It’s been a month since Boris Johnson brought England out of lockdown, and people across England have welcomed the easing of COVID-19 restrictions. Restaurants and pubs reopened their doors to customers, people flooded back into festivals and nightclubs and mask-wearing is, largely, an individual choice. However, whilst a return to some sense of normality is good, we need to remember that not everything we endured throughout the pandemic has been negative and there are lessons we need to take with us as we move forward to improve the future for everyone. As Melinda Gates has said, “This pandemic has magnified every existing inequality in our society”.
We, as a human race, have gone through some unimaginable changes over the past year and a half. We’ve seen lockdowns come into force, borders shut down, and whole businesses operate in completely new and previously unthought of ways. Many companies who didn’t think that working from home was possible, did it in a matter of days and stayed that way for months.
What we are seeing emerge now is an open debate on employee rights and employer responsibility when it comes to the future of work and what that entails. Every day we hear opposing views on the work from home debate and what returning to “normality” means for people. From being described as unsustainable and counter-productive by some companies, at the same time other businesses express an unexpected influx of employee satisfaction due to increased flexibility. Whether remote working is a temporary solution or has become a standard practice and policy, the working from home question has certainly sparked discussion.
The last 18 months have put a strain on everyone’s mental health and wellbeing as we’ve tried to cope with the pandemic. According to research by Mckinsey, whilst 96% of companies provided mental health support, only one in six employees felt supported. This was due, in many cases, to companies adopting a one size fits all policy without recognising the individual needs of each employee. As many companies look to switch back to full time office work and “normal” working hours, we need to ensure that companies focus on everyone’s individual needs and that might not fit into returning to normal – particularly persons with a disability.
According to the UK’s national statistics, there are currently 8.3 million persons with disabilities of working age in the UK, but only 4.4 million are currently in work. The latest UK Disability Survey (June 2021) found that only a half of persons with a disability felt that their employer was flexible and made reasonable adjustments, and only a quarter felt that they had the same opportunities as their colleagues. This proves that we need to be better as a society – it’s so important to create inclusive workspaces where persons with disabilities have an equal chance to progress and thrive. This is not only important for the employees but also the businesses. Recent data showed that 71% of executives felt that employee engagement was critical to their company’s success and that companies with higher employee engagement are on average 21% more profitable.
Persons with disabilities are routinely discriminated against whether consciously or unconsciously in the workplace. However, some of the invisible barriers faced disappeared with the pandemic. Forcing employees back to the office now that restrictions have been lifted could undo all the progress over the last few months and have long lasting effects on the lack of inclusivity for companies. Persons with disabilities have been calling for flexible working for years, and now that companies have proved they can do it – it simply does not make sense for them to take away the flexibility which has helped so many people.
The pandemic has blurred the work and home lines but that doesn’t always have to be a bad thing. Regardless of ability, health or age, we have now all experienced the anxiety brought about by the pandemic and have in turn witnessed how agile we can be both as individuals and as a society when the stakes are high. We have seen the necessity of structural workplace change when our health might be compromised, so it’s vital that as restrictions for the general public lift, we are reminded that this flexibility is still needed for the millions of people with disabilities living in the UK.
Lockdown provided us with an incredible ‘reset’ opportunity to build back a fairer and more equal society that bends to meet the needs of everyone who is part of it. Where before we excluded unconsciously, it is no longer acceptable to simply revert to ways that we now know to be exclusive. The current guidelines suggest we are at risk of letting this opportunity pass us by, driving those at risk of virus-complications further into isolation. We must resist this and harness the learnings of the last year to ensure our society encourages a collective responsibility to protect all its members.