“When women go on maternity leave it is assumed that they will return. So why isn’t that assumption the same when workers take sick leave?”
Kathleen Bolt is a caseworker and trainer on the Support@Work project, managed by the Edinburgh TUC. The basis of the project is to support early intervention to resolve issues that occur in the workplace, before they reach a crisis point. Kathleen specifically works to develop the support for those facing ill health and disability issues at work.
The need for support can arise at any time and it is crucial to get into workplaces to raise awareness of rights and of the training and support that is available for employers, as well as advice and representation for workers. Not all people accessing the Support@Work project are union members, since many workplaces are not unionised but this free support is still needed.
Usually, by the time individuals seek help for resolving issues at work, relationships have broken down and often a worker will have been dismissed or will have been off work for some time whereupon the likelihood of successfully returning is low. The legal remedy to resolve issues around discrimination and lack of reasonable adjustments comes too late in the day and even so, it is very hard for workers to secure legal representation, especially if not in a union. Access to justice and constructive remedies are weak. It is also worth noting that many disabled people are not in work in the first place and are therefore much harder to reach in order to educate them about their rights and just how broad the definition of disability is under the Equality Act 2010.
Prevention is better than cure
The Support@Work project puts energy into preventing people from losing their jobs or being off for long periods in the first place.
Changing the mindset of employers to be more supportive gives confidence to workers about the benefits of self disclosure and seeking help sooner rather than later. The project trains employers about employment rights, enabling improved workplace policies that minimise discrimination. Simultaneously ensuring that workers know they are protected from discrimination allows for constructive solutions to be found to manage health conditions, sickness absence, disability and reasonable adjustments at work.
Improving the quality of information available to employers and workers in this way is low cost relative to the benefits i.e. people stay in work, legal and recruitment costs are avoided. This approach enables a positive interactive conversation that is preventative and solution focussed, often utilising attitude based adjustments to improve the chances of people remaining in work.
There is also a need to highlight bad practice and demonstrate the impact of not supporting people. This is especially important for those who are not members of unions, since unionised workplaces are more likely to be safer, fairer with workers who are better paid. See “The Union Advantage” for more information.
There are a variety of organisations that work together in Scotland to support people into work and to stay in work, the Employability Learning Network being such an example.
These initiatives all demonstrate the importance of providing information, support and advice and the role of gathering evidence and utilising research to improve policies and practices in workplaces.