By John Hamilton
John is the Head of Safety, Health and Wellbeing at Leeds Metropolitan University and will be sharing insights on reasonable adjustments at the Health @ Work Summit on 12th June at Kensington Close Hotel, London.
Occupational safety and health practitioners are often called on to help assess the nature of changes to someone’s work that need to be made for health reasons. Managers and HR colleagues can get concerned that that their duty as an employer needs to be guided by whether an individual’s physical or mental impairment can be classed as a disability, to ensure they don’t suffer discrimination or a substantial disadvantage compared with a worker who is not disabled. Whilst it’s easy to get hung up about determining whether an impairment has a substantial or long-term effect on their ability to carry out normal daily activities, where someone is suffering mental ill-health this question can be largely irrelevant if work-related stress is a significant cause of their illness. In this situation the common law duty to prevent harm to their health provides a lower thresholdto take action.
Employers are entitled to expect that employees can cope with the normal pressures of the job unless they know of a particular problem. The law requires employers to take action when harm to an individual’s health is foreseeable and there are a number of factors that will help determine whether this is the case or not, and as such whether action is required:
Is the workload much more than is normal for the job?
It might be that the job has changed since the individual first started, maybe through the introduction of new tasks, responsibilities or systems. The individual might have been happy to take on this extra workload, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be affecting their health.
Are the job demands unreasonable when compared with the demands made of others doing comparable work?
The individual could be taking on more work than other team members. It might be that this is because they are more capable, or are having to take on more so that team objectives are met.
Are there signs that employees are suffering from stress, such as prolonged or repeated incidences of absence?
Repeated absence for different reasons is a good indicator that someone isn’t happy with their work and this might be an indicator of stress. These absences might also be due to other conditions brought on by stress, such as having more colds due to an impaired immune system. If an individual has had previous absences due to stress-related illness it is clearly foreseeable that this may reoccur if it was work-related and no changes are subsequently made to their job or working environment.
Are there any other non-work factors that may be contributing?
For many people it is difficult to separate the pressures of work and home life. For instance working longer hours might place a strain on relationships at home. Other factors such as long term illness, bereavement, or caring responsibilities can also place individuals under pressure.
Once an employer becomes aware that an individual might suffer harm to their health from work-related stress they have a duty to protect them. In essence this involves making reasonable adjustments to their job or their working environment. There are a number of factors that need to be considered to help determine whether any proposed changes can be considered reasonable or not, taking a balanced view of the following:
The risk of harm to health
How significant are the issues that the employee has with their work or working environment? Are they likely to result in harm to their health if they can’t be resolved, or are they simply ‘having a moan’.
The likelihood that the measures will resolve the problem
Sometimes the changes an individual might want to their work will not actually resolve the thing that is causing them stress. It might be there is a bit of the job they just don’t like doing, but is an essential part of the work the employer needs them to do. However if aspects of the work are potentially harmful they will need resolving.
The costs and practicability of preventing it
No employer has unlimited money available to make any change to a person’s work, however if simple changes can be made to the job then they should be considered. Other changes just might not be feasible or practical.
The size and scope of the organisation’s business, the available resources available and demands the organisation faces
Smaller employers will have more difficulty reassigning work tasks or moving individuals to new roles in the same way larger organisations might be able to. However there may some way of rotating job tasks amongst other team members to even the load.
The interests of other employees and the impact on their health of any changes made
It may seem that the best solution to an individual’s problem might be to give some of their work to another member of the team. However the impact on this person needs to be considered as well as any others affected by the changes made.
This provides a checklist of questions to not only help decide whether proposed changes can be considered reasonable, but also to strike a fair balance between the needs of the individual and those of the employer.