Disability in the workplace – how can you manage it?

What is a disability?

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

Simply put, no. With no simple, clear cut rule defining when a condition is classed as a disability, it’s difficult for employers to understand when staff are disabled.

Perhaps the closest we can get as to 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.

Let’s take a look at some real examples. First, what about when you work with overweight or obese employees? Some in society might perceive that this is a self-inflicted condition, not a disability. But that’s not necessarily so 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, where a mental condition was not in fact enough to qualify as a disability, as it did not have a sufficiently substantial adverse effect on how the claimant lived day-to-day.

As you can see, it’s fairly difficult to actually define a disability in the workplace.

How can you manage disability in the workplace?

So if you can’t define a disability easily, how can you manage it in the workplace?

Usually, if you’re a reasonable employer, you would work with staff to overcome any issues that they may have when conducting their work – whether they are considered disabled or not. Of course, this would need to be fair and sensible, not giving preferential treatment to one member of staff for the sake of it.

In situations that are more complex, you may need to consider taking specific measures. For example, should an employee have trouble getting to work, you may need to make physical changes to ensure that can access your premises safely and sensibly. As long as they can be made without significant adverse 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?

This is when you may want to consider getting some medical evidence to help you understand the condition and its impact on work, there are a growing number of occupational health professionals who can give you guidance and recommend sensible adjustments.

If for example an employee of yours is clinically obese (or you feel they might be), you may be able to help them carry out their job more effectively in a number of ways.

If they are constantly late for work, perhaps give them a parking space nearer the door. If they get out of breath doing manual tasks, perhaps consider giving them more rest breaks, giving them tools or equipment which make their life easier, or changing their role slightly so they do less of what makes them tired. However, keep in mind that you only have to make ‘reasonable’ adjustments, so they should not have a detriment to your business success.

If you make the above changes, should things not improve and you have to start a formal performance review process you can show that you have tried to improve the situation, and considered all reasonable adjustments.

Mental illness, as I have 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. Employees’ cases should be taken on an individual basis; after all, 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, take the time to think about what the impact of their condition might be on their work, 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, so it is hardly surprising that it’s such a difficult area to cover in the workplace. The best advice we can give here is that taking a common sense approach and communicating well with staff can often help you to avoid potential pitfalls.

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, the refreshingly simple HR support service for small business.