New guidance published by ACAS this month offers a welcome overview of how employers can better support their employees by making adjustments for mental health. Whilst the duty to make reasonable adjustments for disabled employees is a well-established area of employment law, understanding what this means in practice for employees with mental health difficulties can be tricky. We summarise the new guidance from ACAS and provide practical advice for employers below.
Duty to make reasonable adjustments
Under the Equality Act 2010 (EQA), employers have a duty not to discriminate on the basis of a disability. This includes indirect discrimination, where a disabled person is put at a disadvantage compared to their peers by a policy that applies to everyone. Employers also have a duty to make reasonable adjustments to ensure an equal workplace.
Although several mental health conditions will satisfy the legal definition of disability under the EQA, many employees may not identify their diagnosis as a disability or will struggle from mental health difficulties that do not qualify as a disability. If the employer has no reason to know that an employee is disabled, or if the definition under the EQA is not met, no legal duty arises to provide reasonable adjustments. However, it is still possible for employers to take action to better support their employees and their mental health.
The new ACAS guidance provides that employers should try to make reasonable adjustments for employees suffering with mental health difficulties, even if those difficulties do not amount to a disability. Employers can facilitate a more inclusive workforce, which in turn leads to increased productivity and an ability to attract and retain the best talent.
Making reasonable adjustments for mental health
Mental health is a wide-reaching term encompassing the emotional, psychological and social wellbeing of employees. The ACAS guidance recognises that problems with mental health may be brought on by a specific life event or built up gradually over time, and may be consistent or fluctuating. This means that an employee’s ability to cope with the demands of the job may change, and in turn the reasonable adjustments required may vary over time. It is therefore important for employers to take a sensitive and individual approach, ensuring employees are provided with a safe environment to discuss any changes in their mental health.
The guidance sets out a detailed list of examples of reasonable adjustments that employers may consider putting in place. These include:
- Changing someone’s roles and responsibilities: An individual suffering from mental health difficulties may have reduced capacity to perform the tasks that they would usually perform. Reasonable adjustments might therefore include reducing stressful responsibilities or moving an employee to a different role which involves tasks they feel more able to perform.
- Reviewing working relationships and communication styles: Dealing with differing working and communication styles can exacerbate mental health concerns, so making sure an individual is working with trusted people and agreeing a preferred communication method can be helpful.
- Changing the physical working environment: This can include adjustments such as altering workspaces, working from home, or providing rest areas in the office away from the work areas. This can reduce the day-to-day stresses caused by work which may worsen mental health difficulties.
- Additional support: Employees struggling with their mental health may benefit from greater pastoral support. Reasonable adjustments in this area may therefore include modifying supervision to provide regular check-ins or providing a buddy/mentor.
Practical steps for employers
The ACAS guidance sets out some useful recommendations regarding the steps employers can take to make the workplace more accessible for employees who require adjustments for their mental health. This includes how to respond to a request for reasonable adjustments, managing employees who have reasonable adjustments in place and reviewing policies with mental health in mind.
Responding to reasonable adjustments for mental health requests: It is important for employers to understand that meetings to discuss reasonable adjustments can be daunting for employees. Employers should ensure that the individual(s) responsible for conducting such meetings have a good understanding of the organisation’s mental health policies and can be empathetic and supportive to the employee’s difficulties.
It can be helpful to consider previous examples of reasonable adjustments and what might be possible given the employee’s job. Where applicable, it can also be useful to seek guidance from Occupational Health. Being able to provide suggestions of actions that can be taken may be beneficial. However, due to the sensitive and changing nature of mental health challenges, it is useful to take a flexible approach. This includes being open to trialling new adjustments where practicable, monitoring the adjustments put in place, reviewing whether a new approach is needed, and putting ongoing support in place.
Managing employees with reasonable adjustments for mental health: Individuals in a company with supervision or managerial responsibilities have an important role in mental health support. Regular check-ins and showing ongoing support will assist with the process of helping employees to access reasonable adjustments where needed. Being familiar with safeguarding procedures and knowing when to escalate issues to HR or Occupational Health is also vital. The ACAS guidance also provides practical tips on how to conduct a meeting about reasonable adjustments for mental health.
Reviewing policies with mental health in mind: Whilst many employers will have absence and reasonable adjustment policies in place, these can quickly become outdated and not reflect the latest position on supporting employees with mental health concerns. It may therefore be useful to review any policies in place and update them regularly.
When reviewing a policy, key issues to consider include: the language used, and whether it is clear, accessible and demonstrates care; whether the policy is understood and implemented consistently by managers; its flexibility to accommodate mental health conditions that change over time; and whether the policy provides opportunities for employees to give feedback.
If you would like any further guidance on implementing reasonable adjustments for mental health, please consult the ACAS guidance or reach out to a member of our experienced PRM team.