On 24 April, Acas published guidance aimed at helping employers and employees understand workplace adjustments for mental health. It provides an overview of reasonable adjustments for mental health, how to request adjustments, and how to manage employees working with adjustments.
Important points to note:
- Mental health can be a recognised disability when it has or is likely to have a long-term and substantial adverse impact on a person's ability to carry out day-to-day activities. Failing to make reasonable adjustments where appropriate can create significant legal risk for an employer, and it is therefore in the best interests of both the employee and employer to carefully consider any request for reasonable adjustments.
- Employers have a duty to make reasonable adjustments for employees who are disabled, to reduce disadvantages caused within the workplace, in accordance with the Equality Act 2010 . Disability is one of the nine protected characteristics within the Equality Act, and acts of discrimination and harassment related to those characteristics are prohibited, along with victimisation, once an individual has raised concerns about their treatment.
What is mental health?
As defined by the World Mental Health Organisation, mental health is:
"A state of wellbeing in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community".
However, poor mental health or mental health conditions impair an individual's wellbeing. Some common difficulties include excessive stress, depression, anxiety and PTSD. It is important to appreciate that mental health difficulties can happen suddenly and/or can be difficult to recognise, as they affect each individual differently. The impact of the difficulties may gradually build up or change over time, or occur suddenly in response to a specific event in someone's life.
What are reasonable adjustments?
Reasonable adjustments are steps an employer can take to change the working environment for an employee, to better accommodate their condition and reduce any negative impacts they may be experiencing in relation to their disability. Such adjustments will always need to be specific to a particular individual and their circumstances, and could include anything from a slight change to working hours, to access to an adapted bathroom, to a change in responsibilities, to adaptive technology. There is no "one size fits all" when it comes to helpful adjustments an individual with a disability might benefit from.
Reasonable adjustments ensure that employees can continue to work in a supportive environment, enabling the business to benefit from reduced issues with absences, training, and recruitment, while creating a positive workplace culture and work environment.
Requests for reasonable adjustments
The duty to consider making reasonable adjustments falls on the employer and does not only arise when a request for adjustments is made, as there is no onus on an individual to "go first" in suggesting adjustments. However, in recent years the increasing awareness of mental health and the potential impact that mental ill health can have in the workplace has led people to feel more able to approach their employers to request adjustments pertaining to supporting their mental health. There is an increasing willingness to speak out about mental health and it is important that businesses encourage and react positively to such an open dialogue in the workplace.
When an employee makes a request for reasonable adjustments in this context, they are recognising that they have a need for them and are making their employer aware that they are experiencing difficulties with their mental health. An employee should feel able to reach out to their line manager and/or HR in this way, to request reasonable adjustments or to seek Occupational Health (OH) support, who can advise on the reasonable adjustments that may be appropriate for that employee. The input of a medical advisor through a professional OH service can be invaluable for an employer in showing they have taken the employee's needs seriously, and can ensure that the adjustments made actually meet the requirements of that employee. Employers are not expected to have the medical knowledge required in order to solve particular difficulties being experienced, rather they need to show that they have made an effort to access the professional input needed to achieve this, together with input from the employee themselves.
When a request for reasonable adjustments is received, a meeting will need to be arranged between the employer and employee, with the aim of reaching agreement on what adjustments would be reasonable and appropriate to assist the employee, with reference to any medical or OH advice provided. It is important to keep a record of what is discussed and agreed, either by creating a plan or having meeting notes that are agreed by both parties. In practice, it may be that the changes implemented may need to be reviewed or amended over time, to find what would be most effective for that particular individual therefore allowing for some flexibility. There should be a record made throughout the process.
Examples of reasonable adjustments for mental health
Here are some examples of adjustments that could be made:
- Changes to an employee's role and responsibilities such as reducing their workload, amending deadlines, reducing the number of telephone calls, minimising client facing activities or moving them into another role or department.
- Amending working relationships and communication such as ensuring the employee is working with supportive and trusted colleagues, agreeing a preferred form of communication such as avoiding spontaneous telephone calls, increasing check-ins or having a buddy or mentor.
- Changing the physical working environment such as allowing for working from home, providing assistive technology, taking regular breaks, relocating their workspace, amended working hours or providing reserved parking.
- Updating policies such as allowing for paid leave for appointments, flexibility of 'trigger points' in absence management policies or providing extended phased returns to work so that an employee is able to gradually increase their hours or responsibilities.
Managing employees with reasonable adjustments for mental health
Mental health issues affect 14.7% of people in the workplace according to the Mental Health Foundation, though there is still some level of misunderstanding and stigma in the workplace. As a first point of contact, managers need to be able to have difficult conversations with employees who experience mental ill-health, to witness and begin to understand their struggles first hand.
To support managers, it is important that they receive the appropriate training for recognising mental health issues, and how to support those who experience them. Managers need to understand what reasonable adjustments are, how they can be implemented within the business and what is needed for those employees.
It is important to note that reasonable adjustments must be appropriate for both the employee who seeks additional support and also for the employer. Ultimately, many factors will need to be taken into account in deciding whether or not a proposed adjustment is reasonable or not, and this will always depend on the specific circumstances of the individual case.
If you need further advice about mental health and reasonable adjustments, please do contact our Employment team.
This article was also authored by Rebecca Dennis, Apprentice Solicitor at Womble Bond Dickinson.