Great Britain, says Dr Nasser Siabi OBE, is a global leader in tackling discrimination against disabled people. “The UK is years ahead of the rest of the world,” he says. “The inclusivity agenda, the Equalities Act are obviously ahead of Europe and the US; the only place that matches it is Scandinavia.” And Siabi knows his stuff: he has spent 25 years supplying technologies and services to support disabled people in the workplace, building a business – Microlink – that every year helps tens of thousands to realise their potential.
Yet even in the trailblazing UK, Nasser has learned, most businesses still handle disability poorly, racking up huge unnecessary costs and overburdening line managers, frontline staff, HR teams and support services. Our standards for legal compliance may be high, but only when organisations change their business processes can they transform disability from a costly distraction into a tool for boosting productivity, staff engagement and customer satisfaction.
This can be done, Siabi knows: he has achieved it at one of Britain’s biggest banks. But in his view, most organisations make fundamental errors in managing disability. When a health condition affects an employee and their productivity or attendance declines, the first responsibility for devising and funding a solution normally rests with their line manager – who must invest time in liaising with the HR, IT, legal and occupational health teams, and perhaps also money in equipment. Meanwhile, team morale suffers as other employees take on additional work: “The team dynamic, the goodwill and team spirit falls apart,” he says. “Suddenly the line manager is concentrating on managing an unproductive employee, rather than a productive team.”
As people are identified as failing, their morale falls further; and if the disparate teams responsible for managing their case act too slowly, their conditions can worsen. Reluctant to concentrate scarce funds on their least successful staff members, line managers call time: “That then ends up in the hands of HR, who have to manage him out – and the cost of recruitment, replacement, litigation and all this is not the concern of line managers,” points out Siabi. It is common for disabled people to “stop coming to work and sue the company for dismissal, and that’s the end of them because they can’t get another job.”
All too often, the outcomes are unhappy and overburdened colleagues; a heavy workload for support teams; huge hidden costs in higher staff turnover, legal work and cash settlements; and, for the disabled staff member, unemployment. Ultimately, everyone learns that disability is a problem, making employers less likely to hire Britain’s eight million disabled people and staff less likely to seek help with emerging health problems. "But it doesn’t have to be this way," says Siabi: "if people can get the right help quickly, the danger can be averted."
Crucially, Siabi advocates reaching out far beyond those labelled disabled – most people suffer from common conditions such as back pain, migraines and dyslexia, he says, and extending support services to cover all those who might benefit helps lift productivity across the organisation as well as tackling the stigma around disability. “We’re not talking about disability,” he says. “We’re talking about giving people the tools to do their job.”
Expert advice and strong central management is required, Siabi argues, both to cut the costs of assessing needs and to hasten the process of addressing them. And all this work must be funded centrally, so that line managers struggling to manage disability issues are presented with help and support rather than a expensive problem.
Until recently, Siabi’s views were based on experience and expertise, but now he’s got evidence for his approach – for six years ago, he got the opportunity to put his ideas into practice on a grand scale. Commissioned by Lloyds Banking Group, Siabi introduced a comprehensive, integrated service, accessible to all staff, that sought to help people overcome any physical or mental impairment. “They gave us the whole thing, from end to end,” he recalls. “Working with employees and line managers; assessing the needs of the individual; providing the solution; making sure occupational health and the IT supply chain was involved; implementation, training and support.”
Fundamentally, says Siabi, Lloyds made handling disability issues “a systematic rather than a fringe activity; they made it part of their everyday business processes.” By 2010, any Lloyds staff member could approach Microlink directly to seek help. “Not everyone needs an expensive intervention,” Siabi points out. “The vast majority of people with conditions, you can provide them with a simple, cheap solution. So we have a front-end interview process, like a triage in A&E: experts talk to them and their line manager on the phone, to understand what they do and how this particular condition will impact on that. If we can identify a quick solution, hey presto!”
This process addresses 55% of the problems reported to Microlink; and these phone interviews are much cheaper than the traditional visit from a specialist. “The other 45% are a bit more complicated,” Siabi continues. “We go and see them, spend time with them, understand their work – then we provide the right tools, and train them how to use them.” Because Microlink works with the client to agree an approved equipment list, the process doesn’t get snared over issues such as software compatibility or security: “Previously line managers had to ring round, negotiate with IT departments,” he comments. “Now we take care of everything; all the equipment has been security-cleared, and we get volume discounts from manufacturers so the client doesn’t need to negotiate.”
The result, for Lloyds, was truly transformative. Workplace adjustments quickly became an accepted, mainstream activity: between 2012 and 2014, nearly 19,000 of the 100,000-strong workforce used the service. And whilst demand was rising, unit costs fell: the average case cost dropped from £1500 in 2010 to £700 in 2014, largely due to the streamlined assessment process and bulk discounts.
Much harder to assess were the wider benefits. For a start, support teams such as HR, IT and facilities management were freed up to focus on their core roles. Then there was the increase in productivity among disabled staff – with 77% of line managers reporting that team members who’d used the service showed “dramatic improvement”, and 63% recording a fall in sickness absence. Crucially, Microlink cut the time taken to meet an individual’s needs from 3-6 months to an average of 14 days, tackling emerging health problems before they worsened and disrupted team dynamics.
