Much-needed new guidance around reasonable adjustments for mental health is launched

Guidelines images

ACAS, in conjunction with Affinity Health at Work, has created new, more user-friendly guidance around reasonable adjustments for mental health.

Employees are dissatisfied with reasonable adjustments they are offered. Or they are too disenfranchised, or worried, to ask for them in the first place. Employers don’t want to start the conversation about reasonable adjustments for fear of opening the floodgates to a litany of requests and costs.

These are things we’ve been told repeatedly here at Make A Difference Media, both in interviews and during our in-person events.

Implementation of reasonable adjustments is inconsistent

That’s why we’re not at all surprised to hear ACAS’s preliminary research, undertaken in 2020, revealed that the implementation of reasonable adjustments was inconsistent and the existing guidance incomplete. It’s also why we’re pleased to welcome ACAS’s new guidance intended to help both employers and employees get the most out of this potential opportunity.

“We found that employees were struggling to access workplace adjustments and managers, in turn, were ill-equipped to support employees to access them,” says Francoise Woolley, Head of Mental Health and Wellbeing at ACAS.

“HR, occupational health, managers, colleagues and employees all have a role to play so we wanted to create better guidance, to help people understand their role and the legal requirements.”

Employer confusion around reasonable adjustments

ACAS knew, from the number of calls to its helpline, that there was much employer confusion around legal requirements, so it wanted the guidance to provide clarity around this. Employers were contacting the organisation via its conciliation service with employment tribunal claims relating to disability discrimination (based on failure to provide reasonable adjustments).

At the same time, the helpline was also receiving numerous calls from employees who felt strongly that their employers should be doing more to help them, but they weren’t sure about their rights.

As the guidance stresses, what is legally ‘reasonable’ for one organisation, may be different from another, which is why the guidance is full of case studies showing how different sized companies have tackled reasonable adjustments.

This guidance aims to inspire employers

The intention is that this guidance will help inspire employers to be more open minded about how they implement reasonable adjustments beyond the bog standard defaults of a change to working hours, or adding breaks.

For instance, the wealth of case studies gives employers examples of firms being more innovative with their solutions, from changing roles and responsibilities to looking at communication styles to improving working relationships.

“The guidance is about opening minds to other, wider options of support,” says Woolley. “It also strives to open minds to the fact that mental health issues don’t occur in isolation and there is often crossover with other factors like neurodiversity or the menopause.”

Upskilling managers

Doing this well is also about upskilling managers and providing them with practical tools to deal effectively with the situation of an employee coming to them asking for reasonable adjustments. This can typically be a source of tension because managers lack training here and often don’t know how to respond. Acknowledging that, ACAS has tried to make the guidance as accessible as possible down to, for instance, providing letter templates, scripts for how to respond to requests and other ‘conversation guides’.

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“We really want to help managers have the tools because we know they don’t all necessarily have these skills naturally and this topic can be quite awkward. There’s a fear of ‘getting it wrong’,” says Woolley.

Have you asked: what is it you need?

This fear can often paralyse managers into neglecting the basics – like the simple question directly to the individual themselves: what is it you need?

And, while the guidance is primarily written with employers in mind, there is also practical advice relevant to individual employees, too. For example, there’s tips on how to ask for a meeting to talk about reasonable adjustments in the most effective way, as well as other employee-focused conversations guides.

Employers don’t know what ‘reasonable’ is

One of the case studies is the SME Thrive Law. Jodie Hill, who is the founder of Thrive Law and an employment law specialist says:

“What’s reasonable falls within the legal requirements but what often happens is that employers don’t know what is reasonable for them. ‘Reasonable’ is very subjective, so the guidance helps people to break it down for their particular organisation as they can see other case studies and ideas of what might be possible taking into account the organisation’s size and resources. It comes down to what is viable for the organisation as well as how the changes will impact the business and other team members, for instance.”

Think beyond letter of law

However, one of the main thrusts of the new guidance is also to get employers to think beyond the letter of the law and more about what is good practice, showing good practice is actually good business. As Woolley says:

“The legal side is only one element. But we find this is where employers tend to get hung up. We are trying to get the message across in the guidance that employers should always try and put adjustments in place because small changes can make a massive difference to helping someone stay in work and thrive and feel valued. Given those business benefits, why would you not put reasonable adjustments in place?”

The hope is that, with the guidance, employers will shift their focus from this preoccupation with whether a certain mental health condition actually constitutes a ‘disability’ or not. Instead, they will be putting more time and energy into problem solving the adjustments they can make to make the employee more comfortable – and therefore productive and happy – at work.

Worry about a can of worms

In Hill’s experience of working with many different employers she believes the reluctance to fully embrace reasonable adjustments, which we’ve historically seen, is down to the fact that employers “don’t want to open a can of worms”; they believe that if one employee starts asking for a particular adjustment, then others will follow suit and the endeavour will become costly.

Hill believes that this attitude is highly flawed and misses “the bigger picture”. Not to mention going against the ethos of inclusivity, which we know is good for fostering a sense of belonging, which correlates with a sense of wellbeing. “They also don’t realise that there’s a lot you can do which isn’t at a big cost, but can have a big impact,” she says.

Thrive Law perfectly demonstrates practicing what the guidance preaches, showing that SMEs can effectively implement reasonable adjustments at low cost, with huge commercial benefits as a result.

Supported employees are less likely to leave

One of the most obvious is that if you ensure support is in place for an employee, they are less likely to leave and, therefore, you won’t incur the hefty costs of recruiting and training a new employee. You will also likely earn their loyalty in spades in the process.

One of Thrive Law’s top performing employees – Alicia Collinson, Senior Associate – suffers from anxiety. She left her previous job in a London city law firm because the demands, such as working until 3am, triggered her mental health condition and she wasn’t able to work at her best.

Through talking openly and honestly to Collinson about what she needs, Hill has created a working environment for her in which she can thrive and be highly productive. A cornerstone of their working relationship is regular mental health check-ins, from which it can be assessed whether reasonable adjustments are necessary.

For instance, most of the time her anxiety doesn’t affect her work because she works a four day week and is able to work around it. However, there are times when she struggles and, at these times, her people-facing work may need to be limited.

Small changes, big impact

Hill says:

“When she’s very anxious her behaviour changes and that can sometimes irritate people because she can come across as difficult and struggles to communicate. At that point I will step in and ask her how she is and if we need to adjust her work or even recommend that she takes a break, breathes or does yoga as, together, we have identified that this is something that really helps her when she’s feeling unwell. If an employer can accommodate these bad days, and the fluctuations, then they will find these employees can be the best employees you’ve ever had.”

Indeed, fluctuations in mental health must be considered if you are serious about doing reasonable adjustments well. This is not a case of ticking a box and then the job is done forever. All our mental health fluctuates which means that adjustments should be regularly reviewed and, well, adjusted.

Are your team members psychologically safe enough to disclose?

If you are an employer reading this thinking ‘none of my team has ever talked to me about their mental health and the need for adjustments’ then it might be worth considering whether they feel psychologically safe enough to bring up this conversation.

Given that it’s estimated that 1 in 4 of us, at any given time, are experiencing a mental health issue, it is likely that most teams contain members that are. This means many teams probably contain people that are not performing at their optimum but, with the right support, as in Collinson’s case, could be. They could even transform into the most high performing, profitable, productive and loyal employees you have.

It’s time for employers to get brave and start these conversations about reasonable adjustments in a meaningful way, not just as a way to avoid a tribunal.

This new guidance will prove to be a good ally on your quest.

ACAS and Thrive Law are presenting at MAD World Summit 2023 talking about this new guidance, for more information on the event, see here

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