Empowering disabled staff through flexible working

Erk Gunce

Erk Gunce is an inclusion coordinator at the South West Leadership Academy, part of NHS England and NHS Improvement (NHSEI). In this blog, Erk shares his experiences of working from home with a disability during the pandemic, how he has benefited from flexible working arrangements and a supportive team.

The positives of a 30-second commute

I joined the NHS during the pandemic, I have never seen our offices or met my team members in person, and I have been working from home since day one. As someone with a sleeping condition, commuting into the office can be very challenging for me. My inability to sleep due to sleep apnoea, means that physical activity during the day can be demanding due to my fatigue. Being able to work from home has meant that I can sleep a bit more instead of having to wake up earlier for a long commute. The absence of a commute has helped my mental health – the stress of travelling to the office and being on time is no longer an issue, as my commute now takes 30 seconds – from my bed to my desk!

Overthinking

Whilst there have been many positives to working from home, there have also been challenges. As someone who has generalised anxiety, taking annual leave creates more time for me to overthink issues. My annual leave can very easily turn into a day of sickness and worry. When I’ve fallen ill on annual leave, I have been supported by my manager, colleagues, a health professional and organisational policies to manage the situation. I deeply value not feeling uncomfortable talking about my struggles with my team. Embracing our vulnerabilities and struggles can really normalise disability and empower disabled people to speak up about their workplace needs.

Another difficulty with home working has been the loss of personal face to face contact. Relying extensively on written emails can be problematic for people with mental health conditions. I often rely on visual cues to assess whether ‘we’re good’. Not having that input has often made me overthink an email I’ve received, or obsess that ‘I must have definitely offended them because they never replied to me’, whereas, the reality might be that they are simply too busy.

Intersectional thinking

An intersectional approach recognises that one’s protected characteristics do not exist in silos, but rather stack up. We must take an intersectional approach to supporting colleagues during lockdown, struggles and oppression. As an ethnic minority who is not from the UK, I have been unable to visit my family in Cyprus during the pandemic. Furthermore, as I don’t live with a spouse or partner, feelings of loneliness were not easy to navigate during isolation.

The positive impact of a supportive team

I am lucky to have joined a team who is willing to be as flexible as they can, in accommodating my various anxieties and physical disabilities. My colleagues, knowing that I struggle to sleep at night, are open-minded if I need to miss an early morning meeting at short notice. Given my obsessive compulsive tendencies, they also appreciate that sometimes I might struggle to switch off and work late into the evenings. They allow me to take time off in lieu when this happens, so that I can recover the overtime at a later date. Working from home has been a blessing in many ways – if I’m feeling too tired during the day, I can take 20 minutes to lay down and that can make all the difference to my mood and energy levels.

The positive impact of staff networks

I have appreciated the NHSEI staff diversity networks. They provide warm, caring, supportive platforms for colleagues with shared identities to lean on one another. The Disability and Wellbeing Network (DaWN) and the LGBT+ network deserve a special shout-out from me. I have experienced first-hand, the welcoming atmosphere they create for members and allies, fostering belonging in the NHS, in line with the NHS People Plan.

Lessons learned during the pandemic

As we transition back to office life, it will be crucial for organisations and line managers to capitalise on the benefits of working from home, but also appreciate that several colleagues will prefer working from the office. A much more flexible approach will be beneficial so that the NHS can accommodate staff who want to work from home, provided that their role can be carried out remotely. For colleagues whose duties cannot be carried out from home, it will be crucial for managers to consider other ways to implement flexible working.

You can follow Erk on Twitter @erkgunce

Further information

Access guidance on supporting vulnerable staff during COVID-19, risk assessments and making reasonable adjustments in the workplace. 


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