Reasonable adjustments

Occupational health reports will often use the phrase ‘reasonable adjustments’, which can seem like an ambiguous term, so it’s important to understand why the phrase is used and what it means.

The Equality Act (2010) makes numerous mentions of an employer’s obligations to implement ‘reasonable adjustments’ in some circumstances. The Equality Act is a piece of UK legislation that merges several previous anti-discrimination laws (Sex Discrimination Act, 1975; Race Relations Act, 1976; Disability Discrimination Act, 1995) into one, updated law, aimed at protecting people from discrimination in the workplace and in wider society.

When considering health, the law obliges employers to make reasonable adjustments for those suffering from disability because disability is a ‘protected characteristic’. Whether their health concern can be considered a disability is ultimately a legal decision, but will be made with guidance from occupational health experts such as Smart Clinic. For this reason, whether a health condition can be classed as a ‘disability’ under the Equality Act will be a common discussion within an occupational health report.

An employer would be obliged to make reasonable adjustments when they know, or could be expected to know that an employee has a disability, and may need adjustments in order to properly fulfil their role. This adjustment could be to the working environment, the way that the work is done or by enlisting the help of a colleague.

An example of this may be a member of staff who suffers from arthritis in their hand, aggravated by cold temperatures, affecting their motor skills in tasks like writing or typing. The employer may consider providing access to a small heater at their desk. 

However the phrase ‘reasonable adjustments’ can be a grey area for employers, as they ask themselves ‘what adjustments would be reasonable or beyond reasonable?’.

What is reasonable will be dependent upon the employer’s situation, the employee’s situation and the nature of the work. There are four key considerations for an employer to determine if an adjustment is reasonable:

  1. Will it remove or reduce some of the disadvantages suffered by the employee? If not, there would be little purpose in making the adjustment, and only adjustments where it is likely to improve the situation will be recommended by occupational health.
  2. Is it affordable? An employer is not obligated to spend money they cannot afford making adjustments. In the above example, a small handheld heater may be considered affordable, whereas a new boiler and heating system may not be.
  3. Is it practical? Some adjustments would be far too impractical for an employer. For example, someone with a small, shared, first floor office is going to be unlikely to be able to install a lift in the building for a wheelchair bound employee.
  4. Could it harm the health and safety of others? No adjustments should be made that could be potentially harmful or risky to others.

At the Smart Clinic, we encourage employers to document their decision making process if they are unsure as to whether an adjustment is reasonable or not. This will help them to ascertain whether they are able to make an adjustment that will be safe, practical, affordable and successful, and prompts them to provide an explanation (including to the employee themselves) as to why an adjustment cannot be reasonably made if that is the case. If the adjustment is not reasonable, the employer is not obliged to make it, and therefore may wish to consider an alternative course of action or arrangement with the employee.

An employer may also wish to procure advice from an occupational health provider, legal advisor or HR advisor if they are unsure.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission provide some excellent examples of reasonable adjustments that can be made for employees to provide you with some ideas and guidelines.

If you have any questions about adjustments for your employees suffering from health conditions, please get in touch with the Smart Clinic team and we’d be happy to help.