Employees with learning disabilities are more than twice as likely to be attacked, intimidated or bullied at work than non-disabled people, a study has found.

Researchers from Cardiff and Plymouth universities found that people with physical or learning disabilities, mental health conditions or long-term illness reported higher rates of 21 types of ill-treatment compared to workers without disabilities, often from their managers and colleagues. These included being given impossible deadlines and being ignored, gossiped about or teased.

However, those with learning disabilities or mental health conditions, on average, suffer more than people with physical disabilities or long-term illnesses.

The research, ‘The Ill-treatment of Disabled Employees in British Workplaces’, published in the journal Work, Employment and Society, examined responses to interview questions given by 3,979 people, 284 of them with a disability or long-term illness.

Overall, among the 284 with a disability/long term illness, 10.5% said they had suffered physical violence at work, compared with 4.5% of people without disabilities or long-term illness.

Meanwhile, 24.3% said they had been insulted at work, compared with 14.3% of people without disabilities or long-term illness and 34.5% said they had been shouted at, compared with 23.1%.

However, among those 284 with a psychological or learning disability, 21.2% said they were victims of physical violence, 44.2% said they had been insulted and 56.9% said they had been shouted at.

Managers were responsible for 45% of the more serious ill-treatment people with disabilities had suffered, while customers or clients accounted for 28%, and colleagues for 18%.

The lead researcher, Professor Ralph Fevre, of Cardiff School of Social Sciences, said: "Up to now, researchers have generally assumed that ill-treatment in the workplace was causing disabilities and health problems. Our work suggests ill-treatment happens to employees who already have disabilities or health problems."

Professor Fevre and fellow authors Dr Amanda Robinson and Trevor Jones of Cardiff University, and Professor Duncan Lewis of Plymouth University, offer various possible reasons for the higher level of ill-treatment, including conflict with managers over sickness absence and the interpretation of anti-discrimination legislation. However, the researchers added that another possibility was simply “stigma and discrimination” against people with disabilities.

“Workers with disabilities were far more likely to be ill-treated at work and experienced a broader range of ill-treatment,” the researchers say in their paper.

“Any one of these forms of ill-treatment could have an adverse effect on their productivity and, in turn, shore up assumptions about the lack of productive worth of people with disabilities. 

“The efforts employees with disabilities make to escape ill-treatment may also exacerbate their marginalisation in less productive, and less well-paid jobs, or even lead to their withdrawal from the labour market altogether.”