Fair work and disability

By Marek Zemanik, Senior Public Policy Adviser, Scotland.

Recent years have seen an increased focus from both the UK and Scottish governments to tackle what policymakers refer to as the disability employment gap - the difference between the employment rate of people with and without disabilities. The word “gap” is a bit of a misnomer, since “gulf” would more appropriate. Latest annual statistics show that in Scotland, the difference in employment rates stands at a staggering 35.5%[1].

In other words, while 81.1% of people without disabilities are employed, only 45.6% of people with disabilities are. The numbers are broadly comparable to those seen across the UK as a whole. The Scottish Government has set an ambitious target to halve the disability employment gap by 2038 from a baseline of 37.4% in 2016[2]. So there has been some progress and, encouragingly, the narrowing has occurred primarily due to increases in the disability employment rate.

While the Scottish and UK figures are similar, they compare badly when we look beyond our shores. The disability employment gap across the EU as a whole is around 20%. Finland, France, Latvia and Sweden have gaps of around 10%, while in Luxembourg it is less than 3% (although some of that is due to a lower than average employment rate of people without disabilities).[3]

A focus on employment opportunities for people with disabilities is therefore both important and necessary. However, it is only one side of the coin – the quality of work is important too. Less research has been devoted to this area in Scotland, but our first job quality report – Working Lives Scotland has tried to shine a light on some of the differences in job quality dimensions for people with disabilities.

The report is written around Scotland’s Fair Work Convention’s fair work framework, which has guided government policy in this area since 2016. One of the dimensions is opportunity – meaning both equal opportunities to access work, but also to progress and develop one’s skills once in employment. Our survey highlights several differences for employees with disabilities that should be of concern.

One of the things that stands out immediately is the stark difference in the type of employment being reported. Figure 31 below shows that employees with disabilities are much less likely to work full-time (52% of them do) than those without (70% of whom are employed full-time) – this broadly in line with official ONS labour market data. While some of this may be down to preference, our UK-wide survey data also suggests that workers with disabilities are more likely to be underemployed – that is, they report a preference for more hours than they currently work.


There are also considerable differences in labour market confidence, something that is of increased importance in the context of our post-Covid recovery. 55% of workers with disabilities say they would find it difficult to find a job at least as good as their current one. The equivalent figure is only 42% for those without disabilities. This points to lower employment opportunities for people with disabilities in the labour market, with additional barriers to overcome. Entering one of the worst recessions in decades, with unemployment projected to increase significantly, this may suggest a more difficult labour market recovery for people with disabilities.

One particularly concerning finding in our report is the higher level of presenteeism among people with disabilities. Presenteeism, or going to work despite not feeling well enough to do so, has a clear negative impact on our personal wellbeing, but we know from past research it also impacts company performance. 63% of people with disabilities in our survey say they have worked in their main job despite not feeling well enough to perform their duties, whereas the equivalent figure for employees without disabilities is 52%. Looking at the reasons for presenteeism, we see that people with disabilities are more likely to report feeling pressure from colleagues than those without (26% vs 16%), although pressure from themselves remains the main reported reason.

Personally, the most surprising findings were around employee-manager relationships. Our survey asks employees to indicate their agreement or disagreement with nine statements in relation to their manager – statements like “my manager respects me as a person” or “treats me fairly”. Data from the survey shows that employees with disabilities report poorer relationships across all nine of these statements. Figure 32 highlights the three statements with the biggest differences between employees with and without disabilities. Of particular concern is the difference in the perception of being treated fairly – a 12% gap between people with and without disabilities. We would suggest that these findings show that line manager training should be a part of the public policy effort to reduce the disability employment gap.

Job quality and the disability employment gap are intrinsically linked. Equal opportunity to access employment is linked to the experience of people with disabilities once in the workplace. A disability should not be a barrier to positive relationships at work, skills development, career progression or fulfilment at work. Fair work principles can help employers create inclusive workplaces – and those alone can narrow the stubborn disability employment gulf.

[1] https://www.gov.scot/publications/fairer-scotland-disabled-people-employment-action-plan-progress-report/pages/3/

[2] https://www.gov.scot/publications/fairer-scotland-disabled-people-employment-action-plan/

[3] https://www.wbs.ac.uk/news/how-can-we-close-the-disability-employment-gap/

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