Disability in the workplace – How can you manage it?

First off, what is a disability? Is it always clear?

In a word, no. It’s perhaps the most difficult question when it comes to covering disability in the workplace, with no hard and fast rule to decide when a condition is severe enough to be classed as a disability.

For example, with overweight or obese employees, some in society might perceive that this is a self-inflicted condition, not a disability. But this is not the case according to the EU court of justice, who last year ruled that obesity can in some cases be a disability.
In other words, what you think might be covered might not always marry with the law. And physical conditions aren’t the only issues that are covered either.

Mental health conditions can certainly be considered a disability, depending on their severity. Again, it is not cut and dried – as shown by Saad vs. University Hospital Southampton, wherein a mental condition was not enough to qualify as a disability, as it did not have a sufficiently substantial adverse effect on how the claimant lived day-to-day.

All we can really say for sure about whether a medical condition can be considered a disability under law, is that it would need to be a long-standing issue with a significant adverse impact on daily life. Unfortunately what these words mean in practice is open to interpretation, and therefore this is as close to a definition as we can really get.

How can you manage disability in the workplace?

If you can’t define a disability easily, how can you manage it in your workplace?

A reasonable employer would usually work with employees to overcome any issues they may have in conducting their work, in a way that is fair and sensible. This goes for whether you’re sure of their status as “disabled” or not. 

In situations where more complex issues arise, you may need to consider taking specific measures. If it is something that is making it difficult for your employees to access work, you may need to consider physical changes to your workplace, or how the employee gets to work, if they can be made without significant impact on the business. 

However, what if you are having trouble identifying whether your employee is disabled, and whether you would be obliged to make such changes?

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If an employee of yours is clinically obese, for example, you might be able to help them carry out their job more effectively in a number of ways. Are they repeatedly late for work? Perhaps give them a parking space nearer the door. Do they get out of breath easily? Perhaps consider giving them more rest breaks, or giving them tools or equipment which make their life easier. That way if things don’t improve and you have to start a formal performance review process you can show that you have tried to improve the situation, and can then make reasonable decisions based on if and how things have improved. 

Mental illness, as mentioned, is another issue that can arise in the workplace. But when there aren’t obvious physical symptoms, what can you do?

Firstly, if a mental health condition is identified to you – don’t panic. Take employees on a case by case basis; their condition may have no bearing on their work whatsoever. The condition may also be temporary, brought on by specific circumstances and unlikely to recur. 

Once you have gained perspective, try to consider the long term impact on the employee and your business. What might they have to stop doing? Might the condition fluctuate? Talk it through with the employee, ask them about triggers and seek professional advice if you can, so you can make informed decisions and avoid relapses when possible.

Don’t forget that you only have to make “reasonable” adjustments should you encounter a similar issue. For example, if they have trouble leaving home, suggest they work remotely for a short period, but you need not let it become such a big change if your business will suffer as a result.

Final thoughts

Physical and mental conditions are many and varied, as I’m sure you’re aware, so it shouldn’t be surprising that it’s a difficult area to cover. However, if you take a common sense approach and communicate well with staff there is no need to be scared of addressing a potential disability.

Treat staff reasonably, and base decisions on reasonable job performance and medical advice when possible, and disability in the workplace shouldn’t be a major issue. 

Kirsty Senior is co-founder and director of citrusHR.

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