Dementia in the workplace
Dementia is not only a disease suffered by those in old age, it is increasingly being diagnosed in people under 65 which poses a significant challenge for employers. With the abolition of the statutory retirement age, greater longevity and insufficient pension provision, many people are choosing to work longer – and many employers are keen not to lose their experience and skills. However, the incidence of cognitive impairment rises with age and even without a formal diagnosis of dementia, organisations must be aware of the potential impact of the disease on the individual concerned and their colleagues, and understand how to manage those affected correctly and considerately.
The rise in dementia: the facts
A recent survey carried out by the Centre for Economics and Business Research has established that around 10% of businesses employ at least one person with dementia. The chances are that the actual figure is considerably higher: only 48% of those with dementia are actually diagnosed with the disease and, of those people with a diagnosis, around 40,000 (out of a total of 850,000) are under the age of 65. Two thirds of sufferers are women – and women are also more likely to have caring responsibilities for relatives with dementia.
Employers’ legal responsibilities
Defined as a disability under the Equality Act 2010, dementia is a progressive disease of the brain resulting in memory loss, mood changes and problems with communicating and reasoning. The Act states that reasonable adjustments must be made to accommodate anyone suffering from ‘a mental or physical impairment that has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on a person’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.’ This means that employers are legally obliged to accommodate staff suffering from dementia by making any reasonable adjustments to enable them to continue in work for as long as possible, such as offering flexible working, and to ensure that they are protected from discrimination, harassment and victimisation.
Employers should also avoid inadvertently discriminating against a person with dementia by taking a “one size fits all” approach to its policies and procedures. If an employer applies a “provision, criterion or practice” (PCP) which places an employee with dementia at a particular disadvantage when compared with another employee and cannot justify it, this can amount to indirect discrimination. Therefore any policies, employment rules or other practices that are seemingly neutral should be reviewed to consider whether they may unjustifiably disadvantage an employee with dementia.
Employers may be aware that an employee has dementia because either the individual, a member of their family, or a colleague has raised concerns. They may also have noticed unusual or uncharacteristic performance, attendance or conduct related problems. If this occurs, it is essential that the employer takes positive action by discussing the situation with the employee and putting in place such reasonable adjustments as can be made. These might include finding a quieter spot for the employee’s work station; backing up all verbal instructions in writing; creating a series of checklists to help the employee keep track of project progress and meet deadlines; colour-coded instructions; and regular reviews.
Failure to address the situation appropriately may result in a discrimination claim which will be costly not only financially but also in terms of time taken in dealing with the claim and the wider reputation of the business.
Managing dementia in the workplace
Recognising that this is something employers need to address sooner rather than later, the Alzheimer’s Society has produced a guide for creating a dementia-friendly workplace which contains plenty of practical advice on how to manage and support employees suffering from the disease. This includes a three stage approach for employers: support in the early stages; ongoing support as the disease progresses; and managing the exit from work. Employers must recognise that the latter stage must be sensitively handled, not least as many individuals in this position may still have considerable financial commitments and may not be in a position to draw their pension.
Employers must also inform staff of the nature of the disease, encouraging a supportive culture by creating an environment where openness and honesty are valued.
The numbers of people suffering from dementia in the workplace will increase steadily and therefore employers should take advantage of initiatives such as ‘Dementia Friends’ and the ‘Dementia Friendly Communities Programme’ promoted by the Alzheimer’s Society. This will help to raise awareness of the effects of this damaging disease and how people suffering from it can be supported at work for as long as possible. Employers should also remind themselves of their legal responsibilities under the Equality Act; failure to do so can result in a discrimination claim.
Written by Emma Wellard from Wright Hassall.
Wright Hassall is a top-ranked firm of solicitors based in Warwickshire. Lexcel and IIP quality accredited, we provide legal services including: corporate law; commercial law; litigation and dispute resolution; employment law and property law. We also have experts such as: medical negligence solicitors, personal injury, contentious probate, business immigration, debt recovery, employee incentives, information governance, professional negligence and private client matters.