In 2014, recalls Siabi, Microlink asked new clients in Lloyds how many days’ sick leave they had taken over the previous year: "30% of those surveyed had taken more than 30 days," he says – but when Microlink approached 400 of these chronic cases a year later, 92% reported that they had not taken a day off since. If these statistics hold true across Lloyds, he comments, “the saving to the organisation would be four or five million [pounds], and the total cost of the programme was only £5m – so they’re getting back all the money they spent in the reduction in absenteeism alone.”
Finally, Microlink’s system reduces staff turnover – cutting the costs of recruitment, and the disruption that comes with personnel changes – and minimises the money spent on litigation and settlements with aggrieved former employees. “Staff turnover is one of the biggest hidden costs,” comments Siabi. “You expect to have 10% of your workforce leave, and you have to replace them. Not so. Disabled people are the most loyal in every company. If you help them, they’ll never leave you.”
This dynamic can work against some organisations – and Siabi sees clear dangers for the civil service, a responsible employer currently shedding thousands of jobs. Many disabled civil servants steer away from voluntary redundancy programmes, for they know that “the civil service is a secure place to stay, a good employer” compared to many private businesses – yet budget cuts mean that officials are struggling to access the help or equipment they need to do their jobs properly, he believes. The risk is that the civil service is left with a large cohort of disabled people who are performing weakly: “They’re reluctant to leave, but if they have problems they’re not going to give 100%,” he says. “You can unlock that hidden talent.”
Having worked with civil service organisations, Siabi well understands the challenges of integrating a brand new service into the existing web of outsourced service contracts. “Civil servants have long contracts with lots of providers, and they’ve divided them up into categories that go right across the areas we’re involved in,” he comments. What’s more, many of these incumbents don’t welcome new ideas: your typical IT contractor, says Siabi, “doesn’t want any of the uncertainties, complexities and flexibilities that people need.”
This, he believes, is exactly why a single, end-to-end service is required: whilst individual line managers trying to, for example, introduce automatic transcription software for a disabled team member can find their way blocked by an IT supplier, Microlink has the expertise and ability to clear specific tools with contractors and make them available across the organisation. And Siabi is clearly passionate about helping civil servants. “Working in the civil service can be a thankless job,” he says. “I’ve met so many civil servants, and have such respect for them. They’re constantly under pressure, they get blamed for everything, they get no recognition. And if you don’t give them help when they need it, that’s demoralising. Restore that fairness, and they’ll give you more than you spend.”
In fact, Siabi is passionate about helping all disabled people – and his dedication has deep roots. As a boy, he recalls, “I had severe problems with my eyesight. It impacted on my early years in education, but when I got it sorted it gave me a completely new start. I ended up graduating in computer science – which would have been completely unthinkable when I was 13. That’s the thing that drives me: we can make life-changing interventions, so that people at a young age get the right help and don’t end up in this pile of 2.5m long-term unemployed.”
Whilst studying at Southampton University, Siabi came across a government funding stream designed to help disabled students buy assistive technologies through a grant Disabled Student Allowance (DSA) – but the recipients were expected “to buy the computer, the software, the printer, and put it all together,” he recalls, “and that doesn’t work.” So on graduating, he began “providing everything in one go – a turn-key solution – with training so they knew how to use it, plus four years’ support whilst they were at university.”
In 1993 only a few hundred students received the DSA grant and Microlink supplied about 500 such solutions , but word quickly spread among the universities: by the mid-‘90s the company was supplying 80% of the market, and Microlink now helps thousands of students each year. For Siabi, though, selling equipment can only meet half the challenge: his aim is to help organisations achieve the system changes required to meet the needs of their staff – and thus to realise their own potential, as well as that of their employees.
This kind of change requires a hefty push from senior directors. “For organisations to do the right thing, you need it to be driven from the top; that top guy is absolutely critical,” he says. “You need a senior board member to say: ‘I want this done, and I don’t want it done in such a way that when I disappear everything goes with me’.”
Ultimately, Siabi wants the management of disability – indeed, of any condition that impairs an employee’s abilities or productivity – to be seen as “an everyday business process”. If organisations realise how much money they’re leaking and understand how straightforward these problems are to address, he believes, “the industry will grow up around that, and the services will become even cheaper and more readily available.”
“We want to demystify disability,” he concludes. “If you remove the badge, life becomes far less complex and far easier to live.” Organisations should, he says, stop concentrating on complying with statutory responsibilities – on labelling disabled people, then asking an ill-suited system to provide ‘reasonable adjustments’ – and instead build a central business process that helps any staff member to get the right tools for their job. There are big savings to be had, he argues – and something even more valuable. “You get out of your staff what you put in,” he says. “If you don’t put care and passion into them, you won’t get it out of them.” And in these times of budget cuts and economic frailty, no organisation can afford to sacrifice a potential advantage: “If you want to survive, if you want to be the best,” he says, “you’ve got to do the best.”
Dr. Nasser Siabi will be taking part on the Emploability panel debate (day one), along side Change, The Business Disability Forum, Disability Rights UK and Disability Horizons.