Reasonable Adjustments: Employers’ Guide

IN THIS SECTION

Under the provisions of the Equality Act 2010, employers have to make reasonable adjustments at work to ensure individuals with a qualifying disability are not significantly disadvantaged when compared to other workers.

In practice, there are many misconceptions about what reasonable adjustments are and when they must be provided, potentially exposing the employer to legal claims. The consequences of mishandling reasonable adjustments at work include costly tribunal claims, as well as damage to workforce morale and company reputation.

By understanding and complying with your obligations, you can create a supportive and inclusive working environment for team members with disabilities.

In this guide for employers, we explain what reasonable adjustments are and discuss the practical issues of dealing with requests for reasonable adjustments.

 

What are reasonable adjustments?

A ‘reasonable adjustment’ is a change that must be made to remove or reduce any disadvantage associated with a person’s disability while applying for or performing a role. This could be a change in an existing employee’s working conditions or working environment, or a change in a job applicant’s advertising, assessment or interview arrangements.

 

Reasonable adjustments & the Equality Act 2010

The UK’s primary anti-discrimination legislation is the Equalaity Act 2010. The Act provides protection for individuals against unlawful discrimination due to protected characteristics. Disability is one such protected characteristic.

To benefit from the protections of the Act, an individual must show that they have a qualifying disability. An individual is classed as having a disability under the 2010 Act if they have a physical or mental impairment that has a significant, long-term, unfavourable effect on their ability to do normal, day-to-day activities. A long-term impairment is one that has lasted or is expected to last for at least 12 months, or one that is reoccurring.

Under the Act, the duty on employers to make reasonable adjustments arises where:

  • a provision, criterion and/or practice puts a disabled person at a substantial disadvantage in comparison with jobs applicants or workers who are not disabled
  • a physical feature of the premises occupied by an employer puts a disabled person at a substantial disadvantage in comparison with non-disabled job applicants or workers
  • the lack of an auxiliary aid puts a disabled person at a substantial disadvantage in comparison with non-disabled job applicants and workers.

 

In the first two instances, the employer must take reasonable steps to avoid the disadvantage in question. In the third case, the employer must take reasonable steps to offer the auxiliary aid.

Employers must offer reasonable adjustments at all stages of the employment lifecycle, including any part of the recruitment process that places a job candidate with a disability at a significant disadvantage when compared to other job applicants.

 

Who can request reasonable adjustments?

The Act provides protection to workers, as well as apprentices, trainees, and job candidates, with a qualifying disability.

This would include those with disabilities or health concerns, including mental health conditions, and those with caring duties or pregnancy-related health issues may also be entitled to request reasonable adjustments in particular circumstances.

 

What qualifies as a disability under the Equality Act?

Some conditions are explicitly defined as disabilities under the Equality Act:

  • Blindness, severe sight impairment, sight impairment and partial sightedness (provided this is certified by a consultant ophthalmologist)
  • Severe disfigurements, with the exception of unremoved tattoos and piercings
  • Cancer, HIV infection and multiple sclerosis

Some conditions are explicitly excluded from the protections:

  • Seasonal allergic rhinitis (hay fever)
  • Tattoos and ornamental body piercing
  • Various anti-social personality disorders – a tendency to set fire to things, physical or sexual abuse, to voyeurism or exhibitionism
  • Addictions to alcohol, nicotine or other substances are not covered unless the addiction was originally the result of medical treatment or medically prescribed drugs, e.g. valium or other tranquillisers and sleeping pills

 

For conditions that are not listed, the following statutory test will be applied to determine if the individual can avail of the provisions of the Equality Act: “A person (P) has a disability if (a) P has a physical or mental impairment, and (b) the impairment has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on P’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.” 

Taking each of the elements of the test in turn:

 

Is a physical or mental disability present?

A “disability” is not synonymous with a medical condition. The definition places greater emphasis on the inability to carry out typical day-to-day activities than on the particular designation of the “impairment.”
Sensory impairment and severe disfigurement are examples of physical impairment. Mental impairments include dyslexia and other learning difficulties as well as illnesses like depression.

 

Does the impairment impact your ability to engage in routine day-to-day activities?

“Normal” activities should entail activities such as shopping, reading, writing, conversing, watching television, getting bathed and dressed, cooking and eating, housework, walking, travelling (including public transportation), and engaging in social activities.

 

Is the effect significant?

