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Equality not leading to understanding at work

Updated: Oct 19, 2023

For many, admitting that they have health issues or disabilities, or receiving a diagnosis can be upsetting and daunting regarding how others will see them, how they will see themselves and the effects it will have on day to day life. For others, it can be a relief, an acknowledgement that for everything endured, there is some form of endorsement for your pain and that you aren’t ‘making it all up’. Most people I have spoken to that do have health issues and disabilities have advised that at some point they have been made to feel that they are doubted, they are overreacting or their condition played down. This can often incite feelings of despair, being alone and isolated.

Due to this, the effects physical health can have on mental health may not be surprising, especially with chronic, lesser known about or invisible illnesses. Chronic pain can lead to depression and fatigue, feelings of helplessness and inadequacy, whilst the lack of understanding and medical assistance exacerbate it.

All of the above though is contributed to in the workplace. Organisations simply don’t often have the correct tools or processes in place to support their employees, including training for managers, suitable HR and occupations health support services and awareness of reasonable adjustment and risk assessment.

What’s more, It’s a legal requirement under the Equality Act 2010. Many people think of reasonable adjustment and medical conditions as being an HR issue, but this is where the fundamental stumbling blocks of progress lay. Oftentimes, HR and Health & Safety departments aren’t integrated correctly, or don’t communicate about issues that straddle the duties of both and information collected by one is kept in the dark from the other.

So what is the solution? We need to understand what we are trying to achieve as an end result, and then your procedures should be designed to facilitate this. Medical declarations should be requested at first employment (only once a formal job offer has been accepted), and any issues highlighted should be considered for action. What does the person require? Are there any adjustments to be made? Who needs to know? One thing that some are getting too hung up on with internal communication in recent times is GDPR. Whilst it is important to know the rules and your employees should have training on this, if it is necessary to share information regarding medical issues to safeguard a persons health then it should be shared with those who will be directly involved in that process. Does a Line Manager need to know that their new employee has asthma and will be working with hazardous substances? Absolutely. If it isn’t necessary, don’t share it, but a Line Manager must be fully aware of any condition, illness or disability that may be affected by their work.

The steps we must follow can often be bespoke to the individual and some must be led by medical professionals, some would be led by the person presenting with the condition or disability. It may be a simple discussion required to ask the person how they feel they would be best accommodated and if they are comfortable, whereas in other cases, a medical review of suitable tasks may be required, especially in higher risk roles.

Key Points:

Ensure employees complete a medical declaration once formally employed and identify any items raised.

Ensure a clear process is in place to deal with anything declared and communicate this to the right people

Ensure Health & Safety personnel are informed where necessary to determine if further risk assessment is required

Ensure you work with the person involved as consultation, do not just dictate what will happen.

Where further advice and guidance is required, ensure you have suitable HR & Occupational Health resources available to your company.

Ensure the employee is fully aware of the support available and who to raise any issues with and ask if they have any queries or concerns.

Review medical declarations routinely every 12 months, but sooner if it is considered necessary.

Your Managers, First Aiders (including mental health) are not expected to know about every illness, condition or disability and what support and adjustment may be required, but they should be suitably trained to know how to initially support their employees and refer them on if required. You must ensure suitable and sufficient training and a robust process to follow. How many times do we write into a handbook or contract ‘If you have any queries regarding this please see your Line Manager’? And how often do we push people in to Line Manager positions by default of length of service or natural progression without providing the correct support and training, or critiquing if they are the right person for the role based on personal attributes? If you were a Manager and an employee comes to you and says ‘I’ve got Cancer’, ‘I’ve got depression’, ‘I’m gay and being bullied at work’ or ‘I’m going through the menopause’ would you know the right thing to say?

That first response you give when someone has made that decision and put trust in you to talk to you about it is absolutely crucial to how they will remember the response of their employer. Will they leave feeling supported and relieved, or worried and concerned they will lose their job?

We have a lot of work to do still as Employers, but much of it starts with truly understanding what this looks like in practice. Equality is not simply having a Policy, it is living and breathing a culture of understanding, acceptance, support and compassion. It is having the willingness and desire to base processes on people and their needs and not what we feel we should do by default.

Chameleon Safety Services Ltd. is a Health, Safety, Fire, Environmental & Wellbeing consultancy. Whilst there are crossovers in medical issues and Equality, we may only be able to advise on certain aspects and not those that focus on employment law, HR or occupational health.

If you require any assistance in regards to the above please do not hesitate to contact us.

In addition, regarding employment law, you should ensure you have the correct HR support.

ACAS can provide generic information regarding employment law here:

Written by: Hayley Tollervey

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