Unnecessary roughness

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Written by Ralph Fevre on 1 July 2013 in Features

Ralph Fevre looks at whether illness and disability bring out the worst in managers and employers

The UK government is putting a great deal of effort into persuading people with disabilities or long-term health problems into work by changing their eligibility for welfare payments. Employers might welcome the reduction in public spending this will bring, but are managers happy to have more and more employees with disabilities and health problems in their workplaces? They may find managing such employees quite a headache, and one that can only get worse when they are managing people who have previously been judged unfit for work.

Managers are being asked to play a key role in the delivery of a public policy objective. One of the most attractive benefits of the policy would be a reduction in general stigmatisation and discrimination as workers with disabilities and health problems demonstrate their productivity1, but achieving this benefit depends entirely on employers and managers departing from their own custom of judging such workers as unproductive. The tenacity of this custom can be gauged from the way managers treated employees who fell into this category before the change in policy.

Our research2 has uncovered evidence that, even before those previously judged unfit find jobs, managers have got into the habit of pushing employees out of the workplace when they have disabilities or long-term health problems. All too often, managers assume that they are going to be less productive and act in ways that give these employees no opportunity to prove them wrong and, indeed, make them less productive. When managers' prior assumptions are proved correct, employees with disabilities are marginalised and pushed towards the exit door.

There have been some hints that this has been going on: data from the UK and US showed people with disabilities were in less well-paid jobs, and ones for which they were over-qualified, and had higher turnover (and less training). In addition, there were a handful of smaller UK studies of the aggressive management of long-term sickness absence and tough employer responses when employees might have been protected by anti-discrimination laws. Until now, this small-scale qualitative research has not been backed up by representative quantitative data. Our research draws on two large UK surveys that fill this gap.

The first we will look at here is the government's own 2008 Fair Treatment at Work Survey3. Holding constant all the other variables that might cause such effects, analysis of the survey shows employees with disabilities were more likely to experience a composite measure of sexual harassment, bullying and other serious problems affecting health or wellbeing.

The second large survey we can draw on is our own 2008 British Workplace Behaviour Survey, which interviewed 4,000 people who were representative of British employees, or those with recent experience of employment4. In 20 out of 21 types of ill-treatment, the 7 per cent of the sample who had disabilities or health problems were statistically more likely to be ill-treated. Of these 21 items, seven also featured in the FTWS and bivariate analysis of them produced very similar results. There is a prima facie case that several of these types of ill-treatment would have a damaging effect on the productivity of the employees who were on the receiving end.

The table below shows how, for some types of disability/ill-health the differences were really quite extreme.

Table 1 Ill-treatment of employees with different kinds of disability and health problems

Scanning these results raises an important question. How do we know whether the ill-treatment recorded here was in some way caused by the disability, or health problem, or if the problem was caused by the ill-treatment? It is clearly possible for causation to work in both directions at the same time and significant effects on health are certainly plausible in all of these cases. They are, however, probably more likely in some cases (psychological) than others (diabetes, cancer) and more likely for some kinds of ill-treatment (violence and injury5) than others (pressure not to claim an entitlement).

Bearing this in mind, look at what happens when we control for all the other variables that might cause ill-treatment. In this multivariate analysis, the likelihood of experiencing any ill-treatment at work was increased by 15 per cent for those with a physical disability, 102 per cent for those in the category of 'other disability or health condition' and 177 per cent for those with a learning difficulty, psychological or emotional condition.

While some of the increased exposure for the latter category might be explained by the effect of ill-treatment on health, such 'health effects' are clearly not the whole story. There were also differences in the type of ill-treatment experienced by each sub-group. Table 2 shows which types of ill-treatment were significantly more likely, holding all other variables constant, for those with a psychological disability compared to those with 'other' types of disability.

Table 2 Different experiences for employees with different disability and health problems

The fact that overlap between the groups was very limited is important. While many of the items in the first list might be associated with psychological effects, even psychological trauma, it is much harder to see this kind of causal link in the second list. All of the types of ill-treatment in the second list are more obviously things that might happen as a result of employees having disabilities or health problems.

