Here’s a scenario. A very valuable member of staff has suffered a serious accident and has been off work for over a year. She is now ready to come back.  She still has health problems but is mentally ready to return and has a good degree of physical capability.  

She was one of the company’s best, most productive and popular employees before her accident. She has come to her boss to ask for some adjustments to be made to help her to return.

These will be a mixture of phased steps but there will be one permanent change in that she can no longer get up and down the steep stairs of your old building in which there is no lift.  She will either need a chair lift or a move to the ground floor, ashe was previously on the 3rd floor.  

In the first instance she wants to come back part time, but believes that, over time, she is likely to be able to increase to full time work.  And she will need to take regular breaks at the start of her return to employment. And she may need to alter her working hours, as sometimes, particularly in cold weather, it takes her longer to get going in the morning.

A woman in an office, sat in a wheelchair, shaking a man's hand

Here’s another example. An ex-soldier has applied for an IT role. For a man who spent many years in uniform from the age of 17, trained to just obey orders, he has managed to get a superb grasp on IT. 

It becomes apparent soon into his interview that this is someone the company would benefit from employing, one of the most promising people you have ever interviewed. Then the question is asked about reasonable adjustments and the man replies that he might need to have some adjustments.

He is suffering from PTSD, as a result of witnessing horrifying incidents on his tours of duty. He isn’t sure what he will need but he is getting help with his condition and it is improving.  

These are two examples of disability, both of which are covered by the Equality Act 2010 and its definition of disability as a protected characteristic.  This definition is that disability is a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on the ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities”[1] and therefore needing reasonable adjustments.  The only difference between them is that one is an obvious physical disability, the other is an ‘invisible’ disability. 

The problem that still seems to exist with disability is that the majority still see the negatives, few look further and see the positive aspects of employing individuals who happen to have a disability.  The disability is the major issue and the fact that people who have a disability may also have great talent and be a good fit for the company is overlooked or considered less important that what might be involved in having to do something different for one person.

The truth is, many employers are afraid of employing a disabled person. 

A man sits in his wheelchair outside wearing a high viz jacket holding a clipboard

Back to the case studies. The woman in the first study has a long list of requirements for getting back to work.  But her company already knows that she was great at her job and still has a lot to offer.  

The issue for this company, as it often is with others, is how to give extra consideration to help this woman when they don’t necessarily want to allow it freely.  There are a couple of ways for the employer to look at her requested adjustments.

Firstly, adjustments have to be ‘reasonable’.  However, ‘reasonable’ is not legally defined, so it comes down to a discussion between the employer and employee to determine what can be done and what can’t.

In this case it might well be impossible, both in terms of the building and the cost, to put in a stair lift.  But a move to the ground floor, why not? 

Are there meeting rooms on the ground floor that she could use if needed?  Are the entrances accessible for a wheelchair user? Is there a ramp at the front door to allow her to get into the building?  Can she get into the toilets in a wheelchair?

These are all questions of potential access to the building and if the answer is ‘no’ to all of them, then the employer can look at the cost involved and decide if it’s feasible.  It might be feasible to do some of them, so that will come down to a discussion with the employee to see what’s essential and what’s a ‘nice to have’.

It may also be worth exploring if an Access to Work grant may be available to help with the costs.

A man in a wheelchair sits at his desk

In the case of the flexible hours and breaks, these would definitely fall under the umbrella of ‘reasonable adjustments’.  If there is no flexible working policy, then this might be a good time to look at having one. However, if the flexible hours can be incorporated into the job, then why not?

The benefit that the employer is going to gain from having a valued worker back in the job should always be taken into account.  Good, loyal people aren’t always easy to find. And there is also the benefit to other staff when they see that this employee has been treated fairly, in her determination to get back to work.  They will know that should anything happen to them, they won’t be thrown out without at least a consideration of whether or not they could return.

The employer can adjust this employee’s pay accordingly whilst supporting a return to work.  The additional breaks can be monitored. As can the whole situation of this person’s return and regular reviews should always be timetabled in. 

So many managers are afraid to talk to people about their disability.  But staff with a disability generally welcome the discussion.

A quick review of how an individual is coping is good for both the individual and the manager, and the company, which needs to know if the adjustments it has made are working. 

The issue of mental health is a more contentious issue.  But consider this for a moment: a recent report has said that as many as one in the three people in the UK will suffer from a mental health crisis at some point in their life.  And there is a statistic from a 2019 report that says that almost 1 in 7 people in the UK experience mental health issues whist working.[2] 

There are a host of common misunderstandings about what constitutes a mental health issue that would require a ‘reasonable adjustment’. Going back to the 2010 Equality Act mental health is a disability that has a substantial or long-term effect on the ability to carry out work.  Therefore, issues such as stress, depression, PTSD, dyslexia, epilepsy can come under the definition of disability as described by the Act. 

But for an employer, the important thing to remember is that there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution.  Employers should not attempt to “medicalize” the mental health disability. What matters in employment is the impact is has on the individual employee. Again, in these cases, adjustments have to be ‘reasonable’ and that is as much a decision for the employer as for the employee.  

Going back to our IT genius ex-soldier, what does he actually need by way of an adjustment?  He has stated that he is getting help with his condition. He will know what the triggers for his condition are.  The employer should ask what they are, what the employee will need if the condition is triggered and decide if they are reasonable.  

It may just be that the employee needs a quiet space to carry out some breathing exercises, or to be able to move away from the trigger situation until he is back in control.  People with mental health conditions will know what they need and will know if they are reasonably able to work with them. 

A man sits facing away from the camera with his hands on the back of his neck

Of course, these discussions can be had with employees, not with candidates unless they freely give the disability information at interview and say that they will need adjustments.    

People with disabilities can make a positive and valuable contribution to the workplace.  The trick is to see them as people with skills and adjust around them. There will also be benefits in financial terms, as clients and customers will see and be attracted to a firm that values people for who they are. 

There’s a long way to go. But there’s plenty of help available for employers and many quotable examples of organisations that have embraced disability, made the needed adjustments and benefited in financial, social and moral terms from having the best workforce it can get.  They are usually willing and happy to share their experiences to those looking for help. 

What would you do?

[1] Equality Act 2010

[2] 2019