For the effect to be “substantial” and detrimental in consequence, it has to be greater than minor or inconsequential. It is possible that the impairment will not have a major unfavourable effect on a single activity, but may have a modest detrimental effect on numerous activities, resulting in “a substantial adverse influence on the individual’s ability to do routine day-to-day activities.”

Importantly, if the effect of the impairment is decreased or controlled by medication, medical treatment, or an aid, its impact should be recorded as it would be without the medicine.

The unfavourable effect must also be long-lasting, i.e., it must have lasted or be likely to endure for at least 12 months, or for the remainder of the person’s life if shorter than 12 months.

When there are recurring situations or many conditions that impact operations, additional thought must be given.

 

When does the duty to make reasonable adjustments apply?

In most circumstances, the obligation to make reasonable adjustments will be triggered after a job candidate or worker expressly requests changes to assist them in applying for or performing their job. The duty to make reasonable adjustments would usually not arise where the employer is unaware of, and cannot reasonably be expected to be aware of, the existence of a disability.

However, depending on the facts, the duty may also arise if someone is experiencing difficulties with any aspect of their job or if their sickness record indicates long-term illness.

The law requires you to offer reasonable adjustments for employees with a disability who are having or will have difficulty performing their duties. Although some people will admit to having a disability, many may not because:

  • They do not view themselves as disabled, for example, a person with diabetes.
  • They do not believe any changes are necessary.
  • They are ill, but they do not yet know why.
  • They fear the employer’s reaction and that they will not be hired or will lose their job.
  • They are afraid of harassment and bullying.

 

This means employer should offer reasonable adjustments to those they know or suspect may be disabled if they are having difficulty performing their duties due to a disability. Employers – an in particular managers – you should be alert to the signs that a person may have a disability or be experiencing difficulties as a result of a disability, such as poor or worsening attendance, a decline in performance, missing deadlines, poor timekeeping, behavioural changes at work or appearing to be in pain or discomfort. In these circumstances, the manager should talk to the individual, taking a sensitive and empathetic approach and without making assumptions, to understand if there are issues requiring support, such as making reasonable adjustments.

While it is not always possible to determine whether an employee has a disability or not, it is best practise to make accommodations for anyone who is experiencing difficulties at work. This way, you will have done everything possible to help someone work to the best of their potential, which may result in your organisation recruiting and retaining the most talented individuals.

 

Examples of reasonable adjustments

There is no prescribed or definitive list of reasonable adjustments, nor is there a one-size-fits-all approach. Potential adjustments should be determined by the specifics of each request, including the working environment, the nature of the worker’s disability and specific needs, and the resources available to the employer to make the changes.

Examples of reasonable adjustments could include:

  • Purchasing specialist equipment, such as an ergonomic chair or keyboard
  • Allowing different start and finish working times
  • Allowing flexible working arrangements such as part-time hours, or hybrid-working
  • Allowing a phased return to work after long-term sickness absence
  • Modifying performance targets for those struggling to maintain a certain level of work
  • Discounting disability-related sick leave for the purposes of absence management
  • Offering recruitment literature in Braille or audio
  • Allowing job candidates to do a written test on a computer or allowing them more time to complete the exercise

 

How to deal with requests for reasonable adjustments

By law, employers must consider requests for reasonable adjustments from those with qualifying disabilities, and accept and make those changes where they are deemed reasonable in all the circumstances.

HR and line managers should be trained to deal with disability-related workplace issues such as reasonable adjustments. The organisation should also have policies and procedures in place which provide guidance on how to deal with disability-related matters such as reasonable adjustments in a fair, consistent and lawful way.

Where a request for reasonable adjustments has been made by a job applicant or worker, or the reasonable adjustments duty otherwise arises, the employer should in the first instance discuss the circumstances directly with the individual to establish all the facts.

Engaging in a dialogue with the individual will help to understand their specific needs and difficulties. This will allow the employer and individual to work together to identify appropriate adjustments to reduce or remove any disadvantage.

What is ‘reasonable’ will all depend on the circumstances of each case. Relevant factors can include the cost of the adjustment, what resources are available to the employer to fund this adjustment, how practical any adjustment will be to implement, and whether the adjustment will be effective in removing or reducing any disadvantage for the individual in question.

When considering the requested reasonable adjustments, the employer should look to determine:

  • If the suggested adjustment will have a reasonable chance of preventing or reducing the disadvantage?
  • If would it be reasonable for the employer to make this change in these circumstances?

