There was a time when soldiers returning from war with permanent disabilities were simply left to their fate. Since the 1940s, they have been able to get some financial support from the state, but even in recent years many veterans have found little help available to reintegrate them into society. This month, the Invictus Games helped to change that, providing such individuals with an opportunity to focus not on what they can’t do, but on what they can. What lessons should businesses take from this initiative in respect of looking at ways to integrate employees who have suffered disability or career challenges?
Although the army has a good record of trying to find alternative, usually office-based positions for injured servicemen, the higher number of them in times of war can make this difficult. Finding other ways to improve their options is important not only from an ethical perspective, but also for the army as an organisation, because it makes the prospect of being seriously injured in the line of duty less worrying for those considering signing up. In any profession where there are unavoidable physical risks, knowing that help like this is available can give employees a confidence boost that insurance alone is unable to provide. More important than simply being aware of a policy, is actually seeing disabled people gainfully employed and valued in the workplace.
When asked about employing disabled people, employers usually respond in one of two ways. One group recognises that it has legal obligations but is concerned about the feasibility of making provision for them, especially from a financial point of view. The other is determined to put people first wherever possible – but this doesn’t necessarily go hand in hand with having the skills to do so. Both employer groups can generally benefit from disability awareness training, with two common realisations being that making the workplace more accessible is cheaper than they thought, and that they may already be employing disabled people without being aware of the fact – a breakdown in internal communication perhaps? One major lesson that doesn’t always come across, however, is the effect that adjusting to the needs of disabled people can have on employee engagement more generally.
Even in sectors where workplace accidents are rare and employees have no more than an average chance of being injured, being aware that disabled people have a place in the business is reassuring because it sends the message that the business is prepared to make a real effort for its employees if the worst were to happen. It also shows that the employer values talent over convenience, which encourages employees to think about their own contributions and the value they provide.
Making room for disability is not just about new employees or the newly disabled – it can also be about existing employees who may have hidden their disabilities, either because they fear potential prejudice or because they don’t believe it impacts on their performance. Whilst, of course, it is not helpful to push people into talking about these things if they don’t want to, creating a disability-positive atmosphere can make them feel confident enough to come forward and raise difficulties that could have been affecting their performance. Minor adjustments can often help them to improve so that good employees become better still and, in the process, more loyal to the business.
Looking at the bigger picture, acquired physical disability is not the only factor that can change an individual’s ability to do their job as they have in the past. Similar difficulties can occur for some employees when they become parents for the first time or start caring for older relatives; when they are banned from driving, or when changes to public transport limits the hours during which they can be available for work. Finding ways to stand by them when problems arise is not only about retaining hard-working employees who may make a valuable contribution to the business, it is about sending a positive message to the others. If you are seen to be loyal to your employees, they will be loyal to you.
Where things get complicated is where, for small businesses, making the necessary adjustments are simply not possible. This is not a legal issue – where disability is concerned, the law doesn’t in fact insist that employers cater for everything, but asks for ‘reasonable adjustment’, which takes into account the employer’s means. It can still present difficulties, however, if employees fail to understand or accept the restraints that the business faces, and perceive letting an employee go as indicative of general disloyalty toward staff. In this situation, is there anything that can be done?
This is where an approach such as that taken by the Invictus Games becomes really useful. The Games themselves are not expected to provide any long-term solutions, but they can support individual development where it is most needed.
Prince Harry said of the event: “We want to get as many of these men and women back into society, giving them jobs and to make sure that all the core values they have been taught in the services to make them amazing, wonderful, strong, inspirational people… that they bring it back into the community for the younger generation.”
“Finally they get the chance to set their mind to a task. Bear in mind these are military people who have been cut down in their prime. They want to have a goal in life.”
Where a business is unable to continue to employ an individual, it doesn’t mean that it is unable to help him or her. From help with reskilling, such as funding a course for them, to simple things such as recommending them and networking on their behalf; employers can do a lot to help their employees even when they have to let them go. This makes a big difference to the impact of the employee’s departure, helping to shield the business from bad word of mouth and to preserve internal harmony.
The Invictus Games is a reminder to everyone that losing part of one’s original skillset does not mean being unable to achieve any longer. For employers, it is a reminder that repositioning rather than losing an employee can be positive for all involved, and that even when that is not possible, being supportive can help to build a better future both for that person and for the business.
Judith Underhill, Learning Director, Coaching & Personal Development, Minerva Engagement
Minerva Engagement improves business from the inside out. Ask us how we can help embed change within your organisation and deliver programmes to promote diversity for the benefit of your business. View more blogs from Minerva Engagement or follow us on Twitter @MinervaEngage.