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Overwhelmed and undervalued


One in four disabled NHS staff without necessary equipment and support

One in four disabled NHS staff without necessary equipment and support


Nearly one in four of disabled NHS staff say they are not getting the necessary equipment and support needed to perform their role as effectively as possible.

This is according to NHS England’s annual Workforce Disability Equality Standard (WDES), published this week, which allows NHS trusts to compare year-on-year progress on the career and workplace experiences of disabled staff.

However, 77% of disabled NHS staff in 2021 said their employer had made adequate adjustments to allow them to carry out their work, which represents an increase of almost three percentage points from 2020.

The report suggested the improvement may be because more staff have been given equipment to work from home during the Covid-19 pandemic, adding that the one in four going without ‘undoubtedly’ meant a loss of productivity for these staff.

Patricia Marquis, RCN director for England, said there was ‘significant’ work to be done to improve the situation and ensure every member of staff felt valued.

She said: ‘Employers need to take a different approach to long-term sickness absence or disability – as opposed to short-term sickness – to avoid a situation where because reasonable adjustments aren’t made, disabled staff end up being redeployed or even dismissed.

‘It is vital that managers know what options are available – such as working from home, compressed hours and the right equipment – to enable disabled staff to do their jobs effectively.’

Data from 2021 showed an increase in Disabled NHS staff of 0.3 percentage points to 3.7% of the total workforce, as well as an increase in board representation.

In 2019, there were 63 board members who declared a disability, which nearly doubled to 121 in 2021, while executive board members declaring a disability increased from 28 in 2019 to 61 in 2021.

However, concerns around declaration were highlighted in the report – between 2019 and 2021, the number of trusts with no disabled staff in senior positions had halved, while the number of ‘unknown’ staff only reduced by 16%, and there was a trend of declaration rates decreasing as salary bands increased.

Trusts with low levels of ‘unknown’ declarations had higher levels of declaration at senior levels, suggesting that they had an inclusive culture in which people are comfortable and supported in declaring a disability or long-term condition. Therefore, trusts were encouraged to reduce the level of ‘unknown’ declarations as part of a range of actions to increase inclusion and belonging, should be considered.

Trusts were all encouraged to:

  • Ensure all staff were aware of why disability declaration on the Employer Staff Record is important
  • Consult disabled staff and networks to better understand the reasons why staff may not have declared a disability
  • Set a disability declaration target of at least 4% in 2022
  • Take action to increase disability declaration rates, such as appointing a board champion for disability and running awareness campaigns

Harassment, bullying or abuse towards disabled staff from patients or the public reduced in 2020 by 2.3 percentage points, but nearly a third of disabled staff continued to report that they had experienced harassment, bullying or abuse; a figure 6.4% higher than for non-disabled staff and a difference that had been consistently higher over the last five years.

Incidents of harassment, bullying or abuse from managers towards disabled staff remained consistent over the last five years at around 19%, although the gap between disabled and non-disabled staff also remained consistent at around 8% since 2016.

There was a small reduction of 0.7 percentage points in the level of harassment, bullying or abuse from colleagues in 2020, but the disparity between disabled and non-disabled staff has remained around 9% since 2016.

Disabled staff were also nearly twice as likely to enter the capability process on the basis of performance as their non-disabled colleagues, a likelihood that had increased since 2020, although the proportion was still very low. Trusts were urged to review policies and processes, and to explore any disproportional representation.

In 2020, 78.4% of disabled staff believed that their trust provided equal opportunities for career progression or promotion.

Paul Deemer, head of diversity and inclusion at NHS Employers, part of the NHS Confederation, highlighted employers were ‘generally moving in the right direction’ in terms of proactively addressing the needs and requirements of their disabled staff.

However, he also said there were ‘clearly areas where more needs to be done’, including in attracting more Disabled people into the NHS and ensuring they felt able to have open conversations with their managers and within their organisation about their disability.

He added: ‘Another barrier discouraging disabled people from applying to work in the NHS is the narrow definition and categorisation used in both recruitment through NHS Jobs and the NHS Electronic Staff Record system. The definitions listed are not comprehensive and therefore do not enable disabled people to select the appropriate disability on the system, this can prevent people from declaring their disability.

‘These national systems need to be modified so that current and future disabled employees can fully define themselves at work, and employers can better understand how to meet their needs.’