‘Upfront conversations’ needed to help people understand their roles and improve workplace accessibility, researchers argue
The roles of workplace personal assistants (PAs), who support people with disabilities to do their jobs, must be more clearly defined and better supported if accessible workplaces are to flourish, research led by the University of York has argued.
The study found that workplace PAs have little guidance to draw on when stepping into situations that vary widely in terms of what is expected of them.
This places extra challenges on the crucial roles they play in addressing disabled people’s under-representation in paid work, which depend on assistants staying within boundaries that empower their clients.
Employers also need to recognise the extra responsibility employees with disabilities face in managing PAs at work, and review their policies accordingly, the study found.
“The research project highlights the lack of support both for workplace PAs and the disabled people they support,” said Dr Jenni Brooks, a senior lecturer in sociology at Sheffield Hallam University, who conducted the work with colleagues at the University of York.
“There’s very little peer support for PAs more generally, and we didn’t find any specifically catering for workplace PAs, who can be quite isolated,” Dr Brooks added. “Similarly, working disabled people are often effectively doing two jobs in one day – their own job, and managing their PA – and this is rarely recognised by colleagues or managers.”
Importance of ‘upfront conversations’
The research – the first substantial project of its kind – was based on interviews with 17 PAs supporting people with physical and sensory impairments, along with 15 clients and representatives of six employers.
It found PAs, who can assist in both personal care and work-related activities such as note-taking and other admin tasks, were described by various job titles, leading to ambiguity in how they were perceived.
Both people with disabilities and PAs involved in the study also expressed a range of views as to what boundaries they considered appropriate and who was responsible for enforcing them.
A lack of clarity around this issue could cause anxiety – especially for inexperienced PAs – as well as potentially undermining how well disabled people were perceived by colleagues as performing in their jobs.
“One of the most important things to come out of this research is the need for people to have upfront conversations with their workplace PAs about what will be expected of them in the workplace,” said Dr Brooks.
This could be as simple as setting out how formally to dress, when to talk to clients’ colleagues, or whether it’s acceptable for a PA to look at their phone during any off-time during the working day.
“PAs talked about developing a ‘sixth sense’ and taking ‘cues’ from their employer, but there was a general feeling among PAs that this was taken for granted and not always recognised as a skill,” Dr Brooks said.
PAs ‘exist but don’t exist’
PAs’ place within organisations could also be ill-defined, the study found.
Where assistants were directly employed by a person with a disability, many described feeling ‘invisible’ within the workplace due to having no acknowledged role. Some mentioned lacking access to IT systems or to their clients’ employer’s buildings – with one employer even saying that PAs “exist but don’t exist”.
By contrast, the few PAs employed by the disabled person’s organisation were likely to be better supported but could find their loyalties divided between employer and client.
Some people with disabilities, meanwhile, worried that asking managers for assistance in managing often intense relationships with PAs could be seen as a sign of weakness on their part.
“One thing that surprised us was how little involvement line managers had,” said Dr Brooks. “Many disabled people had never talked to their line manager about their PA, and line managers we spoke to had given little thought to the practicalities of having a PA working in their organisation.”
The generally remote relationship between employers and PAs suggested organisations struggle to balance responsibilities under the Equality Act 2010 to make reasonable adjustments to create inclusive workplaces with the disabled person’s right to autonomy in managing their PA, the study found.
“A hands-off approach may be perceived to be empowering; however, it may also result in a lack of acknowledgement of the challenges of working with a PA in the workplace,” the research report said.
Based on the findings of the project, the study team has now developed a website containing a list of useful conversations disabled people can have with their workplace PA and with their line manager. It also includes tips for both workplace PAs and line managers.
Researchers have also commissioned not-for-profit organisation Disability Sheffield, which promotes independent living, to develop training materials based on the study. These will be made freely available following trials with final-year Sheffield Hallam University students during spring 2019.
“Obviously the relationship between each disabled person and their PA will be different, but we felt there were certain conversations that it would be useful to have at the start of the working relationship,” Dr Brooks said. “That can be difficult, of course, if the disabled person is starting a new job, especially if it’s their first job, but that just makes communication all the more important.”
In the wake of the study, Dr Brooks said further research around issues relating to workplace PAs – especially those supporting people with different disabilities, including mental ill-health – was now needed.
“There is more work to be done with employers to encourage them to think about how they might make their organisation welcoming and supportive to someone who has a workplace PA,” she said.
Full summary findings
NIHR SSCR (2019) The Role of Workplace Personal Assistants for Physically Disabled People, Research Findings 92, NIHR School for Social Care Research, London.
This study funded by the NIHR School for Social Care Research and led by Dr Katie Graham within the Social Policy Research Unit at the University of York.