Productivity, disability and some facts

This week the chancellor of the UK, Mr Phil Hammond, caused something of a stir when he appeared to suggest that worsening productivity figures in the UK economy were somehow the fault of disabled people. What did he actually say? Like most politicians, one must look carefully at the words spoken and not just what was said, and the words he used were “high levels of engagement in the workforce of disabled people may have had an impact on overall productivity.” Thus he neatly threw the disabled demographic to the wolves whilst giving himself enough leeway to claim he never explicitly blamed anyone for anything.

The opinion that disabled workers simply aren’t as productive as abled workers is by no means exclusive to the UK finance minister. All over the world, managers, employers, politicians, and corporations all have within their number people who believe this to be the case, and this adds yet another barrier to employment that disabled people face in addition to whatever disability they might have.

Does disability hurt productivity? At face value, it intuitively makes sense that disabled people don’t work as well as abled people and/or cost more to employ. Putting a ramp so someone in a wheel chair can get inside the office for example, or suitable IT equipment or office chairs, surely adds costs? Can the productivity of one or two employees be worth it when you can hire the abled and not have to shell out on such things? Well when one looks closer it turns out, as with most things in life, the truth is very different to our preconceived notions and rush to judgement.

First of all, let us define disability and dispel a few myths. A disability can be defined as a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long term effect on someone’s life, and hinders their ability to carry out many day to day activities. There are some very obvious examples which spring to mind when we think of physical disability. Disabilities such as blindness, deafness, or someone who has lost the use of their legs. Mental disability is much less understood, particularly by lay people. Severe anxiety disorder or bipolar depression are examples, but are difficult to properly quantify. If someone has anxiety attacks only at certain times, and never at work, are they still disabled? If someone needs to take medication daily but it keeps their depression in check, does that count? Yes, and yes. If the disability is kept under control by the person who has it in such a way that it no longer limits their life they’re still classed as disabled.

From a HR perspective, and as this is a European-centric blog, let’s look at the two definitions of disability used for statistical purposes within Europe;

The first is defined as “People having a basic activity difficulty”. This definition covers disabilities such as deafness, blindness, paralysis, severe communication difficulties, etc.

The second is defined as “People limited in work because of a long-standing health problem and/or a basic activity difficulty”. You’ll sometimes see this as the acronym ‘LHPAD’, not to be confused with the LAPD. This definition covers disabilities such as anxiety disorders, impaired functionality due to injury, long term health issues such as Crohn’s, HIV, or cancer, or learning difficulties.

Within the European Union, 47.3% of the first group of working age are employed in the workforce, whereas only 38.1% of the second group are employed. This might seem somewhat paradoxical, but the first group doesn’t generally cover progressive illnesses or disabilities, thus if someone from the first group found employment they’d likely already be set up and fully able to work around their disability. Someone from the second group might have unexpected disability or health related hindrances occur during their working life. Of those in the second category, who were previous employed that are no longer employed, over 30% cited their disability as a reason for leaving work.

One obvious problem is that productivity is measured on an occupational basis, as it makes no sense to measure productivity by demographic. Workers in the manufacturing sector are valued if they can produce high quality work with high consistency, not because they can hear perfectly well in both ears. Surgeons are valued if they can correctly diagnose and treat illness and injury with their surgical tools, not because they can run a hundred meters. So if, for example, ones job was to produce 58 sector reports in excruciating detail, being in a wheelchair would have less of an impact on ones productivity than being inept and lazy would.  

Statistics are useful indication of where we currently are but we need to delve a little deeper to understand what that this actually means in HR and the world of work. If, as a hiring manager, you are wondering if Phil Hammond is right and you should steer away from disabled candidates, first of all I would point out within Europe there is a raft of legislation that you are not able to discriminate on the grounds of disability. And aside from the the legal ramifications of such a view, the manager in question is failing on a very fundamental level, which every HR professional will recognize; they’re looking at a disability, not an employee.

I have worked with many disabled people, and I’ve not known a single one of them to be defined by their disability. If they’re not born with a disability, but it comes later in life, there is a hard period of re-adjustment. But people adapt. They get used to the new normal, and make adjustments to minimize the impact that their disability has on them. This happens in the workplace as well. Of course, it will be possible to dig out examples of disabled people being unable to perform tasks expected of their position in the workplace due to their disability, but such examples tend to be the exception, not the rule. In fact, one could also find examples of people using the ingenuity they’ve discovered in overcoming their disability in the workplace. It is also important to remember that a disabled person is very unlikely to choose a career where their disability would impact their performance. One who is afraid of heights will not insist on being a window cleaner after all.

Anecdotes are fine, but what about data? It’s actually quite shocking but there has been very little work done on the productivity of disabled versus abled. There was a study in 1999 which showed that there was “ no productivity differences between workers with or without a disability” but very little else has been done. Surprisingly this seems to be an area which has not received a lot of attention, but that tells a story in itself. If this was major issue one would have expected a substantial amount of research to have been undertaken, although what does exist is pretty interesting.

One of the key misconceptions linked to productivity you hear about employing disabled workers is that that they will take more time off sick, costing the company money and placing additional burdens on co-workers. A study by the American company DuPont actually found that disabled employees have no more time off due to sickness than any other employees. This was also confirmed by an Australian study which not only found disabled workers have lower absence rates but also tend to have higher retention rates, which cuts training and induction costs, and have lower levels of work place injury. So in terms of productivity, according to at least one study, the average disabled worker is a committed worker, more likely to stay with a company, and actually less likely to take time off.

I’d be interested to see any data which contradicts this, but in the absence of such data we can safely say that, at least on a company level, disabled people aren’t hitting productivity. But what about on a national level? Are disabled people eating the homework, as Mr Hammond implies? The picture from other countries in incomplete, mostly for the reasons already given – a lack of any indication this is much of an issue. In fact developed economies are acutely aware of the fiscal consequences of excluding disabled people from the labour market. Not only does under-utilisation of large numbers of people willing to work harm an economy, but unemployment can create a situation where a disabled person has their condition worsen, especially in the case of mental disabilities. Thus most governments are appreciative of employers who will take on and employ disabled people, and some even attempt to nudge firms into hiring them. In Germany for example, employers can apply for a grant to cover 50% of a disabled persons wages for the first twelve months, and in the case of severe disability the German government will cover 70% for up to 96 months. In France, they have a quota system, and most companies must take over 6% of their workforce from the disabled if they employ more than 20 people. In Japan the approach is both carrot and stick. The government have a quota on disabled workers of up to 2.1% if the company employs more than 48 people (depending on sector). Those who meet this quota or better it are eligible for grants, but failing to meet it can incur a fine of 200,000 yen.

This begs the question – if advanced economies spend such resources trying to get disabled people into the workforce, as opposed to spending resources caring for the disabled so they don’t need to work, why on earth would they do this if the end result was increased economic damage? Quite simply, they wouldn’t. The simple conclusion to be drawn from all of this is that disabled people in work do not harm productivity. This leaves us with the question of where is UK productivity being damaged. Although I touch upon economics often, this blog primarily focuses on HR and people management. The question of where UK productivity is being drained is not really one for this blog, although I do have an opinion on that, suffice to say it is not the fault of disabled people. I’m afraid Mr Hammond must look elsewhere for a convenient scapegoat.

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