a dissatisfactory experience, and to go through how disabled employees believe universities can better support them in very difficult circumstances. The key message is there is still time to make amends and there are a range of simple steps university employers can take to better support disabled employees through what could be a long and testing time under lockdown.

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