I have had a handful of recent cases where Occupational Health have advised employers in relation to employees with anxiety problems that the employee’s duties exacerbate their condition.

In all of these cases a recommendation has been reducing telephone duties so that the employee is taking less calls during the day or completely stopping telephone duties altogether so the employee is, for example, focusing on emails rather than telephone calls. In these cases, the employer has done entirely the right thing in trying to follow the Occupational Health advice, adjusting the duties accordingly, but there has been no plan for the long term. What is accommodatable initially and what is planned for when, after a few months, the employee has got into the habit of not dealing with telephone calls either at all or dealing with only a few? If you aren’t careful you end up in a situation where the employee is not performing large parts of their role and everyone is stuck.

Rather than agreeing outright to the adjustments, it may be sensible to agree to a temporary adjustment with a discussed plan for how you get from that place of a reduced requirement to carry out a particular activity and back to the contractual duties being performed.

To put it another way, given the cost it takes to support somebody’s mental health to make adjustments, it is misleading to alter things that are not going to be able to be accommodated in the long run. That just creates false expectations and could be achieving more harm than good over time.

 Alternatives to reducing the duties completely might be:

  • Less calls, so allowing more time between calls in order to take breaks;
  • If there have been difficult calls, having a strategy for what steps will be taken around managing the feelings that arise from those difficult calls; maybe discussing it with the manager or taking a time out;
  • Other steps that might be agreed as part of a work related action plan.

Remember Occupational Health are just providing you with suggestions – it is up to you to decide, as an employer, whether or not you can accommodate those suggestions. It is possible that you will have roles within your organisation that cannot actually be adjusted to prevent some core duty of that role taking place. In that scenario you might actually be saying no you can’t make a particular adjustment because it is not reasonable to do so.

If we aren’t making an adjustment then we need to be able to justify why not to a Judge, if that ever became necessary, so having evidence to back up that decision will be useful. Is there  evidence of how many phone calls a day are taken in that role?  What is the proportion of the day spent doing other activities? Are the phone calls critical to generating the work that the person then does?

Refreshing Law
20 May 2024