Today we have a guest blog from Chris Rossiter, PhD candidate at the University of Surrey and author of the disabilitiesatwork blog (http://disabilityatwork.wordpress.com/).
Many of us watch the recent C4 ‘4 goes mad’ series of programmes relating to raising awareness of mental health (see http://4goesmad.channel4.com/). While I do understand some of the criticism leveled at C4, the shows were undoubtedly successful at exposing some of the stereotypes held by employers. During the ‘World’s Madness Job Interview’ programme three employers were clear about not wanting to hire someone with a ‘mental illness’. As Claude Littner, former Chairman and Chief Executive of Amstrad International, put it, “I would be sad for them and I would not employ them”. One in four people will experience a mental health problem in their lifetimes, according to Time to Change, the group campaigning to end mental health discrimination. In a survey by Mind, one in five of those who disclosed a mental health problem to an employer said they had been fired or forced to leave their job. This might be shocking to some people, but I’m sure it does not come as such a surprise to people with disabilities, whether physical, psychological or physiological.
The difference between mental health and more ‘physical’ impairments is the extent to which they may be considered visible and apparent. Issues relating to the disclosure of a disability are well documented. Interview candidates with physical disabilities are rated as being more competent, reliable and productive than those with poor mental health, intellectual or learning disabilities and sensory impairments (Farley & Hinman, 1988; Hebl, 1997; Macan & Hayes, 1995). In addition interviewers have reported being more comfortable with an interviewee in a wheelchair (Roberts & Macan, 2006). The general nature (i.e., physical, psychological, or sensory), aesthetic qualities, course (i.e., progression and curability), concealability, origin (i.e., cause), and disruptiveness of a disability determine observers’ reactions to it (Stone & Colella, 1996). Previous research has compared various categories of disabilities and found that nondisabled observers generally prefer interactions with individuals with physical disabilities, followed by sensory disorders, and, lastly, psychological conditions (e.g.,Tringo, 1970); physical disabilities also elicit more positive hiring recommendations and employability ratings (e.g., Premeaux, 2001).
The lower employment rates of people with disabilities are well known. However what is less prevalent is the discussion of factors that affect employees with a disability already in work. With an increase to the prevalence of non-communicable diseases, increasing longevity and the need to work later in life, the number of people with disabilities in the labour market is set to increase. So, what factors are important and how do they contribute to the work experiences of people with disabilities?
Going back to the C4 series, some of you may recall that the first programme (with Ruby Wax) followed three individuals who wanted to discuss their mental health with colleagues (http://www.channel4.com/programmes/ruby-waxs-mad-confessions). The job roles of this trio included a head chef, a marketing executive and a product designer. Each had experienced a period of poor mental health that had meant time away from work. The programme concluded with each individual discussing their experiences with colleagues, apparently with no ill effects. The show demonstrated the enormously positive aspects of supervisor and co-worker support, which is shown to mediate a great deal of difficulties in the workplace.
At face value these stories may suggest that openly disclosing a disability is generally a good thing. However what the programme failed to address is that each of these individuals were highly skilled and in essence of high ‘value’ to their organization. This is important because research suggests that employers who perceive employees as being valuable, that is highly skilled and experienced specialists, are more likely to be more flexible and permit different types of reasonable adjustment (Gewurtz, 2009). Reasonable adjustments are changes that can be made to help support an employee with a disability; these can include changes to the built environment or the provision of specialist equipment, usually involving an external consultant. However the majority of reasonable adjustments are actually made at a local level and involves changes to job tasks and schedules. So for example an employee may be permitted to take additional breaks because of impairment or disability related fatigue. Unlike structural or functional changes, these changes are negotiated between employee and line-manager and would not ordinarily involve a disability specialist. This is noteworthy due to the general lack of awareness of how disability intersects with employment by general managers. Finally the job roles in the programme were those with increased levels of autonomy and low managerial control. These are key features of job design, an area often neglected by disability researchers.
Autonomy is positively related to work-related behaviours, attitudes, and well-being, and negatively related to absenteeism (Fried & Ferris, 1987; Humphrey et al., 2007; Loher, Noe, & Moeller, 1985; Spector, 1986). When autonomy is increased, individuals gain freedom, independence, and discretion in scheduling work and in determining procedures for task accomplishment (Hackman & Oldham, 1975). Hackman and Oldham (1975) defined autonomy as ‘‘the degree to which the job provides substantial freedom, independence, and discretion to the individual in scheduling the work and in determining the procedures used in carrying out’’ (p. 162). Work autonomy has different aspects such as scheduling autonomy (i.e., the freedom to control scheduling and timing at work) and methods autonomy (i.e., the freedom to control which methods and procedures are utilized; Jackson, Wall, Martin, & Davids, 1993). A high level of autonomy is generally thought to be beneficial at work. A recent meta-analysis (Humphrey et al., 2007) showed that autonomy had a strong relationship with burnout, job satisfaction, organizational commitment and motivation.
Academics may be considered a valuable, high autonomy, low control archetype. They are likely to be well motivated and conscientious and so do not require high levels of over-sight from a manager. This is a generalized example of course, but it demonstrates how an individual might adjust their working lives according to a variety of factors, including of course a disability. If however one takes the opposite view, of say a low-skilled worker in the service industry (a shop assistant, catering staff or a call centre agent) these positive aspects of job design are reduced or even removed entirely. Many of us will have dealt with a call centre agent who reads a prepared script and seems quite incapable of going beyond the limits of their specified role; that is not a criticism of those individuals, but rather the way in which their jobs are designed and organized. If an employee has targets for processing calls for example, their performance is easily measured and controlled. Managerial processes in these contexts play a very important role because they are far more structured and controlled than the example of an academic. Roles like these are far more stressful, have significantly higher turnover of staff and of course do not require well-developed knowledge, skills and abilities. As such they might be considered as less valuable and easier to replace. Therefore organizations may be reluctant to provide support through reasonable adjustments, which they may consider too costly.
Organizations of all kinds may have extensive policies and procedures to provide support to employees with a disability. However it is only through the enactment of these policies, acceptance of disability status and an understanding of how disability intersects with work roles and activities, that organizations can become inclusive and accessible. Elements of job design are just as important as the provision of specialist equipment, because without the integration of all of these systems no one solution may be appropriate. However beyond this the role of organizational culture and leadership at the macro level and interpersonal relationship at the micro level, all have a part to play. Unfortunately the resistance of managers to make small changes, at minimal cost, and evaluations of performance may, in part, perpetuate perceptions that employees with a disability are less competent and productive than their non-disabled co-workers.
Author of the WordPress blog, disabilitiesatwork
Occupational Psychology PhD Student, University of Surrey