COVID and People with Disabilities, Pre-Existing Conditions | MOBE

Understanding the pandemic’s impact on individuals with disabilities and pre-existing conditions.

For those who suffer from disabilities or pre-existing conditions, COVID-19 has impacted not only their health but their ability to work, especially since the shift to working from home has become the norm. More than ever, employers have a big role to play to ensure these workers have access to the support they need to stay healthy and maintain the ability to succeed at their job. MOBE sat down (virtually) with Dr. Jason Doescher, our Chief Medical Officer, to discuss the impact the pandemic has had on these individuals with disabilities and pre-existing conditions and what employers can do to help alleviate the additional obstacles they may be facing.

Pre-pandemic, what were some common concerns among employees with disabilities who were working in offices?

Employees with physical disabilities face an incredibly broad range of experiences and concerns, but often, the biggest concerns can be seemingly simple acts—like commuting into work or navigating the office easily.

Pre-pandemic, travel scenarios were more common and posed extra challenges for employees with disabilities. From ensuring transportation is adaptive to wheelchairs or providing assistance for those who have visual impairments or blindness, all employees deserve to be able to travel for work easily and safely. Similarly, ensuring the office was equipped and accessible was another daily concern.

Importantly, disabilities aren’t just physical—they also include visual, cognitive, intellectual, psychiatric, and psychological conditions. For people with neurological, cognitive, or behavioral disabilities, concerns can also include supervision and safety needs.

As the world shifted to remote work, were any of these pre-pandemic concerns alleviated?

The shift to remote work erased many of the common transportation- or office-related concerns facing people with disabilities—like commuting, navigating an office space, or traveling to an in-person meeting with limited mobility. Now, all employees who are able to work from home, including those with disabilities, are in a setting with optimal, self-determined adaptation—without the stigma that previously was associated with remote work.

However, for people whose disabilities required different supervision and safety measures, the pandemic created a new set of hurdles to overcome.

What are those new hurdles that have cropped up for workers with disabilities or illnesses as we work from home?

Everyone who could no longer work because their job required physical presence has been impacted in some way this year. However, people with disabilities or illnesses that require specific supervision or assistance during the workday have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. Transitioning to working from home has a host of new challenges associated with it—everything from requiring a private setting for work to having appropriate physical space or technical capacity, are variables. We may not be able to control in our home environment as we could in the physical workplace.

Another big challenge is the limited social support and interactions with friends and colleagues—this change can also be felt like a loss. It’s crucial that while work routines change, many put forth a greater effort to stay connected and communicate. This can take place through virtual meetings and tightly packed calendars, leading to less independent work time. It is important to keep in mind that communicating virtually requires more effort to maintain engagement as well as communicate in a direct and indirect manner. While everyone is affected by these changes, those with disabilities may face greater challenges.

What should employers be aware of as we continue this new normal with remote work and employees who might need additional accommodations?

Even in the best of times, social and emotional health problems are hard for employers to recognize. Under our current isolated and remote conditions, those who need social interaction and support most are also the most vulnerable to deteriorating mental health. Employers can address this sensitive challenge by taking a proactive approach and implementing a regular practice of offering support, opportunities to have time to network outside of duty-related activities, and creating a culture of greater awareness. Additionally, should an employee seek support, having appropriate accommodations and a network of services available is crucial. In fact, having those services available may encourage an employee to seek support in the first place. When employers can anticipate and meet the needs of employees regardless of ability or disability, the company culture will cultivate trust, loyalty, and greater appreciation broadly.

Based on your work with these employees, what do you think employers can learn and improve upon?

Respectful communication, modeling resilience, and implementing proactive planning measures are critical things to keep in mind during these unprecedented times and beyond. Navigating this stressful reality—for employees and employers alike—requires both empathy and education. The good news is, employers are uniquely suited to deliver both.

Reacting to a situation involving someone in need with kindness, respect and professionalism are what we all aspire to—but under today’s strained conditions, it can be a challenge. Being aware of new stressors facing employees and addressing them proactively is an important way to serve the community’s needs, and will improve and strengthen company culture and employee productivity along the way.

Transparency and information sharing is vital. In stressful times, clear communication is required to maintain a healthy, supportive environment. Ensuring that employees know of all the health and wellness resources available to them is especially critical due to remote work environments, as they may be feeling isolated or out of the loop, in addition to having health concerns. It’s also important to be transparent in planning and company information, even if the news is not easy, clear, or positive, as honesty is appreciated and respected by employees.

What do you hope we learn from this remote work experiment as it relates to the wellbeing of employees with illness or disabilities?

Under duress, we can wilt or mount a challenge. People with illness or disabilities know this better than anyone—and the pandemic has challenged even the healthiest people. Those who will come out of this remote work experiment with the best results will be very conscious of what it takes to survive and even thrive. I think that companies will learn the importance of implementing workplace elements that help employees know they are safe and appreciated. These include respect, communication, transparency, anticipating employee needs, and implementing mental health support proactively. This is important because it fosters trust, which leads to a greater work ethic, company loyalty, and a feeling of collaboration. Beyond these elements, leveraging the company network can provide tremendous social and emotional support to employees, which affects other aspects of their lives and can lead to a positive effect on both their physical and mental health and wellbeing.