By understanding how to deal with requests for reasonable adjustments for mental health, you can help create a supportive working environment while ensuring compliance with your legal obligations as an employer.
In this guide, we explain what the law says about reasonable adjustments for mental health, together with practical advice for employers to nuture a diverse, healthy and productive workforce, and avoid falling foul of the law.
What are reasonable adjustments for mental health?
Under UK law, all employers must make reasonable adjustments to ensure that any job applicant or existing worker with either a physical or mental health condition amounting to a disability is not substantially disadvantaged when compared with others. Reasonable adjustments are basically any changes an employer makes to remove or reduce a disadvantage related to a person’s disability, either during the course of the recruitment process so a candidate can be considered for a job or during the employment lifecycle itself.
The statutory duty on an employer to make reasonable adjustments in the workplace, as set out under the provisions of the Equality Act 2010, comprise:
- a requirement — where a provision, criterion or practice applied by the employer in the workplace puts a disabled person at a substantial disadvantage when compared with non-disabled people — to take such steps as it is reasonable to take to avoid that disadvantage
- a requirement — where a physical feature in the workplace puts a disabled person at a substantial disadvantage when compared with non-disabled people — to take such steps as it is reasonable to take to avoid that disadvantage
- a requirement — where a disabled person would, but for the provision of an auxiliary aid, be put at a substantial disadvantage when compared with non-disabled people — to take such steps as it is reasonable to take to provide that aid.
Reasonable adjustments for mental health are therefore those adjustments that will help to minimise any disadvantage caused to a job applicant or worker because of the symptoms suffered by them. Mental health includes a person’s psychological, emotional and social wellbeing, with the potential to significantly affect how they think, feel and behave. This means that the range of adjustments that can help to remove or reduce any negative effects are potentially wide-ranging and may even be unique to the individual.
What is classed as a mental health disability?
A person has a disability for the purposes of the Equality Act if they are suffering from a mental impairment that has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ negative effect on their ability to do normal day-to-day activities. The term ‘substantial’ means more than minor or trivial, for example, if it takes much longer than it usually would to complete a daily task, while ‘long-term’ typically means a period of 12 months or more. This could include any form of mental health condition with symptoms such as anxiety, low mood, depression, panic attacks, phobias or unshared perceptions, although this list is not exhaustive. It could also include different recognised mental health disorders, such as eating disorders, bipolar affective disorders, obsessive compulsive disorders, personality disorders, as well as post traumatic stress disorder and certain self-harming behaviours.
Some people might not recognise their mental health condition as a disability. However, it is important that employers are aware that it could be, and to take any possible or diagnosed mental health issues seriously, with the same care as they would any physical condition.
It is also important for employers to recognise the ways in which mental health problems can arise and present, where these can come on suddenly following a specific event in someone’s life or build up gradually due to external pressures, such as work-related stress. Equally, symptoms can be hard to spot, as everyone has different signs and signals, or even deliberately hidden, as many people perceive poor mental health as a weakness or find it hard to talk about. A person’s condition may even have fluctuating or recurring effects, where the ability of someone to cope with the demands of a job might change over time.
Do employers have to make reasonable adjustments for mental health?
If a job applicant or worker is suffering from a mental health condition that amounts to a disability within the definition set out under the Equality Act, and that disability is putting the person at a disadvantage in the recruitment process or workplace, the statutory duty on the employer to make reasonable adjustments for mental health will be triggered.
In many cases, the employer may not be aware that someone is suffering from poor mental health, although employers must make reasonable adjustments for mental health when:
- they know, or could reasonably be expected to know, that someone is disabled
- a disabled job applicant or worker asks for adjustments to be made
- someone who is disabled is clearly having difficulty with any part of their job
- someone’s absence or sickness record, or any delay in returning to work after a period of sick leave, is because of or linked to their disability.
Even where the statutory duty on employers to make reasonable adjustments for mental health has not been triggered, and the definition of a disability has not technically been met, it is generally advisable for employers to try to make reasonable adjustments with a view to providing a supportive working environment. It is often only simple changes to a person’s working arrangements or working environment that can help them stay in work and to work well. In this way, the employer can avoid the loss of a valuable member of staff, while maintaining a diverse, healthy and productive workforce. This can also help to avoid unnecessary allegations of potential breach of statutory duty.
Examples of reasonable adjustments for mental health
Examples of reasonable adjustments for disabled job applicants and workers could include:
- changes to the recruitment process so that a candidate can be considered for a job, such as providing applicants with additional time to complete any tests or assessments
- changes to working hours or patterns, such as reduced or flexible hours, different start and finish times, or different shift patterns
- changes to working arrangements, such as job-sharing, and remote or hybrid working
- changes to someone’s role and responsibilities, such as a reduced workload, a temporary reallocation of work or extended deadlines
- changes to the way supervision is carried out to provide regular check-ins
- changes to the way things are done, such as allowing someone to have their own desk instead of hot-desking or allowing them to take more frequent but shorter breaks
- changes to a person’s physical environment, such as moving them to a quieter area or providing a quiet rest space to reduce disruptive sensory or social demands
- providing equipment, services or support, such as a buddy or mentor to be a dedicated person who can support someone with work tasks
- providing training or coaching to help build confidence in skills relevant to the job role
- changes to the way policies are applied, such as offering paid time off for someone to attend medical appointments in work time and being flexible with trigger points for absence so that a person is not disadvantaged by taking absence when they are unwell
- allowing staff who become disabled to make a phased or flexible return to work to build up their hours gradually and to avoid any relapse in their recovery.
