Reasonable adjustments for disabled workers in the age of hybrid working

Our new working environment, with many employees based both at home and in the office, means businesses may well need to take a long hard look at the reasonable adjustments they are making and ensure these measures remain fit for purpose.

Hybrid working is here to stay and it is important HR teams take a long-term view to ensure it is fit for purpose for all employees, including disabled workers.  

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In October of this year, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) published Disabled Workers’ access to flexible working as a reasonable adjustment.

This report revealed that “disabled workers were more likely than others to spend most of their time working from home, both before (13%) and during (53%) the pandemic".

However, the report also revealed disabled workers’ experiences of working from home was mixed, with 34% lacking proper office equipment such as a desk, chair or computer.

Other respondents spoke about difficulties being able to take part in online meetings because of their disability, or lacked specialist software such as speech to text, to be able to do their job.  

The report concluded that of those surveyed, workers who had improved mental health while working from home had been granted equipment and appropriate reasonable adjustments.  

It’s evident that taking some basic steps, such an ensuring an employee has access to the right equipment, may make a huge difference.  


Defining reasonable adjustments for your people

Going back to basics, Acas guidance defines a reasonable adjustment as a change to remove or reduce the disadvantage faced by disabled employees so they may do their job.  

The reasonable adjustment could be to the workplace, employees’ workstation at home, the manner or system of working or other forms of assistance including equipment and modifications. 

Hybrid working and forming policies around working from both home and the office should be a catalyst for HR teams to reconsider the reasonable adjustments they are making for their employees. This is not a one-size-fits-all solution.  

While many disabled people will welcome the opportunity to work more flexibly and from home, the lack of social interaction should also be considered by HR teams.

Reasonable adjustments should be made for employees with mental health issues. The pandemic has negatively impacted mental health and how hybrid working policies could also impact mental health should also be considered.

In particular, consideration should be afforded for those employees who by virtue of not being able to travel into the office as often may miss out on important social events, team bonding and other in-person opportunities as a result.

This factor could impact a wide range of employees – working parents for example, who may prefer home working due to child-care responsibilities.  


Accessible workspaces

It’s also vitally important that businesses do not take hybrid working as an opportunity to scale back their office accessibility.

With fewer people expected back in the office full-time, many businesses are looking at new, different workspaces to accommodate a smaller workforce. However, this should be taken as an opportunity to positively increase accessibility.  

The time when an employee returns from a period of sick leave may also be a crucial moment for HR teams to assess the reasonable adjustments they are offering.

The return-to-work process should properly take into account how an employee’s circumstances may have changed post sick-leave, whether the leave was taken for a physical or mental illness.

Long Covid is an important and relatively new condition which HR teams should be cognisant of.

It’s thought around a million people in the UK are suffering with long Covid, which can cause brain fog and fatigue. An assessment from an occupational therapist in such instances may prove helpful.  

Another important point for HR teams when considering reasonable adjustments is to create an open, safe environment for employees so they don’t feel intimidated and can talk honestly about their disability.

It’s all too easy to make assumptions about a disability, what it means and impact upon for an individual’s day-to-day working life. Such assumptions may be incorrect, fail to address disadvantage, or even lead to discrimination.

Ensuring open, clear lines of communication can mean new employees may say straight away how they might need support in the workplace, and existing employees feel safe to come forward if their physical or mental health needs change.

This is particularly important when you consider less visible disabilities which an employer may not be aware of. If in doubt, consultation is helpful and advice from an occupational therapist may be sought.  

We are all navigating new terrain post-pandemic and hybrid working may have been greatly accelerated for many businesses. However, utilising this new reality as a catalyst to assess reasonable adjustments for all employees is both an opportunity and a sensible step to take. 

Elaine Banton is a barrister at 7BR