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August 16, 2023

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Returning to work and reasonable adjustments – a guide for employers

Adam Clarke, Managing Director of Praxis42 discusses the points to consider when employees return to work after an extended leave.

Adam Clarke

Adam Clarke, Managing Director (Consulting) Praxis42.

Returning to work and reasonable adjustments are closely interconnected because adjustments are often required when someone returns to work after an injury, an extended illness, or post-pregnancy.

While the concept of returning to work may seem clear, the term ‘reasonable adjustments’ is more abstract. There are no rigid guidelines that define what is considered ‘reasonable’, as it’s a subjective term.

Understanding what is ‘reasonable’ and striking a balance between supporting employees and safeguarding your organisation can be challenging. However, understanding how to make reasonable adjustments for an employee is important because it’s about removing barriers to enable them to do their job well.

Making reasonable adjustments is an essential aspect of creating a positive, productive, and inclusive working environment. Having a diverse workforce with a range of life experiences brings unique insights and perspectives which can add considerable value to an organisation.

Here I’ll discuss an employer’s legal obligations and practical ways to support employees returning to work. I’ll focus particularly on those returning to work following sickness, physical or mental health issues, and those who have given birth in the last six months.

Return to work

Regardless of whether a health condition resulted from work-related factors, it is an employer’s responsibility to facilitate a successful return to work for any individual. This involves ensuring that the workplace conditions meet the following criteria:

  • Will not be harmful to the individual.
  • Will not exacerbate the existing health condition.
  • Will not restrict their ability to perform their job effectively.

Various laws pertain to returning to work and managing sick leave, such as the Equality Act 2010, the Employment Rights Act and the Health and Safety at Work etc Act. Therefore, it is a good idea to begin by understanding an employer’s legal obligations and to build on that foundation.

All organisations need to have well-defined policies for planned and unplanned absences and returning to work. These policies should clarify everyone’s responsibilities, how to book time away from work, how to report absences, and how the return to work will be organised and managed.

Preparing for a return

Delegates NetworkingWhen preparing for an employee’s return to work, one crucial aspect that can go unnoticed is the significance of frequent contact and communication. Your absence policy should state how often you will be in contact with an employee who is absent and the preferred mode of contact (video call, phone call etc.)

As well as a useful progress update, ongoing communication can help you to identify the type of professional support an employee will need when they return and any adjustments that need to be made.

Employees returning to work after a long absence can be understandably anxious, so communication can help to address and alleviate their worries.

Return-to-work meeting

While not a legal requirement, conducting a return-to-work meeting is highly recommended. This conversation could take place either before the employee resumes work or shortly after their return, to:

  • Create a comprehensive return-to-work plan which may involve considering options like a gradual, phased reintegration.
  • Clarify what information about the absence should be shared with other employees and what should remain confidential.
  • Discuss any recommendations provided by healthcare professionals, if applicable.
  • Provide updates on any work-related developments that occurred during the employee’s absence.

This meeting is a valuable opportunity to offer support and empathy, paving the way for a positive return to the workplace.

Updating risk assessments

If an employee is coming back to work with changed circumstances, such as a disability, a medical condition, or following a pregnancy, then a specific risk assessment should be conducted to cover their tasks if there isn’t already a risk assessment in place.

For pregnancy cases, the risk assessment should have been regularly reviewed throughout the pregnancy. However, returning to work is an opportune time to reevaluate and ensure that working conditions are suitable for someone who has recently given birth and who might be breastfeeding.

Compared to other employees, these groups are more vulnerable to potential harm, especially if they are exposed to hazardous substances. Additionally, they might be more affected by extended working hours or other challenging work conditions. For those working at desks, posture and positioning are very important as they may be at greater risk of developing musculoskeletal disorders.

An employee’s new circumstances may mean reasonable adjustments must be made under the Equality Act 2010 to accommodate their needs.

