Nov. 12, 2020

Leaders' views key for employees with disabilities: studies

Haskayne researchers aim to improve work outcomes and limit discrimination for employees with physical and mental health challenges

Despite things such as human resources policies that are designed to ensure equal treatment for all employees, the relationship that people with disabilities have with their supervisors is what really shapes their job outcomes, says a Haskayne School of Business researcher.

“We often talk about the negative outcomes of having a disability,” says Zhanna Lyubykh, a PhD student at the Haskayne School of Business. “My question was, ‘What can be done to improve work experiences for people with disabilities?’”

Zhanna Lyubykh

Business student Zhanna Lyubykh explores ways to improve work for people with disabilities.

Brandie Sunley for the Haskayne School of Business

Lyubykh is the co-author of a study on the problem that was recently published in the Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation. It was based on a survey of 264 people in the U.S. with musculoskeletal disabilities, along with a separate survey of 221 people who have supervised employees with disabilities. The study was also co-authored by Dr. Mafooz Ansari, PhD, and Dr. Kelly Williams-Whitt, PhD, of the Dillon School of Business at the University of Lethbridge, and Dr. Vicki L. Kristman, PhD, of the EPID@Work Research Institute at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont.

The study found the “quality of the relationship people with disabilities develop with their supervisors explains workplace outcomes for employees with disabilities,” says Lyubykh. “These include job satisfaction and performance evaluations.”

It makes financial as well as ethical sense for companies to provide better job accommodation for people with disabilities, she says. The term refers to adjustments that make it possible for people to fully perform their work duties, such as better work stations that meet their needs.

It's also vital for companies to provide training about disabilities to both supervisors and co-workers, says Lyubykh. “We oftentimes forget about such groups because we think we don’t have a lot of people with disabilities, but disabilities such as musculoskeletal disorders may not necessarily be visible.”

Besides lower job accommodation, work outcomes for people with disabilities can include higher presenteeism, “which is a situation where you don’t feel well, but you still show up for work,” says Lyubykh.

“It especially affects people with disabilities because it can cause an overall worsening of their condition, and they will have a poor time at work and lower job satisfaction. It’s kind of a downward cycle where you feel pressure, so you show up at work, your performance suffers and it’s reported to your supervisor.”

Not all disabilities treated equally

A separate study co-authored by Lyubykh, recently published in Personnel Review, examined the perceptions of 250 managers at companies in more than 10 countries, including Canada, the U.S., the U.K. and Australia, toward employees with different types of disabilities. It found employees returning to work with different types of disabilities were not being evaluated equally.

“If someone says, ‘I have a psychiatric disability,’ managers will think they are unstable — potentially aggressive, dangerous and disruptive, as well as less committed to the organization, and less trustworthy or professionally competent,” says Lyubykh.

Such stigmatization occurred despite managers acknowledging false perceptions were a possibility, says Dr. Nick Turner, PhD, a co-author on the study. He holds the Distinguished Research Chair in Advanced Business Leadership at the Canadian Centre for Advanced Leadership at Haskayne and is also an adjunct professor in the Department of Psychology in the Faculty of Arts.

Nick Turner

The study found managers tended to positively evaluate employees with a “pending diagnosis” involving minimal details about their condition, says Nick Turner.

Kelly Hofer, for the Haskayne School of Business

Most employees with mental health disorders pose no threat to their co-workers and competently perform their duties, says Lyubykh. “But if you believe they are less professionally trustworthy or less committed to your organization, you may not promote them or place them in leadership roles,” she says.

The study found no difference between how managers regarded employees with physical disabilities compared to those without disabilities, she says. “The reason for this is because physical disabilities are very predictable and evident – they’re not considered to be dangerous or a threat to workplace stability,” she says.

Due to things such as an aging population and people having longer careers, as many as one in four employees entering the workforce in North America and Europe will likely develop a disability before they retire, says Lyubykh. These can range from mental health disorders, such as anxiety or depression, to physical ones, such as chronic back pain, she says.

The study found managers tended to positively evaluate employees with a “pending diagnosis” involving minimal details about their condition, says Turner. Labour laws in countries such as Canada and the U.S. that aim to prevent discrimination by minimizing disclosure to managers aren’t totally effective in practice, says Turner.

“I think the reality in many organizations is that for various reasons — often innocent ones, and out of concern for employees returning to work from medical leave — managers will find out how someone is doing and, in some cases, learn what type of disability they have,” he says.

Managers should be required to undergo training to avoid stigmatizing employees with mental health disorders, says Lyubykh. “I think we need to put a little bit more effort into really trying to understand employees and their experiences versus engaging in these unintentional biases and stereotyping,” she says.

The study was also co-authored by Dr. Julian Barling, PhD, of the Smith School of Business at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.; Samantha Batten, a former graduate student at Queen’s; and Dr. Tara C. Reich, PhD, of King’s Business School at King’s College London in the U.K.