We Wish You A Merry – And Inclusive – Christmas

Christmas is an inclusive time.  We welcome friends and relatives and want to include everyone in our celebrations. But Christmas means different things to different people.  We all go a bit mad at Christmas, I think – in a positive way.  We spend far too much money – and worry about the consequences in the New Year.  Many eat and drink far too much and often regret it.  But there is always January to start that weight-loss plan, or to go without alcohol.

Of course, for Christians, it is a time of great celebration and the Christmas religious services are special.  They are also amongst the best-attended during the year. There are beautiful carols and hymns and Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.

But what about all those who don’t want to  – or are unable to – celebrate Christmas with everyone else?  How can employers ensure that they are treated fairly and feel included at this time of year?

Some things which make an inclusive Christmas at work

As employers, we need to be aware of some of the areas which might cause arguments at work.  Alternatively, some of our staff may be unhappy about Christmas celebrations in the office and would prefer a different approach.  Some may be unable, physically or mentally, to enjoy the celebrations.

There is no need to be a kill-joy.  Christmas is a wonderful time when most of us feel generous towards others.  It would be a shame to bring in rules and regulations which change that feeling.  I am certainly not advising you to stop people from celebrating.  But it never hurts to consider how everyone is affected.

In some workplaces, Christmas is a time when people use up annual holiday.  Some businesses shut down over the Christmas period.  Other companies find that Christmas is the busiest time of their year and they cannot allow people to take time off, other than the bare minimum.

But there are some things to consider – some people may want to have additional time off at Christmas to attend events at their children’s schools, or to take part in religious activities.  Whilst some others may want to save their holiday.  Some want to use it at a different time of year.  They may want to have time off at a different season for other religious observance, not Christian festivals.  Or they may prefer to work when everyone else is off and it is quiet on the roads or in the workplace.  With a bit of planning, it should be possible to accommodate all of these needs.

Jingle all the way

Even if you have a general rule not to have music in the workplace, Christmas is a time when people ask for an exception.  Many of us like to listen to Christmas music while we work.  But others are very sick of the same music which is played in shops and everywhere else at this time.  Some may prefer carols and religious music.  Many might prefer no music at all. Some may find it more difficult to hear and communicate with others if there is music.  To be inclusive at Christmas, we need to try and accommodate all these needs.

Of course, it is impossible to please everyone.  So you may need to allow music between certain times only.  Or allow people to use their own headphones and devices so that they can listen but don’t disturb others.  Or you may have an agreement that there should be music all the time, or no music at all.

They come from the East, bearing gifts

Christmas is a time of giving.  We like to give gifts and cards to each other and this happens at work as well as in our private lives.   Some people give a card to all their colleagues, some don’t give anything.  Alternatively, some like to give to a charity instead of giving cards.  Additionally, many workplaces organise a “secret Santa” pool where a gift is bought anonymously for a name pulled from a hat.

All of these things are fun and an employer who did not allow such things would be open to criticism from the workforce.  But not everyone wants to take part in this giving.  Some may have a religious objection.  Some may not have the money to join in.  Others may just find it pointless.  It is important that nobody is forced into taking part.

zxAnd you definitely need to ensure that people are not criticised or made to feel uncomfortable if they choose not to participate.  We can be very cruel to each other, especially where people may have different cultures or traditions from our own.  As the boss, your job is to ensure that people can enjoy the festivities, but are not excluded because they choose not to do so.

Eat, drink and be merry

There are other potentially difficult areas to get right for an inclusive Christmas.  Food and drink can cause all kinds of problems.  It is natural and fun to bring in some extra chocolate or mince pies or biscuits at this time of year.  Many places also have Christmas parties, either within the workplace or externally.  This is also likely to mean alcohol flows and far too much rich food.  Of course, it is all part of the fun and should not need to be restricted.

But you need to think about those who do not wish to be involved.  It is fine if someone prefers to stay away from a party.  Or if someone declines food or drink.   And it might be a good idea to make sure everyone knows that it is acceptable for someone not to be involved.  It is about personal choice.

What can I do to ensure everyone is included?

Anyone who regularly reads JMA HR articles will already know that my first advice is to consult, consult, and then consult again.

If you want your employees to feel included, then you need to find out how they feel about your planned festivities.  Maybe their choice is not to be included,  and that, of course,  is a personal decision.  It may be that the best way to include everyone is to allow them the freedom to exclude themselves.

Another major issue can be colleague pressure.  When we are having a great time, we want everyone around us to have a great time too.  But sometimes it is hard to understand that other people may not enjoy our way of celebrating.  Your communications with employees must emphasise that it is not acceptable for people to feel forced into joining in.  Nor is it acceptable for people to be criticised or ignored because they choose a different way.

Lonely This Christmas

While I was researching this article, I came across an old news item from The Guardian newspaper.  This looked at how non-Christians celebrate Christmas.  Although this piece was written a few years ago, I imagine that nothing much has changed.

