Reasonable adjustments for mental health | Acas publishes new guidance for employers
Written by Alexandra Farmer on 17 May 2023
Mental health conditions can significantly impact an individual’s ability to perform their job effectively. For these employees, reasonable adjustments can help ensure they can fully participate in the workplace by reducing any barriers they might face.
However, it’s not always clear what’s expected of employers when it comes to supporting employees with mental health conditions. To provide greater clarity and direction, Acas has published new guidance which aims to help employers and employees handle requests for reasonable adjustments for mental health at work.
It covers everything from what reasonable adjustments are to examples of adjustments that might be made for mental health, as well as how requests for reasonable adjustments should be made and responded to. It also suggests that employers review their current policies with mental health in mind.
Given the prevalence of mental health conditions, such guidance is long overdue. Indeed, according to the most recent government survey of mental health conducted in 2014, 1 in 6 people aged 16 and above had experienced symptoms of a common mental health problem, such as depression or anxiety, in the past week. A new survey is due this year, and given the multitude of stressors that have impacted people since the pandemic, it’s reasonable to assume that these figures will have risen, perhaps quite dramatically.
In this blog, we take a look at why formal guidance is needed, when the duty to make reasonable adjustments arises, what sort of adjustments might be made for employees with mental health conditions, and what steps employers can take now.
Why do employers sometimes struggle to make adjustments for mental health?
Making reasonable adjustments for mental health conditions can be more challenging than for physical health conditions for several reasons. First and foremost, the invisible nature of mental health can make it difficult for employers to identify and understand the extent of the employee’s condition and the adjustments needed.
This is often compounded by a lack of awareness and understanding surrounding mental health – and the stigma that still exists. Many employers and colleagues may not fully comprehend mental health conditions, their impact on work, or the accommodations required. This lack of awareness and understanding can hinder the process of making appropriate adjustments.
Then there’s the fact that those with mental health conditions experience varying symptoms and needs, meaning there’s no ‘one size fits all’ solution. Unlike physical health conditions that may have more standardised accommodations, mental health conditions require personalised adjustments tailored to the individual. This complexity can pose challenges in identifying and implementing the most effective adjustments.
Other barriers that can hinder the implementation of appropriate accommodations include employees’ fear of discrimination, stigma, or negative consequences, which can make them reluctant to disclose their mental health conditions, and a lack of resources and expertise.
Despite these challenges, it is crucial for employers to invest in education, create supportive policies, foster an open and inclusive culture, and provide resources to effectively make reasonable adjustments for mental health conditions. Acas’ guidance should support employers in this endeavour.
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When does the duty to make reasonable adjustments arise?
If an employee’s mental health condition amounts to a disability, employers have a duty to make reasonable adjustments to help them overcome workplace barriers and ensure their full and equal participation in employment.
Under the Equality Act 2010, a person is considered to be “disabled” if they have a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. Not every employee with a mental health condition will be considered disabled; this will be case specific.
The duty to make reasonable adjustments arises when an employer becomes aware, or should reasonably be aware, that an employee is placed at a substantial disadvantage because of their disability compared with non-disabled employees. They may be disadvantaged by:
- An employer’s provision, criterion or practice;
- A physical feature of the employer’s premises; or
- An employer’s failure to provide an auxiliary aid.
For the duty to arise, the employee must be placed at a substantial disadvantage. Substantial, however, is defined as “more than minor or trivial” so this is a fairly low bar in reality.
Notably, the duty to make reasonable adjustments will not be triggered if the employer does not know, and could not reasonably be expected to know, that the individual is disabled and that they are likely to be placed at the disadvantage. However, it’s important that employers have procedures in place to find out such relevant information.
What are some examples of reasonable adjustments for mental health?
Assessing the impact of mental health conditions and determining appropriate adjustments can be more subjective compared to physical health conditions.
Mental health conditions can manifest differently in each individual, and their impact on work performance may vary. This subjectivity can make it harder for employers to objectively evaluate the adjustments needed and ensure consistency in their approach.
Notwithstanding these difficulties, common examples of reasonable adjustments that can be put in place to support an employee with a mental health condition include:
- Adjustments to absence reporting procedures. It’s fairly common for employees to report that they feel unable to ring and speak to someone to report their absence. Adjustments such as allowing the employee to email or text, or allowing a family member or friend to contact the organisation on their behalf, are fairly common.
- Adjustments to absence management procedures, such as increasing trigger points for formal action.
- Allowing an employee to work from home on a temporary or more regular basis.
- Allowing more regular breaks away from workstations.
When making reasonable adjustments for mental health, the Acas guidance urges employers to remember that:
- Every job is different, so what works in one situation might not work in another.
- Every employee is different, so what works for one employee might not work for another.
- Mental health fluctuates over time, so what works for an employee now might not work in the future.
Employers and employees are advised to work together to agree and review reasonable adjustments over time to make sure that the adjustments work well.
What should employers do now?
All employers should strive to proactively address mental wellbeing in the workplace, regardless of whether an employee has a diagnosed mental health condition or not.
A big part of this, as the Acas guidance recommends, is reviewing your policies with mental health in mind. Does your absence policy, for example, use ‘trigger points’ that put employees with recognised and ongoing mental health problems at a disadvantage? Do your policies allow managers to take a person by person approach? Are they easy for employees to find, understood by managers, and implemented consistently?
If you don’t already have one, a stress and mental wellbeing policy is a great way to demonstrate your commitment to the wellbeing of your employees and create a supportive culture where people feel comfortable discussing mental health concerns and seeking assistance when needed. It’s also advisable to have a section in your policies, often within an absence policy, specifically referring to reasonable adjustments and urging employees who feel that they may require an adjustment to discuss their situation with their line manager or HR.
Keep in mind that policies will only be effective if understood and implemented. As well as revising your policies, you may find that managers and employees need training and support to implement them effectively.
Fostering a workplace culture that promotes overall wellbeing can play a pivotal role in raising awareness and can help to break down the stigma that is still often associated with mental health, which can result in employees not seeking the support they need.
Remember, reasonable adjustments benefit both employers and employees. By providing employees with the necessary support to stay in work and excel, organisations can increase productivity and performance, keep costs down, and minimise the disruption caused by absenteeism. As such, they are not only a legal obligation, but a smart strategic investment.
Got a query?
Our Employment Law Team regularly receive queries about reasonable adjustments. From what to do if an employee refuses an Occupational Health assessment to the appropriacy of rejecting an adjustment you don’t consider to be reasonable, you want to know that you’re acting legally while making the right commercial decisions for your organisation.
WorkNest can help you understand how the guidance applies to your specific situation so that you can minimise the potential for costly compliance mistakes and keep your workforce healthy and engaged.
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