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How CEO Steve Ingham is helping to break down the disability barriers
PageGroup chief executive Steve Ingham was interviewed recently by The Sunday Times – a British newspaper with the largest circulation, and widely read by all UK business leaders. Almost 2 years paralysed after a devastating skiing accident, Steve shared some interesting insights and different viewpoints, alongside his own, of how disability affects people’s working lives. Here below is the article.
Steve Ingham knew straight away that he had been paralysed. On a Swiss skiing holiday in March 2019, the chief executive of PageGroup, the FTSE 250 recruiter, lost control on a tight corner, fell 15ft down a gully, bounced off rocks and went into a stream.
The fall broke his back and shattered ribs, but he was conscious in the icy water. “I thought, ‘Shit, this is cold’,” said Ingham, 58. “But my legs couldn’t feel the cold. It was the only bit of me that wasn’t freezing to death. I knew my injury was pretty serious.”
That is an understatement: Ingham had permanently lost the use of his legs. He was airlifted from Wengen to a hospital in Bern and fell into a coma for three days. Doctors treated him for hypothermia and had to drain blood from his punctured lungs.
After two weeks in Switzerland and a week in an NHS hospital, three months of gruelling rehabilitation followed at the private Royal Buckinghamshire Hospital in Aylesbury — while still running PageGroup. Board meetings took place at a hotel in nearby Tring.
Ingham — a 6ft 4in former rugby flanker who ran to work every day and has led the £1.5bn company since 2006 — has now become a disability rights champion. In his first newspaper interview since the accident, he said he wants to become a role model for young disabled people, many of whom find themselves excluded from the workplace.
“I am in a wheelchair, which is pretty rare for a chief executive,” said Ingham. The accident also cost him most of the hearing in his left ear.
While there have been campaigns to boost female and ethnic minority representation at all levels of business, disability can be forgotten in the diversity debate. There are 14.1 million disabled people in the UK, and 19% of working-age adults have a physical or mental disability, according to the charity Scope.
A yawning employment gap has opened up. While 81.8% of non-disabled people were employed in 2019, according to the Office for National Statistics, just 53.2% of disabled people were in work. Disabled people are likely to be paid less than non-disabled counterparts. Disabled workers earn an average of £2.10 less an hour, or 20%, than non-disabled staff, according to the Trades Union Congress. A disabled person working 35 hours a week would earn £3,800 a year less than a non-disabled worker.
Scope reckons that one million disabled people want to work but are not given the chance. Obstacles include employers’ prejudices and fears of the cost and a rigid statutory sick pay system.
“The perception among some employers is that hiring disabled people is expensive and risky,” said James Taylor, Scope’s strategy director. “There are some quite outdated underlying attitudes about what disabled people can — or can’t — do.”
Ingham’s accident opened his eyes to a world he had never considered before. “There is a lot wrong. I’m only just starting to get my head around it,” he said. “I can’t make a huge difference, but I might be able to make a little bit of a difference. I’ve got time, and a bit of a platform.”
He also has a role model — Hiroki Takeuchi. Three weeks after getting married in 2016, the co-founder of start-up payment provider GoCardless was hit by a car while cycling around Regent’s Park in London. His spine was crushed, leaving him paralysed from the waist down. He returned to work after three months.
After Ingham’s accident, they were introduced by a mutual friend. “The world of spinal cord injuries is pretty small,” said Takeuchi, 34. “We’ve become good friends.”
Ingham took heart from asking Takeuchi about little things, such as disassembling a wheelchair and getting into a car. “It’s reassuring to know that these things will be achievable in time,” he said.
Ingham and Takeuchi admit that their return to work has been easier because they were in relatively fortunate and senior positions. Ingham has installed lifts at his home in St John’s Wood, north London, and has two high-end chairs. “I was lucky. Most people aren’t,” he said.
Takeuchi said he had a “very supportive” team, investors and board and was able to “redefine my role as I saw fit”. He tried to “empower the team to do more” and stopped “micromanaging”.