 

Remember also that the individual’s needs may change over time, so employers should regularly review and monitor the adjustments to ensure they remain effective and to make any necessary changes.

 

What is ‘reasonable’ in reasonable adjustments?

In the absence of a legal definition, it is for the When determining what is ‘reasonable’, a tribunal will consider factors such as the nature of the individual’s disability, the type of working environment they work in and the type of work they do.

Even within the same organisation, one adjustment that is appropriate for one individual in one department may not be reasonable for another individual in a different part of the organisation. Consider the following when determining whether an adjustment is reasonable:

 

Cost

Cost will often be the deciding factor in whether an adjustment is reasonable or not. Some changes will be low-cost or even cost-free, while others may be at considerable expense to the employer. Questions to consider include:

  • How expensive is the adjustment relative to the total resources of the organisation?
  • Will the adjustment help those who are not impaired as well?
  • Are there any additional elements that make the expense of the adjustment more reasonable?

 

In determining what is reasonable, tribunals typically place a greater burden to make adjustments on larger employers with greater resources than smaller employers with fewer resources.

 

Practicality

It would generally be fair to make changes to the way work is performed so that an individual can do the essential elements of their role. If a person cannot perform these responsibilities due to their disability and no adjustment will allow them to do so, you may need to explore relocating them to a more suitable, alternative employment. Redeploying someone due to disability can qualify as a reasonable adjustment.

 

Effectiveness

An adjustment is only reasonable if it is effective in removing the disadvantage that the person with the disability is facing. It’s important to speak with the individual for their thoughts on what they believe will assist them in doing their job.

 

Disruption

The level of business interruption caused by a change will also be a consideration as to whether an adjustment is reasonable. The vast majority of adjustments result in little interruption since they affect solely the individual’s working style and have minimal impact on others, but if there is likely to be disruption to the business, this will need to be factored in.

 

Health and safety

Under health and safety law, employers are responsible for managing health and safety risks in their businesses and to safeguard the wellbeing of its workers, customers and visitors. This means their obligation is to analyse and manage risks for all of employees, not just those with disabilities. Employers should consider the specific conditions of any changes, which, in the case of a disabled employee, includes the impact of the disability, and develop suitable solutions.

An adjustment would not be considered reasonable if it poses an unreasonable risk to the health or safety of the disabled worker, or anybody else. However, before you can deny a request for a reasonable adjustment on health and safety grounds, ensure you have all the facts and are not making assumptions about what a person with a particular disability can and cannot do.

 

Are reasonable adjustments permanent?

Reasonable adjustments made in the workplace are not necessarily permanent and may need to be reviewed and updated over time to ensure that they remain relevant and effective in meeting the worker’s needs.

For example, changes in an employee’s health condition, job role, or working environment may necessitate a review of existing adjustments. Similarly, changes in technology or other circumstances may provide new opportunities for adjustments that were not previously available.

In some cases, an adjustment may be intended as a temporary measure, such as a phased return to work after a period of illness or a short-term adjustment to working hours. However, employers should be open to considering longer-term adjustments if they are necessary to enable the employee to carry out their job effectively.

Ultimately, the aim of reasonable adjustments is to remove barriers to employment and create an inclusive and supportive working environment. As such, adjustments should be flexible and adaptable to meet the changing needs of employees over time.

 

Reasonable adjustments & long term sick leave

Where long-term sickness absence has been identified as an issue with an employee, among the absence management steps to take in is to consider, in consultation with the individual, if there are any disability-related issues involved.

If the employee has a disability under the Equality Act, consideration will need to be given to any reasonable adjustments which would enable the employee to come back to work.

Employers considering disciplinary action against an employee due to poor health, should, as a minimum, follow the ACAS prescribed approach for dealing with long-term absence. The guidelines advise that where absence is due to a medically-verified sickness, the issue becomes one of capability rather than behaviour; and that employers must take a more empathetic and caring attitude, especially if the employee has a disability and reasonable adjustments at the workplace could enable them to return to work.

 

How long does an employer have to make reasonable adjustments?

Time limits for making reasonable adjustments at work will vary depending on the circumstances of the request and the nature of the changes, although they should be made as quickly as is practicable. In practice, some changes can be made immediately, while others will necessarily take longer to implement.