When making reasonable adjustments for mental health, it is helpful to remember that every job is different, so what works in one situation might not necessarily work in another, and that every employee is different, so what works for one employee might not again work for another. It is also important for employers to bear in mind that because mental health problems can fluctuate, what works for an employee now might not work in the future.
It is therefore often best for employers and employees to work together to agree and review reasonable adjustments over a period of time to make sure that the adjustments work well. Within this process, it is also important for both parties to recognise that identifying, agreeing and monitoring reasonable adjustments can potentially take time. It may even be worth, if several attempts do not produce the desired outcome, to seek the opinion of an occupational health professional to advise on what adjustments might be suitable. In this way, possibly even through a process of elimination, reasonable adjustments can be made.
Failing to provide 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.
There are various risks associated with failing to provide reasonable adjustments for mental health, not least the possibility that the employer could find themselves facing serious allegations of unlawful disability discrimination before an employment tribunal.
If a finding of disability discrimination is made against the employer, there is no cap on the amount of damages that can be awarded in the favour of a job applicant or worker. The employer must also factor in the significant time and expense associated with defending any tribunal proceedings, not to mention the potential damage to the employer-brand and their business reputation, even if the claim against them is dismissed by the tribunal.
It is therefore important for employers to be vigilant about spotting the signs and symptoms of poor mental health across their workforce, and to respond appropriately to any reports made by or about individuals who may be suffering from a mental health condition. In many instances, the employer may only need to take a few simple and inexpensive steps to help improve a person’s wellbeing and discharge their statutory duty in the process.
Additionally, the benefits of making reasonable adjustments are not limited to minimising the risk of litigation. By supporting someone who is suffering, the benefits can include:
- reducing absence and associated costs when an employee is off work through ill health
- retaining valuable employees who may otherwise resign due to ill health, helping employees to stay in work while recovering from or managing a mental health condition
- reducing recruitment and training costs through the loss of a valuable employee
- maintaining a positive workforce morale and employer brand by offering support
- maintaining a diverse, healthy and productive workforce, where everyone feels supported
- creating a healthy workplace culture, building mental health awareness and demonstrating a commitment to good employment practices all around.
Best practice advice for employers
There are various best practice tips that employers should follow around reasonable adjustments for mental health, not only to remain complaint with discrimination laws, but to ensure that an employee suffering with poor mental health is being supported, including:
- being aware that even relatively low level mental health symptoms, or what appear to be low level symptoms, could amount to a disability under the Equality Act
- even if a mental health condition does not amount to a disability under the Act, there are benefits to both the employer and the employee in making reasonable adjustments
- take any possible or diagnosed mental health issues seriously, with the same care as any physical condition, where someone’s mental health matters just as much
- remember that every job role and every employee is different, so what works in one situation might not necessarily work in another
- recognise that a person’s condition may have fluctuating or recurring effects, where the ability of a person to cope with the demands of a job might change over time
- work together with the employee, listening to what suggestions that they may have
- once reasonable adjustments have been put in place, clearly monitor the effect of these adjustments, and be prepared to explore other possibilities
- refer the matter to an occupational health specialist where all other attempts have failed, where tailored advice in the context of the employee’s role may be helpful
- where a person is off work sick, provide them with sufficient time to recover, without putting any pressure on them to return to work before they are ready
- keep a clear record of what reports have been made by or about employees suffering from poor mental health and what reasonable adjustments were put in place to help.
For advice on any aspect of managing requests for reasonable adjustments, both to support your workforce and ensure compliance with your legal obligations not to discriminate against someone by reason of a mental health disability, speak to our experts.
Reasonable adjustments for mental health FAQs
What adjustments should be made for mental health?
When it comes to what adjustments should be made in the workplace to help support positive mental health, much will depend on the employee in question, and the nature and extent of their mental health condition, where everyone is different.
What are reasonable adjustments examples?
Examples of reasonable adjustments in the workplace to help remove or reduce any disadvantage experienced by an employee because of a disability could include altered hours, amended duties, workplace adaptations or a phased return if they have been off sick.
What reasonable adjustments can I ask for mental health?
There are a number of reasonable adjustments that an employee can request to help minimise the impact of any mental health issues at work, such as flexible or hybrid working to help provide them with a better work/life balance.
Is it OK to take time off work for mental health?
If an employee is unfit for work as a result of either a physical or mental health condition, they are entitled to take time off for sick leave and should not be pressured into returning until fit to do so.
Last updated: 30 November 2023