Equality law recognises that bringing about equality for disabled people may mean changing the way in which employment is structured, the removal of physical barriers and/or providing extra support for a disabled worker or job applicant. This includes the duty to make reasonable adjustments (Equality and Human Rights Commission, 2016). However, should it be reasonable to expect employers to put in place these same adjustments and accommodations for workers who do not have disabilities, and if they did, how would employers and workers benefit?
Stress, anxiety and depression are the most common mental health problems at work and although treatable and reducible, their effects can be temporarily devastating and disabling (BOHRF, 2005). Additionally, employees may be subject to discrimination due to their condition being stigmatised as a human failing or weakness.
If an employee is feeling anxious, fearful, hopeless, worthless, agitated, withdrawn, tearful, moody or low, or if they engage in negative thinking, ruminating, brooding, procrastination or avoidance, the impact on work performance can be substantial. Acting quickly and proactively to support employees in the early stages of illness can prevent further deterioration. We know that chronic mental illness leads to incapacity and disability (Black, 2008). It makes sense, therefore, for employers to put in place these same measures for those workers who are ill, but not yet disabled.
We also know sufferers can benefit from being at work, and maintaining relationships with colleagues, managers and friends, which can help them to stop withdrawing and isolating themselves. We know from the literature that encouraging employees to keep active and engaged in work can have a meaningful and positive impact on them. We also know that encouraging them to stay in work, even if they cannot maintain their contracted hours, substantive duties and responsibilities will help them in the long-term, and can prevent a loss of confidence and feelings of failure and hopelessness (Waddel and Burton, 2006; Department for Work and Pensions, 2008).
Why, then, do some employers only seem to take action via adjustments and accommodations when it is already too late, when the employee has succumbed or when they are away from work sick, and where referral for help is focused on getting them back to work or mitigating employer liability and duty.
An approach that has been shown to be effective is where accommodations and adjustments, which include flexible hours, shorter working days, reduced tasks, graduated hours, redeployment and therapeutic work programmes, are put in place at the onset of illness and while the employee is still able to do some work, even if not at full capacity.
Would doing this encourage employees to make a quicker recovery and employers to end discrimination for the enabled, as well as the disabled?
Copyright Marie Church June 2017