Wednesday, February 4, 2015

What happens when everyone has a workplace accommodation?

In recent online Disability Management course, “Mary” (not her real name) raised this question in one of our online discussions:  “What happens when just about everyone in a department has had an injury or has a residual impairment of some kind and has been accommodated?” 

Far from suggesting this situation would be utopian, she pointed out that it created a very difficult situation.  Each job now had specific, explicit changes to required duties in the job description.  This created dependencies and non-generic or non-standard ways in which a particular employee did their job.  Whenever there was an absence, retirement or even a vacation that created a vacancy, the new employee might still have to carry out the job with the accommodations of the former incumbent in order to maintain the work flow for all the others who had accommodations in that workplace.  

Rather a common job description with duties optimized for the job,  Mary argued, the uniqueness of every accommodation required a complex situation.  A modified set of job duties becomes the de facto job description often involving specialized equipment or procedures designed to meet the abilities and restrictions of the former or usual incumbent.  Mary also noted that each new accommodation had an increasingly greater impact on operations and a higher marginal cost.  So, what happens when everyone in the workplace has an accommodation?

Let me be clear about what accommodation is and is not.  Every workplace should be barrier free and inclusive so that all employees can participate fully.  At some point, even the most inclusive and barrier-free work environment may not allow a particular employee with a disability to participate fully.  It is at this point that accommodation through differential treatment is necessary to overcome the particular barrier for a particular employee with a particular set of capabilities and limitations.

Some workers’ compensation statutes have provisions for mandatory reinstatement.  In most cases, injured workers can return to work and participate equally without accommodation.  When returning to work can’t be achieved because of some barrier then accommodation is required. Collective agreements, human right legislation and other statutes including some workers’ compensation laws impose a “duty to accommodate” on the employer.  The employer’s duty must be discharged to the point of “undue hardship”—a very difficult test to meet.  The barrier is only a barrier because of the particular nature of the worker’s residual impairment with respect to a particular job task or set of tasks.  If the worker can carry out the usual task in a dignified and efficient way, then no accommodation is needed.  Accommodation really refers to the alterations to the workplace or job tasks that allow the particular worker to participate. 

Take the case of a worker unable to walk up stairs to deliver work product from one location to another.  If this is an essential job requirement, the worker is incapable of doing the job without some accommodation.  The employer has a duty to accommodate up to the point of undue hardship.  If the particular individual must carry out this essential task, the employer may consider accommodations like installing a designated stairway elevator for the individual.  That would be a classic accommodation: an individualized approach to remove a specific barrier.

Over time, the number of workplace accommodations put in place can increase because more people have been accommodated.  None of the accommodations may impose an undue hardship on the employer.  To Mary’s point, it is indeed possible that many or all persons in a particular workplace have accommodations and the challenges Mary points out are real.  Those challenges may actually work against the ambitions and career aspirations of employees with accommodation.  For example, why would an employer even consider an accommodated staff member to take on a temporary training role (not requiring any accommodation) if doing so creates a recruitment headache?

When accommodated positions dominate a workplace, here is a short list of actions to consider:

  1. Make certain restrictions are properly understood, relevant,  and current.  Many conditions change over time and people learn to work in ways that don't make their permanent impairments disabling with respect to required job tasks.  Conditions, even permanent impairments, may become less restrictive over time as the body and mind adapt.
  2. Have a current, accurate process description and job-task analysis.  Jobs, process and tasks change over time.  Technology and new materials are constantly altering the very nature of particular jobs.  A traditional job analysis may reveal that the requirements of a particular position are no longer restrictive.  In the staircase example, the duty to accommodate disappears if the requirement to climb stairs disappears from the required process.
  3.  Examine current work processes to determine truly required tasks.  Adherents to Total Quality Management, LEAN, Six Sigma, and Business Process Re-engineering recognize the value of this sort of analysis.  The results often reveal tasks that can be eliminated, addressed by new technology, or combined into simpler clusters.  Eliminate a task that imposes a barrier to some and you eliminate the need for accommodation.   In the stairway example, a redesign of operations may co-locate two departments on one floor thus eliminating the required task. 
  4. Review the required tasks and the abilities collectively.  Ad hoc accommodations made over time may conflict and create unnecessary requirements.  Having a current, well documented list of required tasks in processes and current list of abilities (and restrictions) of staff members may allow assignment without the need for formal accommodation.  
  5. Change restricting processes and tasks.  If a required process has an inherently difficult, barrier-generating task, rather than thinking about individual accommodation, consider alternatives that lessen or remove the barrier entirely.  An ergonometric consultation may generate systemic as well as individual solutions.  In the stairway example, a public elevator would eliminate the restrictive process and make the workplace more accessible for everyone.
  6. Up-skill your staff.  If a person has a restriction that is significant in their current position, identify other positions where the impairment doesn't necessitate an accommodation.  We often neglect to look to more senior positions but, with some training and mentoring, a person with restrictions in a current job may be able to advance to one where any restrictions imposed by the impairment are irrelevant. Up-skilling may also allow incumbents with accommodations to become proficient with technology that can lessen or reduce the effect of any handicap.
  7.  Group restrictive tasks into one job…  (And hire appropriately for that).  If several employees have similar restrictions, there may be an opportunity to eliminate the need for accommodation by combining the relevant tasks into one job and recruit appropriately for that position. 
  8. Develop career paths with related departments, suppliers and customers.  This may seem counter-intuitive but your challenge may be similar to the challenges of others in your industry supply chain and customer base.  The collective employee set is likely to have overlapping skill and knowledge bases with differing physical (and mental) requirements.  By developing relationships to increase new career opportunities, your department, your trading partners and  employees in both may all be better off. 
  9. Create different roles or new jobs that make sense for your company.  Managers or supervisors may be doing tasks that you can be devolved and grouped into a new job.  I love the example from healthcare where a senior nurse with physical impairments was able to take on many of the orientation and mentoring tasks of several supervisors.    
  10.  Foster staff resilience, mobility and flexibility.  People can and do change.  They learn, have changing aspirations, and even change jobs and careers.  Often they need some help to do these things.  Companies that have staff education and development programs create opportunities both inside and outside the firm for their staff. 

By the way, accommodated staff needs to be included in most of these actions.  They are likely to have important insights and may generate some of the best ideas.  After all, they live with their impairments and may well have discovered ways of living with off the job that can apply on the job.  

None of this is to suggest there is anything wrong with the duty to accommodate.  On the contrary, it is an important and fundamental part of social justice and corporate social responsibility.   It is the morally (and often legally) right thing to do.  However, rather than a sign of progressiveness and flexibility, a high prevalence of formal accommodations in a department may indicate rigidity, stagnation and a lack of imagination.  These actions may provide a starting point in developing new ways to meet both the needs of persons with disabilities and the objectives of the organizations that employ them.   

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