Looking at case law, in Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Local Health Board v Morgan [2018], the Court of Appeal ruled that reasonable adjustments must be made as soon as an employer is able to take steps to prevent any relevant detriment to its employee.

In Mitchell v Marks and Spencer plc, the judgment emphasised that any undue delay in making a small adjustment might be considered discriminatory.

Fundamentally, as soon as you learn or may reasonably be anticipated to learn of the necessary adjustment, you should take action to implement it.

 

Do you have to make reasonable adjustments at work for autism?

Autism is a condition that can have a significant impact on an individual’s ability to carry out certain tasks or work in particular environments, and reasonable adjustments may be necessary to enable an employee with autism to perform their job effectively.

Depending on the specific needs of the individual, examples of reasonable adjustments for an employee with autism could include reducing sensory stimuli in the working environment and providing set working hours to avoid uncertainty of shift patterns. The changes should be discussed with the employee to ensure their specific needs are identified and supported.

 

Do you have to make reasonable adjustments at work for anxiety?

Depending on the facts of each case, anxiety may be considered a disability under the Equality Act, provided it can be shown to have a long-term effect on the individual’s normal day-to-day activity.

In this case, possible reasonable adjustments could include allowing flexible start and end times, allowing more frequent or longer rest breaks during work, or providing additional support with workload management. Again, any proposed changes should be developed in consultation with the worker to ensure their needs are met.

 

Can reasonable adjustments be removed?

Employers should regularly review the adjustments they have made to ensure they remain appropriate and effective. In certain situations, reasonable adjustments may be removed if they are no longer required or if they have become unreasonable or disproportionate.

For instance, if an employee with a visual impairment was given screen reader software to enable them to access information on a computer, but their vision improved as a result of medical treatment or surgery, the software may no longer be required. Similarly, if an employee’s disability-related absences have greatly decreased, changes such as flexible work arrangements may no longer be necessary.

Nonetheless, employers should not remove reasonable changes without first discussing the situation with the affected employee and taking their views and requirements into consideration. In some cases, adjustments may still be necessary to ensure the employee is not put at a disadvantage in the workplace, even if their condition has improved. Employers must also ensure that they do not discriminate against the employee by removing adjustments or neglecting to make alternative arrangements if the changes are no longer necessary.

 

Who pays for reasonable adjustments?

The employer is responsible for bearing the cost of any reasonable adjustments.

Cost will be a factor when determining if an adjustment qualifies as ‘reasonable’, with larger employers typically expected to be able to bear the cost of more expensive changes.

 

Can you refuse a request for reasonable adjustments?

Employers must by law consider requests for reasonable adjustments at work, although they are not obligated to agree to, or to make, the changes if they are considered unreasonable in the circumstances. The issue will essentially be what the particular employer may reasonably do to avoid any disadvantage caused by the disability in question.

This means it may be justifiable and lawful to refuse a request if it can be shown the changes are not reasonable, for example, they would be prohibitively expensive or impractical to implement.

In the event of a claim for breach of the duty to make reasonable adjustments, the Employment Tribunal will ultimately decide what adjustments should be made and whether the employer was justified in refusing to make an adjustment.

For instance, an employee may request that their employer construct a ramp for wheelchair access to their offices, but the employer may believe that structural modifications to the building are neither financially or logistically feasible. But, if the request is denied, there may be an alternative feasible solution, such as the installation of a temporary ramp and a person willing to assist with building access.

 

Failure to make reasonable adjustments

There are numerous legal and practical problems that can arise as a result of an employer’s refusal to make reasonable changes when necessary. Under the Equality Act 2010, any such failure will be deemed as unlawful disability discrimination, and the individual may file a suit with the Employment Tribunal.

If the worker is successful, the Tribunal will usually order the employer to pay compensation to the worker. The tribunal can also order the employer to make the requested adjustments.

Similarly, if an employer refuses to make reasonable adjustments, the employee may feel compelled to resign and file a constructive dismissal claim. This is where the implied term of mutual trust and confidence between the parties has broken down. A constructive dismissal claim, as with a disability discrimination claim, is not only likely to be expensive and time-consuming to defend, but it can also adversely damage the employer brand.