The overwhelming message from this article was positive.  Everyone thinks of Christmas as a time to spend with family and friends.  I think that chimes very well with the Christian message of this time of year.

But it did occur to me that not everyone has family or friends.  Or people may not have family near enough to spend time with them at Christmas.  I think there is one thing which every employer can do to ensure an inclusive Christmas for their workforce.  We need to know and understand our employees.  We need to open work to them, if that is their refuge at this time of year.  Or at least let them know the alternatives.

Many charities are glad of help at this time of year.  Or churches and other religious organisations open their doors to provide food and company for the lonely.  Some restaurants and cafes open to provide coffee, warmth and companionship to homeless (or lonely) people.  Find out what is going on in your location, so you can advise your employees.  Encourage those on their own to volunteer their services. They can then choose not to spend Christmas on their own.  That would be the very best inclusive Christmas gift an employer can give.

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Invisible Disability In the Workplace

According to the charity, Scope, there are 13.9 million disabled people in the UK.  Nearly 1 in 5 working adults are disabled (19%).

You may look around your workplace and struggle to see many disabled people.  There might be someone with a wheelchair or maybe someone who uses a stick.  But on the whole there are few visibly disabled people.  And therein lies a huge problem.

What is invisible disability?

Because we cannot see any evidence of a disability, we don’t always realise it is there.  If someone walks and talks and appears to function well, we do not see the pain they might be in.  Or the exhaustion they are feeling.  We don’t know the mental anguish they live with, or the anxiety and fear they might have.

Many people have a condition, illness or impairment which causes difficulty on a daily basis.  If that condition lasts at least 12 months, then this is the legal definition of “disability”. Those people might need an adjustment to help them deal with life more easily.  This could be something in their daily life, such as the use of a parking space to lessen the distance they have to walk.  Alternatively,  they might need a seat on public transport.  In the workplace, they might need an adjustment to enable them to work more effectively.  This could be a change in their duties, or a specific chair.  It might mean altered hours, or regular breaks.  It could be a fan, or heater, or footrest.

The point is that, as employers and as colleagues, we don’t know what we don’t know.  If we cannot see the disability, then it is an invisible disability (also known as a hidden disability).

How can we help?

The best way to help someone who is living with an invisible disability – or any disability –  is to ask them what helps them.   They know their condition and what constraints that puts on their life.  Through experience, they know what helps and what makes things worse.  They know when they need a break, or some different work, or a different seat.

But many people feel unable to talk about their disability.  There may be many reasons for this.  Sometimes they have faced stigma from work, from the general public, even from friends and family.  More often, they face a lack of knowledge and understanding.  We don’t want to appear stupid, so we don’t ask how to help people.  So we make assumptions about what helps – and those assumptions can be wrong.

Employing someone with an invisible disability

Employers have a huge role to play in changing the attitudes towards disability.  There is also a legal obligation on employers to make “reasonable adjustments”  in the workplace to support those with disabilities.  So what is a “reasonable adjustment”?  It is any adjustment at all which might make it easier for someone to do their job.  The best way to decide what is needed is to talk to the disabled person and find out from them.

If a person feels safe in the workplace and trusts their employer, then they are far more likely to explain their difficulties and be open about a disability.  This can open a discussion about any adjustments and support needed.  This has to be an ongoing process.  Things change, both in the workplace and in the individual’s life and medical care.  So the conversation has to be ongoing. The individual has to feel confident in bringing the subject up and airing their difficulties.  Then you can find a mutual and appropriate solution.

It may be (indeed, it is likely) that you already employ someone, or some people, with an invisible disability.  If you don’t already know about it, then that could be a sign that they don’t feel safe.  They may well be struggling on their own.  If this is the case, their performance will be suffering, or they may have attendance or lateness issues.  They may be having a high number of sickness absences.  They may be in conflict with colleagues.

Open the discussion about invisible disability

Some simple things you can do to make your workplace safe for people with an invisible disability include:

  • Give a clear message that it is safe to discuss disability (or other difficulties) at work. Cover it in induction, in regular performance discussions, and at every opportunity.
  • Review all your policies and processes and ensure they take account of people with disabilities and their needs.
  • Train your managers and other staff on the right approach to take and language to use.
  • Encourage your managers to have regular discussions with individuals in their teams to give an opportunity to raise any issues.
  • Put in place any adjustments which are needed to make work more comfortable for people.
  • Make sure your people feel valued (those with invisible disability, those with visible disability, those without).
  • Set up an anonymous suggestion box. Then people can make suggestions about things which might help them, without having to tell you about their disability.

Taking it further

If you are interested in more information about disability in the workplace, or want some support, then you might want to speak to an advisor who specialises in this area.

Roland Chesters is a Disability Development Consultant who, himself, has an invisible disability and is an inspirational speaker and advisor. For more information about the services he offers, see his website, Luminate.uk.com or contact him.

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