Returning to Work – Reasonable Adjustments

We’ve all heard the term ‘reasonable adjustments’ banded about in the workplace, but what does it actually mean?


Most people who experience an episode of distress or mental ill health recover completely and can resume work successfully. Effective planning by the individual and the line manager will increase the likelihood of this happening, as will supporting and monitoring the individual during the early stages of their return. This is good news for both sides. Work helps to keep people mentally healthy, and the employer retains skills and talent. What’s more, given the investment the organisation has made in the individual, a planned return to work is usually more cost effective than early retirement.

In larger organisations managing someone’s mental ill health and employment, including their recovery, typically involves collaboration between their line manager, HR, OH and the GP.

In this article, we offer some advice and tips on how to plan someone’s return to work and to support and monitor them during the first weeks and months of their return.



What is a ‘reasonable adjustment’


The Equality Act 2010 requires employers to make changes to jobs and workplaces to enable a ‘disabled person’ to carry out their functions as an employee or to help someone get a job with you. These changes are known as ‘reasonable adjustments’, and their purpose is to ensure that everyone has equal opportunities when applying for and staying in work.

Most adjustments are made based on common sense following a frank and open discussion between the manager and the employee about what might be helpful and what’s possible. Every ‘reasonable adjustment’ is unique to the individual’s specific needs and abilities and the extent to which the employer can accommodate them.


What is ‘reasonable’?


What’s ‘reasonable’ will be judged against the following criteria.

– The extent of any disruption that an adjustment may cause to your organisation or other employees.

– The cost and your budget.

– Practicality.

– The effectiveness of the adjustment in helping the employee do their job.

– The availability of financial or other assistance from schemes such as the government’s ‘Access to Work’ programme.

An adjustment won’t be reasonable unless it works for everyone. Given that a non-visible disability may require visible adjustments, you might get questions from other members of the team about why one person works differently. Plan with the employee in question what they want the rest of the team to know and how you will both deal with any questions.




What to do when an employee returns to work


Above all make sure you and the team make the person feel genuinely welcomed back into the workplace. You might consider offering them a mentor – a colleague or manager from elsewhere in the organisation – so that they can talk to someone who isn’t their manager. This will ease their transition back into work.



– Ensure the returning employee doesn’t have to face an impossible in-tray, thousands of emails or a usurped workspace.

– Be realistic about workloads – some people will want to prove themselves and may offer to take on too much. Instead, set achievable goals that make them feel they are making progress.

– Make the time to have frequent informal chats with them to give you both the opportunity to discuss their progress and/or problems in a non- threatening context. However, be careful not to make them feel that their work and/or behaviour is being overly monitored or scrutinised.



–  Make the person feel they are a special case as this can make both them and their peers feel resentful.

–  Fail to deal with their work while they are away. If you discover that a backlog of unfinished work has built up, deal with it.


Planning the return


You need to put various things in place before the employee returns to work.

–  Develop, in discussion with the employee, a return-to-work action plan.

–  Discuss whether you need to make any adjustments to ease their return (see below for some ideas).

– Depending on the severity of the illness, explore whether it would be helpful to have a ‘halfway house’ between work and absence – such as working for a couple of hours a day at home for a period of time.

– Plan a phased return to work as they become healthier.

– Discuss whether you could realistically change or accommodate any of the work factors that contributed to their absence.

– Be honest about what you can change and what you can’t. Some organisational factors are out of your control, but look at whether you could mitigate them.

– Agree how you will gauge their progress once they’re back at work.

– Before they return, brief them on what’s been happening – social life as well as work developments.

– You may want to encourage the individual to come into work informally before their formal return.

– It’s always good practice to have a ‘return to work’ interview when someone returns to work after an absence. Even though this might be just a quick informal chat, it gives you the opportunity of finding out how they are and making them feel valued.


Managing an ongoing illness while at work


Most people who have ongoing mental ill health can continue to work successfully with either minimal support or no support at all.

It is discriminatory to make assumptions about people’s capabilities, promotion potential and the amount of sick leave they are likely to take, on the basis of their health. You must treat people with mental ill health exactly the same as you would any other member of staff, unless they ask for help or demonstrate through their performance or behaviour that they need help.


Coping strategies


Most individuals are encouraged to develop coping strategies as part of their care. This often involves noting signs of a possible relapse and taking pre-emptive action to avoid it. Such actions might include cutting down on work or social activity, reducing or eliminating alcohol intake, taking exercise and finding time to relax.

It is important that you support the employee at this first warning stage. Small and inexpensive adjustments may well prevent a more costly period of illness.

It is worth noting that employees who have developed coping strategies are often better equipped to deal with pressure than employees who have never experienced mental ill health.


There are many projects around the country that offer support both to employees who have experienced mental ill health and to employers. These projects have an excellent track record in placing people in employment and in supporting them to be effective in the long term. In fact, many people require only minimal support once they have been given the opportunity to work. They are also useful points of contact.

You can find information on supported work schemes through the disability employment adviser at your local Job Centre Plus.


One in four people in the UK will suffer from a mental health issue each year and yet two-thirds have no one to speak to about their mental health, according to a poll for Time To Talk Day 2019 by Time To Change.

While it is a legal requirement to have physical first aiders in every workplace, and in many public places and events, we’re still a long way from seeing our mental health treated in the same way.

Here at Be Empowered we hope to change that by training people as mental health first aiders to be able to assist those suffering with mental ill health in the workplace, and signposting them to get the appropriate professional help for them.



Click below to find out about how you can train with us!


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