He felt reinvigorated when returning to the office but soon found that closely packed desks are difficult to navigate in a wheelchair. “It gave me a sense of perspective, an increased desire to be more ambitious and build something bigger,” said Takeuchi. That seems to be working: GoCardless raised $95m (£70m) last month at a near-$1bn valuation.
When he returned to PageGroup’s central London office in July 2019 — by taxi, although now he drives an adapted electric Hyundai — Ingham wanted to prove he could still do his job despite being in a wheelchair. “I could not see why it made any difference. I’m the same pain in the arse that I was before,” he said.
However, he soon realised that it was not enough for businesses based in “swanky offices” to welcome disabled people with “a disabled loo and a lift”.
“What I’d love to see is that companies try to make themselves as accessible as they possibly can,” said Ingham. “That can start with their website, because most vacancies are posted online — but there’s no point if we can’t access that website because we can’t see it or hear it.”
He admitted that PageGroup had not yet “done as much as we should do ourselves” on improving conditions for disabled people, and that he understood if people thought he was another chief executive who would “talk a great game but not deliver”. “But we figured that I am sitting in a wheelchair, so the chances are that I’m not just saying it.”
Ingham is conducting surveys of his 6,700 staff around the world to share problems and solutions. “Once you know what you’ve got, you can start to try to make life better for them,” he said. He will set targets on employing people with disabilities at least in line with their proportion in the population: “We want to be representative of society.”
Many disabilities are invisible. Sophia Kleanthous, a 28-year-old campaigner and policy adviser, struggles with chronic pain caused by endometriosis, plus mental health issues. She twice dropped out of university to deal with her health, and said that her experiences of work had been “predominantly negative”.
One employer allegedly fired her the day after she had a mental “breakdown”. Another reneged on a job offer after she disclosed her conditions. “Not only are you battling your condition, you are battling society’s perception of what disability is,” she said.
The coronavirus could exacerbate these issues. Disability charity Leonard Cheshire found that 71% of disabled workers have been affected by losing income, being made unemployed or put on furlough. It also found that nearly half of some 500 surveyed employers were put off hiring disabled people because they worried about whether they could support them during the pandemic.
However, changes in work practices that many disability activists have long demanded — such as flexible working and working from home — look set to become more common.
Chris Keogh, a relationship manager at PwC who was paralysed after dislocating his neck playing football in 2018, said the shift to remote working had helped to make him feel “more productive” as it had removed the “stress of getting to the office or a client meeting”.
At the same time, bosses increasingly see a business advantage in recruiting disabled people. “Most are overcoming significantly bigger challenges — probably daily — than somebody who is able-bodied,” said Ingham. “People who have had to overcome challenges have usually learnt quite a lot from that and therefore have that to offer. It is sadly not talked about a lot.”
Recruiters pray for brighter days
The first working day after Christmas is usually one of PageGroup’s busiest. Bosses start hiring again and restless workers consider a job change.
Steve Ingham hopes that tomorrow will kick off a brighter 12 months than 2020. PageGroup’s profits fell by 32% to £143.5m in the third quarter. Ingham said that while trading had improved since then, despite the second wave of the virus, it had been a tough financial year. “We’re going to make a lot less than usual,” he said.
PageGroup’s boss first saw the impact of Covid-19 when its Chinese offices went into lockdown last January. The immediate concern was the inability to conduct face-to-face recruitment interviews. In the event, technology worked seamlessly.
Macroeconomic conditions could be more of a concern this year. PageGroup‘s businesses in China and Japan have already returned to year-on-year growth.
Ingham hopes that the EU trade deal will help the UK operation to catch up. “The Brexit news is definitely good news. Any uncertainty puts people off hiring or moving jobs,” he said.
Despite the positive progress on vaccines, which could allow old-fashioned interviews to resume by the spring, some pandemic innovations will become permanent, such as video interviews in the early stages of job applications. “There is no doubt we will learn from lockdown,” Ingham said. “It is not all negative.”