Under the 2010 Equality Act, a person can be classified as disabled if they have a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term negative effect on their ability to do normal day-to-day activities. People living with physical impairments and mental health conditions can experience real barriers to accessing and getting on in work.
One in five of the working-age population are classed as disabled, but disabled people continue to be underrepresented in the workforce. When in work, disabled people tend to earn less, with figures from the Office for National Statistics suggesting a disabled man earns 12.4% and a disabled woman earns 10.5% less their non-disabled counterparts.
Despite these barriers to accessing opportunities, there is cause for cautious optimism. Public attitudes at least are becoming increasingly accepting of people with health conditions in the workplace. In 2020, NatCen’s British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey found the public was more likely, since the pandemic, to say that employers should provide flexibility and support to help people manage their health condition at work.
Underlying this change is perhaps a shift in public opinion towards increasingly viewing paid work as beneficial for our mental and physical health. The 2020 BSA survey observed an increase of 15 percentage points from 2019 among those who said paid work was very good for mental health, and an increase of 10 percentage points among those who said it was very good for physical health.
The pandemic seems to have ushered in a workplace culture that is more aware of the benefits of paid work for people’s health, and more ready to accommodate people with health conditions in the workplace. Despite these shifts towards a more inclusive workplace, results from this year’s survey suggest that many people do not necessarily feel comfortable working with a person with a physical impairment or – especially – a mental health condition.
In 2021, we found over two-thirds of people said they would be comfortable having a boss with either a visual (67%) or mobility impairment (72%). However, fewer than half said they would be comfortable having a boss with depression (46%) and only three in ten said they would be comfortable having a boss with schizophrenia (30%).
Opinions on how comfortable people felt having a boss with a mental health condition varied across demographics and whether someone has experience of mental health conditions. We know these characteristics overlap, with women and young people for example being more likely to report having had a mental health condition, so we took this into account and looked at things independently.
We found personal experience of a mental health condition is a crucial factor in how willing someone would be to have a boss with a mental health condition. People with personal experience of mental health conditions are five times more likely to report they would be comfortable having a boss with depression, compared to those who do not know anyone with a mental health condition. Similarly, people who know someone with a mental health condition are twice as likely to say they would be comfortable having a boss with depression.
After controlling for exposure to mental health conditions, age and gender are still strongly associated with attitudes to mental health conditions in the workplace. Women were more likely to be comfortable having a boss with depression or schizophrenia than men, while with those aged 18-34 were four times more likely to be comfortable having a boss with depression than those aged over 65.
What does this mean for the experiences of people with physical impairments or mental health conditions? If broad public support for an inclusive workplace is not reflected in our attitudes towards our own workplaces, then questions need to be asked about how much change we may see on issues including the disability employment and pay gap.
Public sentiment may support a more inclusive workplace, but the results from the BSA survey make it clear that exposure to mental health conditions may be the key to shifting people’s attitudes towards their own working lives.
‘Disabled people at work: Accepted as equals?’ by Joseph Cant and Monica Bennett, published as part of British Social Attitudes: the 39th report, is available here.
British Social Attitudes 33: Attitudes to mental health problems and mental wellbeing – National Centre for Social Research (bsa.natcen.ac.uk)
British Social Attitudes 38: Work and health – National Centre for Social Research (bsa.natcen.ac.uk)
British Social Attitudes 39: Disabled people at work – National Centre for Social Research (bsa.natcen.ac.uk)
Disability pay gaps in the UK – Office for National Statistics (ons.gov.uk)
The employment of disabled people 2021 – Department for Work & Pensions (gov.uk)