The power of collective empathy awakened in business

Will collective empathy be the new normal when we return to the office, benefiting people with disabilities? Caroline Casey discusses.

DiversityQ has been looking at the impact of the pandemic on UK businesses’ efforts to improve diversity and inclusion in our The Diversity of COVID-19 series. Here, Caroline Casey, Founder, The Valuable 500, discusses how it has awakened collective empathy in the workplace.

Collective empathy

In the face of coronavirus, countries across the globe are enforcing measures for citizens to stay at home, in a time of upheaval and heartbreak. This has triggered, for the first time in a long time, a widespread mutual understanding of what it means to feel vulnerable, distant and isolated.

Moving forward, we will be entering a new world where a vast swathe of society can personally relate to what it is like to be socially excluded. It has awoken a collective empathy, both in business and society more broadly, that this social exclusion is often the every-day reality for people with disabilities.

For the diversity and inclusion agenda, amid all this chaos and grief, this awakening of collective empathy means there is a promise for a more inclusive future throughout the business supply chain when it comes to people with disabilities – from employers and employees through to customers and users.

While the current focus is rightfully on the independence and health and safety of people with disabilities currently, businesses do have an essential role to play in capitalising on this mass stirring of empathy for good. Business is one of the most powerful forces in society – where it goes, the rest of society will follow.

Disability inclusion

Currently, 1 in 7 – or 15% – of people live with some form of disability. When you include the family of those living with a disability, 53% of people globally are personally affected by disability. This 53% wield a significant amount of disposable annual income totalling $8 trillion. If business leaders are not fully engaged with disability inclusion, they are locking out a community of substantial economic and social value, from spending power to talent and skills.

Now, businesses have an opportunity to take this awakening of collective empathy and understanding forward, to ensure disability inclusion is baked into the very fabric of its existence. There is an opportunity to revolutionise the diversity and inclusion agenda in business, and for business leaders to intentionally create a sustainable model which does not tolerate continuous, systematic exclusion.

Because currently, the state of play in this space is not good enough.

Disability pay gap

Figures out in March 2020 from Tortoise Media show that among FTSE 100 employers, little attention is paid to disability inclusion. A mere 11 of the FTSE 100 bothered to report the proportion of their employees disclosing a disability. None calculated a disability pay gap, despite outrage at figures in 2019 showing people of working age with disabilities have an employment rate that is 28.6 percentage points lower than that of people without disabilities.

A November 2019 report by UK union organisation UNISON revealed that 67% of the 2,900 disabled workers surveyed across the UK who had asked their employer for reasonable adjustments in the workplace had had all or some of their requests rejected.

Such hard-fought adjustments often centre around flexible working and working from home. People with disabilities have been productively working in this manner long before coronavirus came along.

However, under the weight of the global pandemic, such accommodations viewed as burdensome by businesses are now seen as agile, creative and flexible innovations to working culture – a testament to the business landscape’s tenacity and resourcefulness.

Learning from experience

The resourcefulness and skills of people with disabilities consistently operating in this manner are therefore evident – something others should look to learn from – as is the value that a diversity of lived experience brings to business and society more broadly.

It has also demonstrated that such ways of working can be rapidly adopted – in the space of weeks – as the norm by corporations across many sectors when push comes to shove.

As this approach becomes more and more embedded into the working culture, it will be increasingly hard for companies to revert to ‘business as usual’ once the storm has died down.

Harnessing change

Businesses, therefore, have the perfect chance to harness the awakening of collective empathy as the motivation for moving forward to make real, tangible progress on the disability inclusion front. There will be no space for corporations to revert to old excuses as to why initiatives to bolster inclusion across the supply chain are not feasible.

A widespread embracing of reasonable workplace adjustments would allow people with disabilities to meaningfully engage with their careers and boost their potential to share their talent and skills across industries.

Financial hardship because of coronavirus won’t cut it as an excuse for refusal of such adjustments. According to NHS Employers, most reasonable adjustments cost less than £100, while many cost nothing at all. What costs there are will be outweighed by the valuable talent, and economic contribution people with disabilities can impart if only given the right support.

No excuses

It’s not just reasonable workplace adjustments either. Companies have demonstrated an understanding of the needs and priorities relating to people with disabilities throughout their supply chain, from employee to customer.

For example, Sainsbury’s is reserving hours for elderly and vulnerable customers, Salesforce has shared guidance on how to transform a physical event into an online experience, and O2 allows users to access certain disability-focused websites, such as, without a customer using their data allowance.

Unprecedented times

During this time of unprecedented stress, grief and strain, we have witnessed communities and businesses have come together in solidarity, through a shared understanding of the situation we find ourselves in.

Consequently, businesses are awakening to a shared, collective empathy on how current business models place barriers to disability inclusion across society. They have also awoken to the possibility of a different future where disability inclusion is everyone’s business to act upon.

The onus is equally on business leaders as it is the rest of society to take a firm, proactive stance in leading this change. If they can do this, there is a hope we will mould our global society into one where we level the playing field for those living with a disability, so that they can access the same opportunities available to others, both in business and in every-day life more broadly.
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