Supporting an Employee With a Mental Illness: Making Reasonable Workplace Adjustments

Workplace adjustments are not only helpful to a person with a mental illness; they can also help to improve productivity. From a compliance perspective, since the changes to the Workplace Health and Safety Laws in 2012, employers are responsible for creating not just a physically safe environment but also a mentally safe workplace. This includes making changes (reasonable adjustments) to enable employees with a mental illness to perform their duties more effectively, provided employees can fulfil the inherent or core requirements of the job.

Statistically, we know that almost half of the Australian population will be diagnosed with a mental illness throughout their lifetime. Since we spend a great proportion of our time at work it is the ideal place to start. Creating a dialogue and providing education and skills on how to maintain our mental health, where to seek out additional support during periods of struggle, and the types of workplace adjustments that can be made to support an employee with a mental health issue are all important considerations.

What are reasonable workplace adjustments?

Reasonable workplace adjustments enable an employee to carry out the inherent requirements of the job to the best of their ability while responding to the particular needs of the employee. For example, an employee may need a larger computer screen or additional equipment to accommodate a vision impairment; or an employee who has to take medication that makes them drowsy may start and finish later. An adjustment is only regarded as unreasonable if it causes unjustified hardship to the employer – that is, undue financial costs or other difficulties. Adjustments are likely to be more effective if both the manager and employee agree on what they should be.

Reasonable adjustments apply to all areas of employment, including:

• Recruitment, selection and appointment
• Current work
• Career development
• Training
• Promotion, transfers or any other employment benefit

How to identify and make reasonable adjustments

The Australian Human Resources Commission recommends four steps to help you identify and make reasonable adjustments.

1) Identify the ‘inherent’ or ‘core’ requirements of the employee’s job

The inherent or core requirements of the job are those fundamental requirements that cannot be changed or altered. For example, an Uber driver must have a valid driver’s licence to meet the inherent requirements of the role. Whereas having perfect vision isn’t an inherent requirement for a job involving computers as many people wear glasses and there are assistive technologies such as screen readers. The only things that applicants should be assessed on are the skills, abilities and personal qualities that are seen as essential to the job.

2) Assess the employee’s skills and abilities

Objectively assess the actual abilities of the employee. If the employee is prepared to show you any medical advice or recommendations they have been given, these can assist you in assessing capacity, supports, and adjustments. It is acceptable to ask: Do you think you have the ability to perform that aspect of the role? Have you got an example you would like to share with us on how that might work?

3) Identify reasonable adjustments with the employee

Discuss with the employee what reasonable adjustments may be required to maximise job efficiency. Most adjustments or changes to the working environment are simple, cost nothing, or are inexpensive, and the adoption of broader strategies and policies frequently benefits all employees.

• Be flexible – be open to the many options available. Flexibility is the key to identifying reasonable adjustments that are going to work for the employee and the business.
• Think laterally – there’s no set formula for identifying reasonable adjustments, so look at the individual needs of the person and the core requirements of the job then think outside the box for solutions.
• Look for good ideas – investigate what has worked well for others. Adapting good ideas to match employee needs and workplace requirements leads to success. The best adjustments are often the most creative ideas.

4) Check that the employee can meet the inherent (or core) requirements of the job when reasonable adjustments have been identified

Once reasonable adjustments have been made, review these adjustments after 3 or 6 months (depending on business requirements and the employee’s progress) to objectively assess whether the employee can meet the core requirements of the job. Checking in with the employee more regularly through structured 1:1’s is a great way to keep the lines of communication open while seeing their input on how the arrangement evolves. It is also worth regularly checking that the adjustments are not causing unfair hardship to other employees.

Examples of reasonable workplace adjustments that employers might consider making are:

• Offering flexible working hours, to enable the person to keep appointments with their treating health practitioner or work around the effects of medication

• Shift or location changes

• Adjusting the environment of the workspace (if possible)

• Establishing goals, prompts, reminders and checklists to assist the employee with time management and to stay on top of their workload

• Reducing workload or specific tasks

• Providing access to professional mentoring, coaching, or on-the-job peer support

• Ensuring that the employee does not return to a backlog of work or emails

• Identifying and modifying tasks that the employee may initially find stressful or overwhelming, for example, managing others, public speaking or direct customer contact.

Any agreed workplace modifications should be implemented gradually to allow for adjustment

As with many matters in the workplace, prevention is better than a cure. Good planning is essential to prevent any confusion or uncertainty down the track. Writing up a return to work or stay at work plan which includes the nature of duties and hours of work sets clear expectations for all involved. The individual’s GP or clinical practitioner may also add their recommendations.

In conclusion, employers are responsible for creating not just a physically safe environment but also a mentally safe workplace. This includes making changes (reasonable adjustments) to enable employees with a mental illness to perform their duties more effectively, provided they can fulfil the inherent or core requirements of the job. A person with a mental illness must be assessed on their current ability to do the job – not on assumptions about how their illness may have affected them in the past or may affect them in the future.

Given the changing legislation, educating and empowering your leaders with the latest WHS information is critical. Workshops such as our Prepared Leaders program can be a great starting point to help leaders understand their rights and responsibilities when it comes to making reasonable workplace adjustments.