What it takes to be an inclusive employer
Around the time of his 40th birthday, Paul Suthers noticed that something was very wrong with his sight. He eventually received a diagnosis of myopic macular degeneration and in the fifteen years since he lost his central vision for reading and seeing detail. Seven years ago he became registered as being severely sight impaired – blind.
In the UK, around seven million people of working age have a disability, at least 70% of whom, like Paul, acquired their impairment in adulthood. With well-established links between workplace wellbeing and business success, and the high cost of employee turnover, retaining staff who become disabled should be a growing priority for employers. To do this, you need the support of both line managers and executives, and an employer-employee partnership that’s based on trust and problem solving.
Paul now works as a Private Representative for NatWest Private (part of RBS). He talks about the challenges he’s encountered, the importance of adjusting to change, and what it’s taken to get him where he is today.
Adjusting to a changing condition
I originally worked as a line manager in a NatWest branch and fairly quickly realised that this face-to-face environment was going to be very difficult for me to keep working in. Simply putting adjustments in place is not always in your long-term interest; you have to be realistic about your ability to do certain roles. So with a bit of help from the bank – a lot of help, actually – I found my way into a more phone-based environment where I can use specialist software to help me do my job.
From the outset, one thing the bank did which was very helpful was bringing in Action for Blind People (now part of RNIB) who specialise in helping organisations recruit and retain staff. This gave me a direct source of support and people who could explain my condition clearly to me. They carried out my first workplace assessments and made recommendations for what adjustments I required. In the years since, whenever I realise my condition is changing, or whenever the bank’s systems get updated, I get another assessment.
Having the right support at work
In my experience, one of the biggest concerns around disability in the workplace is how people interpret productivity. It can be difficult for someone to work at the same speed as a person with no disability, sometimes even with adjustments in place. That’s where I’ve found some of the challenges over the years. Workplace assessments emphasise that there has to be some allowance for that; you can’t measure me, like-for-like, with other staff. Partly, it’s about managers having the right attitude and it’s also about them getting the right support and guidance from the organisation, especially if they’re feeling under pressure from their own managers.
Disability is a complex area and one that can be very difficult for managers to deal with. The best managers are the ones who talk to you to try and understand what you’re going through and give you the time and space to adjust. Almost without exception, someone who has a physical disability will experience some form of mental health issue – usually stress and anxiety – which can be linked with uncertainty about the future. I’ve been lucky: I’ve always had supportive managers who value what I can do and have had the patience to give me time to work out how to cope when something changes.
Workplace adjustments are never a case of one size fits all, and you can’t have a single set of rules that will work for every situation. From the disability networking I do with my union I’ve spoken to people in the past who were not coping as well – their personal feeling was that they weren’t getting support from their managers – and in those cases I have known people to give up working.
Realising the benefits of inclusivity
The Enable employee disability network has been going for three years or so in RBS, and I’m very passionate about the work I do within it. The network came along at a time when the bank was seriously trying to make big improvements in disability and inclusion. RBS now has a head office department for inclusion – Enable can’t take all the credit – but we are a central part of it, and the bank comes to us for advice on issues around disability.
At one stage we got new telephone and computer systems which were not compatible with my software, and I couldn’t fully do my role for several months. It would have been very easy to be disheartened in a situation like that, but thankfully my line manager was very supportive and found me alternative tasks. With hindsight, the bank realised it hadn’t done sufficient planning for accessibility – and that’s something that wouldn’t happen now.
I’d like to think it’s already been recognised in RBS that managers should welcome diversity and should be giving staff the space to be themselves. That’s one of the very positive things I’ve seen coming out in communications and initiatives within the bank. Through Enable we network and do reverse mentoring with executives to share our experiences and explain how our conditions affect us. They recognise that more inclusive employers are more successful and are genuinely interested in what they can do to make the bank better for staff and customers.
By and large I am coping reasonably well with my situation, but it took a lot of support to get here and I know how difficult it can be. I’m very grateful the bank has stuck by me and I’m determined to give more back as a result.