Looking at these lists, it immediately becomes clear that there are types of ill-treatment - for example, when your employer is not following proper procedures - which managers are simply best placed to 'deliver'. Unfortunately, resource constraints meant we could only ask who was responsible for the more serious kinds of ill-treatment. Nearly half of this (44.8 per cent) was laid at the door of managers, with 28.1 per cent coming from clients or customers and 17.5 per cent from co-workers or colleagues (subordinates or the organisation itself accounted for the remainder).

So why are managers ill-treating their employees in this way? Is it because of stigma and discrimination arising from personal prejudice? If it is, the remedy for managers' bad behaviour can easily be found in selection and training, for example diversity training.

While we are not ruling out prejudice completely, it is striking that the great majority of employees with disabilities did not think it was the cause of their ill-treatment (by managers or anyone else). Like other types of workers who said they were badly-treated, they were most likely to attribute their ill-treatment to the nature of the workplace. While it was rare for employees with disabilities to think that they were targeted because of their disability, this may be because managers who discriminate in this way are breaking the law and therefore take pains to hide the true nature of their behaviour6. This might explain why there was so much less evidence of an increased risk of ill-treatment for those with obvious physical disabilities (a 15 per cent increase as opposed to a 102 per cent increase for those with 'other' disabilities).

Prejudiced managers who do not want to be identified as discriminatory may steer away from the obvious targets for their prejudice. On the other hand, the higher rates of ill-treatment of other categories of disability and ill-health could also be a function of managers seeing them as more of a management headache than employees who are wheelchair users, or whose sight or hearing is impaired. Remember there is qualitative research that points to the organisation of sickness absence and responses to anti-discrimination legislation (especially the requirement for reasonable adjustments to the work itself) as causes of ill-treatment. This pattern seems to fit the ill-treatment reported by those with 'other' health conditions, especially 'pressure not to claim something you are entitled to' and 'your employer not following proper procedures'. Putting in a ramp for a wheelchair user may be one thing but having an employee who needs to be treated differently because of another sort of disability or illness may be quite another.

Multivariate analysis of the FTWS showed that employees with disabilities were nearly twice as likely to say they had a range of problems with employment rights, some of which may entail different treatment of employees with disabilities/ill-health. Bivariate analysis showed such employees were particularly likely to report problems with sick leave or pay but also with holidays, rest breaks, number of hours or days, pay, contract, set procedure for a complaint, set procedure for a grievance, health and safety, and retirement.

We can see how ill-treatment of people with disabilities/ill-health can arise in the management of holidays, breaks, hours, pay, contracts, health and safety and retirement as well as over reasonable adjustments and sick leave or sick pay. In many of these examples, there is the potential for damage to the productivity of employees, if only through effects on their morale and motivation. In this way assumptions about their lower productivity become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Will diversity training for managers improve the situation if they are still required by their employers to treat all their employees the same, regardless of their health or disability, no matter that to do so may amount to discrimination under the Equality Act? Very often the only person in the workplace who understands the legislation is the worker representative and it is obviously a good idea to train managers so that they reach the representative's level of expertise, but what good is knowledge of the legislation to a manager who is required by his employer to break the law?

Avoiding putting managers in such an awkward position requires more fundamental changes - including improvements to training - than simply spreading knowledge of the legislation. There are many good examples of such fundamental change in our case study research7. These examples tend to be underpinned by an implicit commitment to the idea that employees with a disability/ill-health are only going to be less productive if their employer fails to adapt to their needs. This may mean thinking creatively about home-working, for example.

At the very least, employers can reduce unnecessary roughness by disconnecting the management of sickness absence policies from disciplinary procedures. They can also help by putting more trust in occupational health professionals and reconsidering the balance of responsibilities between line mangers and human resource functions8.

Without change in this direction, the government's creation of more employees with disabilities/ill-health threatens to make life in the workplace even rougher and tougher than it is already.

For further information please see:



A fully-referenced version of this article is available on request.

About the author

Ralph Fevre is professor of social research at the Cardiff School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University. He can be contacted on +44 (0)29 2087 4086 or at fevre@cardiff.ac.uk


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