By Christina Ryan – DLI CEO
Learning workplace flexibility from disability entrepreneurs
Recently, I had the enormous pleasure of speaking at a forum on disability entrepreneurship as part of the Victorian Small Business Festival. Thanks to AFDO for pulling it together. It was a wonderful event bringing together a panel of disabled entrepreneurs, in a room full of disabled entrepreneurs and aspiring entrepreneurs. The event sold out in a day and a larger room was found, which indicates enormous interest in the subject.
Apparently people with disabilities are more likely than the general population to become entrepreneurs, yet curiously there are no programs to support this and no real recognition of this entire sector. Of course, the Disability Leadership Institute has many entrepreneurs as members and provides support for them to do their work, including peer groups.
Something quite interesting happened during the first panel event of the day – several of us realised that we were now in better shape than we’d been for a long time, despite working the long hours that entrepreneurship often demands. Entrepreneurs talked about being in less pain, having better mental wellbeing, sleeping better, having fewer down days, being able to reduce medication, and much more.
I wondered what this was about. How was it that so many disability entrepreneurs were finding their general health and wellbeing had improved, even though they were working harder than ever?
It seems to come down to 2 key factors:
- Being able to work flexibly and to your own rhythm.
Organisations still haven’t quite nailed flexible work and what it looks like. Having to turn up at an office between certain hours is very restrictive, but there’s a lot more to it than that. Disability entrepreneurs at the forum talked about napping in the afternoon before doing a few more hours before dinner; or using their middle of the night sleeplessness to best effect by talking to international colleagues or doing website updates; or starting early or late depending on individual biorhythms.
We are all very different and running our own businesses means we can work to our own beat and in our own way.
The upside of this is that you can work more hours because you can work when it suits you and when you are at your best. Those who have big peaks and troughs of energy / being at their best, were better able to push hard when they could and better able to manage downtime rather than trying to work through it to damaging effect.
It raises the question: is the 4 day week more effective for other reasons. Part time isn’t necessarily less capacity, it might actually create more.
- Not being subjected to hostile environments
It doesn’t seem to matter how much you love your job, or your team, the wider world is still an inherently hostile environment for most disabled people. Doors are too heavy, equipment is often not quite right, things happen unexpectedly to confront your equilibrium, and (awkwardly) there is a constant undercurrent of not quite appropriate commentary or inquiry about your disability.
Even at the most inclusive workplaces it can feel difficult to ask for something to be repeated yet again because a colleague forgot to face you during a meeting, or the background noise overrode what they said.
Asking for assistance, generally, can be very difficult and often doesn’t happen. Equipment takes months to arrive and then isn’t quite right, or your supervisor becomes obsessive with getting it right and you feel an obligation to be grateful while wishing they’d just let it go for a bit.
For those who are not openly disabled the pressures are even greater as they attempt to conceal their disability or minimise the environment’s impact on it.
Those in team leading positions often cite the need to gloss over when they aren’t feeling well to maintain team morale.
So, it doesn’t seem to matter where you work or who with, it grinds you down over time. This leads to poorer health and wellbeing, greater pain levels, less mental equilibrium and greater difficulty in sustaining peak performance.
Of course, the answer isn’t for everyone to become an entrepreneur or to work from their own location, that’s an unacceptable return to segregation for people with disabilities.
What becomes clear, though, is that we can never assume that the workplace we offer is “safe” for someone, or that it will work. We are still a long way from fully inclusive workplaces that are physically and emotionally safe for people with disabilities.
Complacency must be avoided as we learn valuable lessons about genuine flexibility, and what “safe” looks like, from disability entrepreneurs. As technology continues to take us places we never expected there are so many options arising for workplaces of the future and how they might operate. Flexibility has a long way to go and it means a lot more than just “working from home”.
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