Posted 22 Jul 2021
Freedom Day Fear For Disabled People
Monday July 19th was declared “Freedom Day” in England, Covid restrictions have been lifted and people are now free to make their own decisions regarding mask wearing, social distancing and who they interact with. I have seen photos in my newsfeed this week of people queueing around the block to get into nightclubs, and read the messages of delight from people who are planning to attend concerts, cinemas, sporting events and to reconnect with distant loved ones. It is now up to the individual to determine which of these things are reckless and which are essential for mental wellbeing and economic health.
What I have also seen, however, is increased anxiety from those who are medically and mentally vulnerable. I have seen messages of fear and despair from those who having only just gained back a little bit of freedom will now be forced to retreat once again. Not everyone can have the vaccine and not everyone who isn’t vaccinated is anti-vax. I know a lot of neurodivergent people who are fearful of the vaccine as their biochemistry is typically hyper-reactive to all medications. For some of these people mask wearing and social distancing have made it safe for them to go outside regularly, to go to work and live their life, but now they have some hard decisions to make and will be waiting to see how many businesses chose to do the right thing. When we talk about “Freedom Day” we should be considering the irony of that title for so many.
Now with less government guidelines to adhere to businesses and workplaces must create their own set of rules and find a way to respect the boundaries of people with different levels of need and vulnerability.
Finding Solutions And Balance
With the removal of the legal covid restrictions many companies are now creating codes of conduct and putting additional standard operating procedures in place that will keep their staff members safe. It has been reassuring to see so many coming forward with sensible ideas and new strategies to keep everyone happy at work.
In my own organisation we facilitate working from home wherever needed and have also come up with a tick list of questions for people to work through before they decide to meet face to face. This checklist covers the health and level of protection of the people attending but also the space that the meeting is to be held in, to make sure that a thorough risk assessment has been carried out each and every time there is an in person meeting.
Another great idea that I have seen being shared around is the traffic light system for letting people know your boundaries with regards to physical contact. Shared on LinkedIn by the Managing Director of online learning company Oxbridge this particular company had made lanyards in three colors with green indicating “okay with hugs and high fives”, amber indicating “okay with talking but not touching” and red to say “Hi, I’m keeping my distance”. I like this initiative as it allows people to declare their comfort levels immediately helping to avoid awkward conversations.
Another thing that we should all be considering is shift times and work stations. If you have an employee that is vulnerable but also cannot afford to stay off work then we must look at the possibility of moving them to a quieter time of day or a less busy environment. If this employee commutes consider if you can facilitate them to avoid rush hour?
Finally, Don’t forget to check in with each other regularly. This is the best way to troubleshoot any unexpected problems with the new systems and to gauge anxiety levels on the team that may need attention.
The Duty Of Care Puts Jobs At Risk
Whilst it is good to be forging new paths and creating new practices in some industries we must not forget that this new situation has created a perfect storm for vulnerable employees working in zero hour contract jobs. Under UK law it is an employer’s duty to protect the health, safety and welfare of their employees and other people who might be affected by their business.
For industries like retail and hospitality where zero hour contracts are widespread and Covid risk is high, at risk employees such as the disabled, elderly and immunocompromised now present a difficulty for business owners who may not be able to fulfil their duty of care. Whilst in an office environment we can set rules of engagement quite easily, in customer facing interactive jobs the fixes are not as simple or easy to control. Extra consideration needs to be given to vulnerable people in these jobs who are being forced to choose between their health and their financial security. I’ve heard that some organizations, such as supermarket Morrisons, have moved their more vulnerable staff to customer service phone work away from the stores to protect them, which is admirable. I hope that more employers will consider these sorts of approaches as part of their disability legislation duty.
Because You Can Does Not Mean You Should
Finally, I hope that all employers out there will be considering keeping measures in place that have proved effective so far. As business leaders we are usually more than capable of thinking for ourselves and do not need to put ourselves and others at greater risk simply because it is what everyone else is doing. There are a great number of our community who simply aren’t going to be safe until we’ve achieved herd immunity or found effective treatments. Acknowledging and accommodating the additional strain that Freedom Day places on disabled people is inclusivity in action.