 

Best practice advice for employers 

When dealing with requests for reasonable adjustments, or any other circumstances in which the reasonable adjustments duty arises, employers can avoid falling foul of the law by having regard to the following best practice advice:

 

For job applicants

Employers have a responsibility to make reasonable adjustments to the recruitment process as a whole, from job advertisements to final interview, to ensure that applicants with disabilities are not unfairly disadvantaged. This means asking applicants if they require reasonable adjustments for any part of their recruitment process. Examples of reasonable adjustments when recruiting include providing information about the position in accessible formats, such as big print, Braille, or audio, for applicants who are blind or visually impaired and making application forms accessible in alternate formats.

An employer has the option of asking if a candidate requires changes to the recruitment process, or they can wait to be informed. If a disabled candidate has been offered a position and that offer has been accepted, the employer can enquire as to what reasonable adaptations that person will require to perform the job.

There are limitations on what will be considered reasonable during the recruitment process, but this will vary depending on the circumstances. Factors when determining whether a change is reasonable include:

  • if the cost of making reasonable adjustments would be prohibitively expensive for the employer;
  • if making the change would be beneficial in preventing the disadvantage;
  • the practicalities of implementing the adjustments;
  • the extent of any disruption caused;
  • the employer’s financial or other resources;
  • the type and size of the employer.

 

Ultimately, it would be for an Employment Tribunal to determine objectively whether a particular adjustment would have been reasonable in the circumstances.

Once a job offer has been made and accepted, the employer and new hire will have the opportunity to explore what changes may be necessary to eliminate or reduce any disadvantages.

In the vast majority of cases, an employer will be able to find ways to accommodate the individual that are agreed by both the employer and employee.

While it is not unlawful for an employer to make a job offer conditional on an applicant passing an occupational health check, the offer can only be withdrawn if the individual fails to meet the condition and there are no reasonable adjustments that can be made to support them in their new employment.

 

For existing staff

When an existing employee has difficulties performing their work or is underperforming, or when they have a history of frequent or long-term sick leaves as a result of illness or injury, issues surrounding reasonable adjustments are more likely to surface. Employers in these situations must explore the root cause of any underlying difficulties or recurring capability challenges.

While there is frequently a temptation for employers to initiate capability procedures with the intention of dismissal, steps must first be taken to investigate the cause of someone’s poor performance or absences from work, as well as what reasonable adjustments can be made to support them going forward. Ideally, this should be done in direct contact with the individual and after referral to an occupational health specialist. Crucially, a decision to dismiss on the basis of medical incapacity should only ever be used as a measure of last resort.

 

Need assistance? 

DavidsonMorris’ employment law experts work with employers to ensure legal compliance and to support positive workforce management, including dealing with requests for reasonable adjustments. If you have a query about making reasonable adjustments and your duties to avoid unlawful discrimination, we can help. Working closely with our team of HR specialists, we provide a holistic approach to managing circumstances that can present legal risk, such as issues relating to disability discrimination. For help and advice, speak to us.

 

Reasonable adjustments FAQs

Who pays for reasonable adjustments?

The employer is required to pay for any reasonable adjustments in the workplace.

What are reasonable adjustments?

Reasonable adjustments are changes made to the workplace or working arrangements that allow someone to perform their job more effectively, regardless of any disability or health condition.

What are examples of reasonable adjustments at work?

Reasonable adjustments at work to support those with disabilties could include adapting work hours, the working environment, work equipment, communication techniques and job duties.

How do you know if an adjustment is reasonable?

When considering the reasonableness of an adjustment in the workplace, the employer is entitled to take into account the cost of the adjustment, whether an adjustment is practical and how effective the adjustment is likely to be.

Last updated: 23 February 2023

Author

Founder and Managing Director Anne Morris is a fully qualified solicitor and trusted adviser to large corporates through to SMEs, providing strategic immigration and global mobility advice to support employers with UK operations to meet their workforce needs through corporate immigration.

She is a recognised by Legal 500 and Chambers as a legal expert and delivers Board-level advice on business migration and compliance risk management as well as overseeing the firm’s development of new client propositions and delivery of cost and time efficient processing of applications.

Anne is an active public speaker, immigration commentator, and immigration policy contributor and regularly hosts training sessions for employers and HR professionals

About DavidsonMorris

As employer solutions lawyers, DavidsonMorris offers a complete and cost-effective capability to meet employers’ needs across UK immigration and employment law, HR and global mobility.

Led by Anne Morris, one of the UK’s preeminent immigration lawyers, and with rankings in The Legal 500 and Chambers & Partners, we’re a multi-disciplinary team helping organisations to meet their people objectives, while reducing legal risk and nurturing workforce relations.

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