Reasonable adjustments

An integral aspect of returning to work involves the requirement for organisations to implement reasonable adjustments. These adjustments are modifications made by employers to eliminate or minimise disadvantages and remove any barriers that prevent an employee from carrying out their role effectively.

The Equality Act 2010 places a legal obligation on employers to make reasonable adjustments for employees, job applicants, self-employed people,] and contractors they have hired.

While individuals often request adjustments themselves, it is equally the employer’s responsibility to proactively consider whether reasonable adjustments are necessary and what they should entail, especially when:

  • They know someone has a disability.
  • They can see that an individual faces a challenge with certain aspects of their role.
  • They recognise that a disability may prevent someone returning to work.

Every individual and workplace are distinct, so a tailored approach is required. The key is to find solutions that address both the needs of the individual and the organisation.

It’s important to talk to an employee about what reasonable adjustments they think they need. Avoid making assumptions and implementing changes without having a conversation with them first.

Types of reasonable adjustments

Reasonable adjustments could be to:

  • Make changes to the physical workplace environment.
  • Offer different working arrangements.
  • Implement different processes or ways of working.
  • Provide equipment, services, or support that the individual needs.

But as every single case is unique, it can be hard to determine what ‘reasonable’ means.

Helpful examples of reasonable adjustments can be found on the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s website.

Defining ‘reasonable

An employer and employee should discuss what steps can be taken to reduce any disadvantages, and what adjustments are practical and affordable for the organisation and won’t impact others and the work they do.

Changing the nature of a job is not classed as a ‘reasonable adjustment’ under the law. The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) gives an example: someone who works in a call centre cannot expect their employer to offer them a role that doesn’t involve answering calls, particularly if there are no alternative jobs available.

Employers, and not employees, are responsible for covering the cost of reasonable adjustments. Although large organisations can afford to pay for specially designed equipment to be installed if needed, smaller organisations cannot.

However, employers of any size can make adjustments that require no cost, or little cost. For instance, instead of installing a wheelchair lift, an individual’s workstation could be moved to the ground floor.

All employers have a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments, so employees are not disadvantaged in the work they do.

Final thoughts

As well as demonstrating compliance with the law, making reasonable adjustments and actively supporting employees to return to work leads to increased productivity and greater innovation, which ultimately contributes to the success of an organisation.

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Diana Kloss
Diana Kloss
9 months ago

I disagree that changing the nature of a job can never be a reasonable adjustment. One leading case, Archibald v Fife Council, held that a road sweeper should be considered for a clerical job without competition after she became physically unable to do the road sweeping job. Also, reasonableness is not subjective but objective. The employer may say they cannot afford to make adjustments or they are impractical but an employment tribunal may disagree. In one case an employer said that it was unreasonable to ask them to provide reduced size sample windows to a travelling salesman who had difficulty… Read more »

Benjamin Anderson
Benjamin Anderson
9 months ago
Reply to  Diana Kloss

Thank you for sharing your perspective. You’ve brought up an important point with the Archibald v Fife Council case, highlighting that in some situations, changing the nature of a job can indeed be considered a reasonable adjustment. It’s interesting to note how the definition of reasonableness can be more objective, and that what might seem impractical or unaffordable to employers can still be deemed reasonable by employment tribunals. This underscores the need for a thorough and balanced assessment of each individual case to ensure fair and inclusive treatment. Your insights contribute to the ongoing discussion on this topic.

Nigel Evelyn-dupree
Nigel Evelyn-dupree
9 months ago

If adjustments and/or accommodations were reasonable or a regulatory requirement in the first place why were they not made before the hazard or risk caused the injury !?

Janet Oneill
Janet Oneill
8 months ago

Always useful to consider the use of an Occupational Health referral when supporting a return to work
OH assist both the employer and employee
We in OH note that we weren’t mentioned despite Government focus on the use of OH in supporting people to remain and return to work

Otherwise a useful article for employers