Recent data from HESA shows 233,930 academic staff members declared a disability in 2021/22.
Given that the data is only based on declaration of disability the figure is probably much higher – as people don’t always feel comfortable to disclose for example due to fears that it may impact their career progression.
Those numbers require the culture in academia to change to be more inclusive of staff who identify as having a disability, chronic illness, or mental health condition – not least because neurodivergent staff in academia often feel the need to mask, and because currently in academia there is an epidemic of mental health illness.
The concept of authentic leadership has become increasingly popular over the last few years, especially with individuals like former New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden having such a leadership style.
It is important for senior leaders in higher education to be more open about challenges they have faced getting to the position they now hold – and, if they do have a disability, chronic illness, or mental health condition, feel that they can be open about this too.
The rationale behind this is it will make others feel more comfortable to disclose things as well and that it is safe to do so. There are multiple factors people consider when deciding whether to disclose and fear of stigma and discrimination and how it could negatively impact their career progression is a key one.
There is much to be gained by senior leaders disclosing.
It will provide role models for those who are more junior in their career and may have similar experiences.
If senior leaders are also willing to share strategies they have adopted throughout their career to balance the demands of academia and having a disability, chronic illness, or mental health condition then this can provide guidance for others.
The main role senior leaders would be making is as facilitators for culture change in making it more acceptable and safer to disclose which in turn could lead others to feel safer to disclose and get support, they need to help them do their job more effectively.
The power of mentoring
Individual universities operate their own mentoring schemes as well and these probably take multiple forms depending on the institution.
It is clear mentoring in academia is extremely useful and can be used as a tool to aid staff well-being. When it comes to staff who identify as having a disability, chronic illness, or mental health condition, it will depend on the individual whether they would benefit from a mentor who is in a similar situation to themselves and who may be able to give them specific guidance on disability or health issues.
Equally though, the mentor may not have had to experience any similar situation to the individual and may be matched because they can offer mentorship and guidance more generally or relating to a specific career route the mentee may wish to follow (e.g., in the case of having research mentors).
Mentoring does not have to be a formal recording system but an informal one. Mentoring should be recorded within staff’s workloads as a task they engage in either as a mentor or mentee.
Support for line managers
It is crucial that line managers are given support to manage staff who identify as having a disability, chronic illness, or mental health condition – especially given that staff may develop conditions during their time working for the institution.
Such support will not require line managers to learn about the intricacies of different conditions but rather to be aware of how different conditions impact staff members and the different sources of support that they and their staff can access in helping that staff member perform their job.
It is also important that line managers appreciate the same diagnosis can impact staff differently, so it is about learning about the specific experiences of that staff member and how their disability, chronic illness or mental health condition impacts them and that there may be differing impacts at different times.
This training then should take the form of raising awareness of Access to Work, the employee assistance programme and the occupational health provider that the university has.
It can also entail supporting managers having conversations with staff they line manage about disability, chronic illness, and mental health.
One such strategy could be the use of the Manager’s Toolkit from Mental Health First Aid England (MHFA) which aims to provide managers with tools to support their staff better when it comes to workplace wellbeing.
Regardless of the specific structure, it is imperative that line managers are given the tools to have conversations with staff regarding disability, chronic illness and mental health conditions and have an awareness of where they can signpost staff for them to be able to be fully supported in their job.
By adopting these three simple principles universities can foster a far more inclusive environment for staff with disabilities, chronic illness, or mental health conditions. This will be achieved through the process of creating more awareness and understanding.