For disabled people, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic was disproportionate with data showing an increased mortality risk, higher rates of isolation and a reduction in wellbeing. While there is still much to learn from this period and its broader impact, these findings must give renewed impetus to action to tackle inequalities.
Thanks to national Workforce Disability Equality Standard (WDES) data published annually by NHS England, we have a view of what progress has already been made and where there is still work to do to improve the experience of disabled and neurodivergent staff across the service. In a blog responding to this year's publication, NHS Providers called for the data to be used to drive change, and committed to supporting our members to share good practice to facilitate this.
This Disability History Month, we want to share insights from conversations we have had with some of our members to explore what they are doing and the goals they are working towards.
Action to support staff
While initiatives to support disabled and neurodivergent staff, including staff networks, were in place prior to the pandemic, Nottinghamshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust and Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust are just two examples of organisations that have seen a palpable increase in appetite for tackling inequalities among staff. This is coupled with a sense that online and hybrid ways of working, standardised during the pandemic, were beneficial for staff networks – increasing accessibility, particularly at community trusts where sites and staff are geographically dispersed. These models often also allow network members to engage in a psychologically safe space in the way that makes them feel most comfortable, whether this is with their camera off or via the chat function.
As a result of feedback from part-time, night shift, bank and agency staff, and a proposal from their disability staff network, Sussex Partnership has introduced a staff network payment process for network members attending outside of their normal working hours, to increase accessibility for all staff regardless of their working pattern. This process is overseen by the trust's equality diversity and inclusion (EDI) team and has been well-received by network members. Nottinghamshire Healthcare has also introduced a disability leave policy which offers staff six days pro-rata per year for appointment attendance, consultations and physiotherapy, among other requests. Both trusts were top performers for their staff disability disclosure rates in the most recent national WDES data.
Addressing the employment gap
Office for National Statistics (ONS) data shows a 28.1% employment gap between disabled and non-disabled people in the UK, which is why initiatives to support disabled people entering employment within the NHS are as important as policies that seek to ensure disabled staff are supported to thrive at work. ONS data also highlights that people with specific or severe learning disabilities and autistic people experience the lowest employment rates.
Guy's and St Thomas' NHS Foundation Trust (GSTT) has been working with CareTrade, who specialise in supporting autistic people, as part of a rolling 12-year programme which has so far placed 97 interns in a range of roles including in facilities and estates, reprographics, data input and medical records. The trust has also recently started collaborating with Health Education England's (HEE) Project Choice alongside local partners including Southwark College and Orchard Hill College to place interns. GSTT's goal is to offer paid employment at the end of placements, with 18 former interns now employed at the trust, and a further three at other NHS organisations. GSTT believes that central to the success of these schemes is starting small and focussing on ensuring good engagement with managers, as this will aid scaling a programme across an organisation.
At an integrated care system (ICS) level, the Career Academy Representing Everyone, or CARE4Notts was established two years ago in Nottinghamshire. Its infrastructure is funded by contributions from system partners, with specific activities supported by HEE's Workforce Development Fund and The Prince's Trust. As a talent academy, their vision is to be the centralised point of contact for health and social care careers across Nottingham and Nottinghamshire ICS. This includes a fruitful partnership with Portland College, a local college for people with disabilities. Utilising a centralised approach has not only been more efficient in avoiding duplication of initiatives, but also gives candidates a wider choice of careers across a range of health and social care settings.
These examples only scratch the surface of the initiatives in place to support existing and future disabled staff within the health service. We look forward to continuing to shine a light on this work, partnering with our members to share ideas and successes to ensure the NHS is a great place to work for all.
If you would like to share an initiative that your trust has introduced or is working to develop, or if you would like to find out more about the initiatives outlined above, please contact Oliver Potter.
This blog was first published by HSJ.