How worried were people with disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic about their finances, their health and the level of workplace support they perceived?
An Institute for Work & Health (IWH) study examining this question among workers—both physically at work and working from home—found a nuanced picture. But it also saw a number of clear patterns.
Overall, the study found heightened perceived vulnerability among people with both a physical and mental health disability. This group consistently reported greater concerns about their health, their finances and the level of workplace support given to them, in comparison to people who had no disabilities or who had either a physical or a mental health disability.
A second clear pattern was the importance of job conditions—not disability—in predicting workers’ COVID concerns. In other words, the heightened concerns reported by workers with disabilities in this study were linked to such work factors as low job control, high job stress, unmet accommodation needs, little job security and lack of work options. Once these factors were accounted for, differences across the disability groups no longer remained.
The reasons why people with disabilities were more concerned and perceived less support can be traced back to their work situations before the onset of COVID, which were often precarious, says IWH Senior Scientist Dr. Monique Gignac, who led this study.
She points to the type of work people with disabilities were more likely to hold, such as part-time work or work in short-term contracts. But even more important were the job conditions they described, she notes.
The stressful job, the job with low job control, the feeling of being ‘locked in’ or not having options, the lack of accommodations—these were the job conditions that made workers with disabilities feel so concerned and unsupported during the pandemic, says Gignac.
She notes that the surveys were conducted early in the pandemic, during the first wave, and that, overall, survey participants reported feeling supported by their employers.
We don’t know if and how people’s perceptions changed in successive waves of the pandemic—or to what extent workplaces continued to support their workers.
Four groups of workers surveyed
The study, published online in June 2021 in Disability and Health Journal (doi:10.1016/j.dhjo.2021.101161), drew on a large sample of 3,000 survey participants. It compared pandemic experiences across four groups of workers: those with no disability (1,960 participants), a physical disability (455), a mental health disability (360), and both types of disability (291).
In the survey, workers with no disability reported more pay, more job control and less job stress compared to those with a mental health or both a physical and mental health disability. Workers in all disability groups were more likely to see themselves as locked in their jobs. Workers with a physical disability, compared to those with no disability, reported greater concern about their health. Workers with a mental health disability were significantly less willing to speak with a supervisor about their needs for workplace accommodations.
Workers with both types of disability were also less willing to speak with a supervisor about their accommodation needs. They also reported more unmet accommodation needs and felt they had less organizational support to manage their personal needs than any of the other groups. When compared to people with a physical disability, individuals with both types of disabilities were more concerned about their finances.
Another finding of note was the lack of major differences in the experiences of people with a physical or mental health disability.
The job conditions associated with COVID concerns were similar for both groups, Gignac says.
The message for workplaces is that the supports and accommodations don’t always need to be different for people living with mental health disabilities versus physical disabilities. Employers need to address job conditions and provide healthy and supportive psychosocial environments. These will go a long way.
Gignac notes that the vulnerabilities experienced by people with both types of disability will continue to be a concern post-pandemic.
As we’ve seen in various contexts, the pandemic has shone a light on different types of precarity that our society needs to address, says Gignac.
This study reveals that the challenges encountered by people living with a disability go beyond the symptoms and limitations created by health conditions. They revolve around perceptions of support, concerns about negative consequences if a disability is disclosed, and other psychosocial work factors.