The cause of diversity and inclusion in the workplace has come a long way in recent decades. The average workforce now reflects the composition of wider society more accurately than ever before. However, few problems are ever entirely solved. Especially issues that are at the mercy of the law of unintended consequences.

Are workplaces happier?

We all know workforces have become more diverse. But a directly related consideration that’s seldom given meaningful attention is whether they’ve become happier as well.

Although the point may sound facile, the implications are potentially substantial. There is a direct correlation between job satisfaction and increased productivity.   Equally, the links between job dissatisfaction, absenteeism and quitting are firmly established. It’s not only employees who suffer amid workplace unhappiness. Their employers and even the economy might also pay the price.

This being the case, how would we view diversity and inclusion initiatives if their ultimate effect were to make workers less happy? Given a choice between a non-diverse but contented workforce and a diverse but disenchanted one, would most managers suddenly focus on the harsh difficulties of the bottom line rather than on the noble goals of equal opportunity?

These are deeply unwelcome notions. They seem to constitute an unpleasant throwback to a less tolerant age in many ways. Yet they need to be confronted – even in our supposedly enlightened, open-minded times – because there’s worrying evidence that they may be all too relevant.

In search of uncomfortable truths

We need to acknowledge that accommodating disability at work is not always ideal. There are two key reasons why it serves as an especially compelling illustration.

Firstly, the number of disabled employees in the UK is only likely to rise in the coming years. This is because numerous budgetary pressures are not just driving up retirement thresholds but forcing more people to move away from disability benefits and into work.

Secondly, studies of disabled workers have traditionally concentrated on the difficulties they face in the labour market or their comparative lack of earning power. Their introduction to a workforce impacts their fellow employees’ wellbeing has been almost entirely overlooked. Whether this is a result of a glib tendency to dismiss the question as redundant or a wary reluctance to discover the answer is unknown.

Job satisfaction and disability

The British Workplace Employment Relations Survey (WERS) contains information representative of all UK businesses with five or more employees.

Included in the wealth of WERS data are various measures of what we might loosely describe as job satisfaction. They cover factors ranging from achievement to initiative, influence to decision-making, and pay to skills development. What happens when we cross-reference these with disabled worker numbers?

Disturbingly, we find a significant relationship between workplace diversity and workforce wellbeing – one that reveals how overall job satisfaction declines as the percentage of workers with disabilities increases. Satisfaction also falls as the number of disability-friendly policies and practices goes up. Tellingly, further analysis shows the decline is confined to workers who are not disabled.

Who or what might be to blame for this discomforting state of affairs? Is this a failure on employees, firms, both or neither? And where do we go from here if all the excellent work done so far appears to have been unsuccessful on a vital and utterly fundamental level?

Corporate culture

At least at first glance, the fact that only workers who aren’t disabled report lower job satisfaction suggests the existence of discrimination. This would be a profoundly depressing explanation. Somewhat thankfully, closer examination of the data steers us elsewhere.

Crucially, these trends can be found only in the private sector. We might, therefore, infer that the cause is much less individual and much more organisational. In short, this looks like a matter of corporate culture.

It’s vital to understand quite what this means – and, just as importantly, what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean diversity and inclusion initiatives are a waste of time. It doesn’t mean all efforts in this direction so far have been fruitless and, at worst, thoroughly corrosive.

Room for improvement

It does mean, though, that there’s room for improvement. It means better workplace policies and practices are required. And it means managers and workers alike need an even greater awareness of the value of accommodating all employees.

It also very probably means we’ve become complacent. We’ve witnessed a genuine transformation and have felt able to rest on our laurels. We’ve slipped into a “mission accomplished” mindset. As with so many other facets of modern-day corporate life, we’ve allowed the gap between rhetoric and reality to widen.

That gap has to be narrowed. For this to happen,  complacency will have to give way to renewed commitment. The truth may be unwelcome, but it can’t be ignored. This box is still to be ticked for all the progress on diversity and inclusion of the past half-century or more.

Dr Getinet Haile is an assistant professor of industrial economics at Nottingham University Business School – [email protected]. The study referred to here is ‘Workplace Disability: Whose Wellbeing Does It Affect?’, published by the Institute for the Study of Labour, Bonn, and available at

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