Laura Tracey: New guidance on reasonable adjustments for mental health

mental healthMental health problems are and continue to be a significant concern and employers have not only a moral, but a legal obligation to help protect and support employees who may be suffering from such issues.

Employees may find mental health conditions difficult to talk about and even try to conceal them, particularly when they are under pressure. Helpfully, the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) has recently issued new guidance to support employers and employees when it comes to making reasonable adjustments for mental health at work.

Reasonable adjustments are changes that an employer makes to remove or reduce a disadvantage related to someone’s disability. A disability is a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect upon the individual’s ability to perform day-to-day activities, and therefore is likely to include a number of mental health conditions.

The Equality Act 2010 says that employers must make these adjustments for workers, contractors and self-employed people hired personally to do work, and job applicants. The legal duty only arises when the employer knows or could reasonably be expected to know someone is disabled, although employers should consider how they can support and promote good mental health for any of its employees affected by a mental health condition, regardless of whether they are disabled.

The Acas guide makes suggestions regarding what reasonable adjustments can be made for mental health, for example changing someone’s role and responsibilities by reducing aspects that the employee finds more stressful, such as reducing customer facing work, and reviewing working relationships and communication styles by agreeing preferred communication methods to help reduce anxiety, such as avoiding spontaneous phone calls.

Other examples include changing the physical working environment by allowing someone to work from home to manage distractions, to engage in activities that allow them to manage their mental health, or providing reserved parking to reduce the stress of commuting, making policy changes such as being flexible with trigger points for absence, and additional support through training or coaching.

It should be noted that identifying, agreeing and monitoring reasonable adjustments can take time, relying profoundly on employers and employees talking openly so everyone’s needs are met. The guide provides support for employees who may find it hard to talk openly about mental health and suggests how they can request reasonable adjustments, as well as what steps an employer should consider before responding to such a request.

Everyone’s experience of mental health is different, and it is important for an employer to keep in mind that mental health can fluctuate over time. Acas supports reviewing reasonable adjustments on an ongoing basis and scheduling follow-up meetings to discuss how the adjustments are working.

It is also important to note that supporting employees with mental health is not just HR’s role. A good employer will equip managers with the tools to support their employees and to spot the signs of an employee who may be struggling with their mental health.

Laura Tracey is an employment partner at Freeths