The recession resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic is predicted to be one of the sharpest ever with effects more likely to be felt by disabled workers than their non-disabled colleagues.  This is because disabled people are often employed in areas of the economy most usually affected by recession.  They may also be more at risk of discrimination from employers during an economic downturn.

Research shows that during the Great Recession 2008-09, disabled employees were more likely to experience changes to terms and conditions and working practices such as wage freezes, reduced overtime and the reorganisation of work relative to otherwise comparable non-disabled workers.

If employers respond to the Covid-19 recession in the same way they responded to the Great Recession, there will be a greater negative impact on disabled workers than on their non-disabled colleagues.  However, there are steps that you can take to protect your disabled employees during the deepening recession resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Measurement – Maintaining your commitment to promoting equality and diversity at work should be a major consideration before embarking on recession induced changes.  Be aware that changes to staffing decisions and working practices can inadvertently disadvantage disabled employees.  Measurement of the proportion of disabled people in your workforce and the impacts of your decisions on them can enable consideration and adoption of other less damaging options. It can also allow for the provision of additional support to ensure that disabled people in your workforce are not unfairly disadvantaged.

Encourage disclosure – Unless you know which of your employees are disabled, measurement and support of disability in your workplace is not possible. Employees need to feel comfortable about disclosing an existing or new disability.  Research shows that employees are more likely to disclose disability when they have supportive supervisor relationships and work in disability friendly workplaces; those which have a diversity statement with explicit reference to disability, which actively recruit disabled people and those which are known for their positive treatment of disabled employees.

Ensure disabled people working from home are adequately supported – With the increase in homeworking during the Covid-19 pandemic it is vital to ensure that adjustments provided to disabled employees in the workplace are transferred to the home environment.  The expectation that, in many instances, homeworking will not be a short term measure makes provision of these adjustments essential for the wellbeing and productivity of your disabled employees.

Retain and support employees who are the most clinically vulnerable – The government has advised nearly two million of the most clinically vulnerable to stay at home. Where staff fall into this category it is essential that you seek to retain and support them during this period. This may require, with the involvement of occupational health advisors, offering these employees various options such as redeployment into roles that can be fulfilled from home as a reasonable adjustment, and the provision of appropriate support to do so if required.

For further details, please see the full briefing: Disability and the Economic Cycle – Implications for a COVID-19 Recession which has been produced as part of the Disability@Work initiative. Please visit Disability@Work to learn more about research in to disability in the workplace. Or, email info@disabilityatwork.co.uk  if you would like to get in touch.

Professor Melanie Jones is based at Cardiff University. Her research focuses on the interaction between health and the labour market.

Professor Kim Hoque is based at Warwick Business School.  His research focuses on issues of workplace inequality.  

Professor Victoria Wass is based at Cardiff University. Her research interests include disability at work, care and gender pay gaps.  

Professor Nick Bacon is based at Cass Business School. His research explores the impact of organisational and equality practices on disabled workers.