Epilepsy at work – what you need to know
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It’s estimated that epilepsy affects around 1 in 100 people, with around 600,000 people in the UK currently diagnosed with the condition; and around 80 new cases diagnosed every day. So as an employer, what do you need to know about epilepsy at work?

What is epilepsy?

It’s not a condition that’s often talked about, and perhaps is misunderstood by employers. While the condition can be caused by brain damage, a brain tumour, or can have genetic causes, in around 1 in 3 cases, the cause is unknown. Triggers for seizures are often associated with flashing lights, but in fact only round 5% of people who suffer from epilepsy have photosensitive epilepsy. Other triggers include stress, tiredness or other illness.

Epilepsy doesn’t mean a person is unable to work – in fact, people with epilepsy can do most jobs and around 60% of people with epilepsy have it well controlled by medication. This means that they may be seizure-free or have very few seizures. So a big issue for employers is to avoid preconceptions about what epilepsy involves and how it might impact certain jobs.

Here, we’ll consider the three key areas employers will be most concerned about:

  • Recruitment
  • Health and Safety
  • Dealing with episodes / seizures at work

Recruitment

Epilepsy is a disability under the Equality Act 2010, which means that employers mustn’t discriminate against people with epilepsy either:

  • directly (for example, by refusing to employ them because of their disability);
  • indirectly (for example, by imposing a condition on employment that disproportionately impacts on them and which cannot be justified); or
  • for a reason arising from their disability (for example, if their need for disability-related absences triggers disciplinary action under an absence or attendance policy, or because of the side-effects of epilepsy medicines).

In addition, employers must make “reasonable adjustments” to support individuals in taking up work and to their working conditions and environment to support them in their job.

Direct discrimination would include refusing to interview or shortlist a candidate because of their epilepsy. To avoid the risk of this happening, it’s now unlawful to ask applicants to complete a medical questionnaire before they have been made a conditional job offer.

But of course employers can ask job applicants if they might need any reasonable adjustments to allow them to attend an interview, or they may ask questions for equality monitoring purposes, and applicants may themselves voluntarily disclose that they have epilepsy. So it’s really important that employers approach selection with an open mind and don’t automatically decline applications because of their own preconceptions about the condition and its possible impact.

Employers should also take care not to inadvertently discriminate against people with epilepsy in job adverts and specs – this is called “indirect discrimination”. A good example is a requirement in a job specification to hold a driving licence. People with epilepsy often aren’t allowed to drive and so a requirement to hold a driving licence would indirectly discriminate against people with epilepsy, unless it was justified as a genuine job requirement.

After a job offer has been made, employers can ask the successful applicant about any medical conditions. At this point, it would be discriminatory to withdraw a job offer on the grounds of epilepsy. The information about the applicant’s condition should be used as a starting point to discuss what, if any, reasonable adjustments might be made to help the applicant in their job role.

Health and Safety

Under the Health and Safety at Work Act, employers must make sure their employees are safe at work. Employees also have a duty to look after their own safety and the safety of others.

With this in mind, employees with epilepsy should disclose their condition if there’s any chance that it will have an impact on their own safety or the safety of others at work. The employer should then work with the employee to conduct a risk assessment taking into account the impact of the employee’s condition, and also consider any reasonable adjustments under disability law that would help mitigate or manage the risk and support the employee.

Reasonable adjustments to consider might include reducing stress and tiredness by allowing an employee to work from home or allowing frequent breaks; having a clear work routine and avoiding irregular work patterns or shifts. It’s important to consider each employee individually, as their specific circumstances will vary.

Dealing with episodes at work

A seizure occurs when a person with epilepsy experiences a sudden burst of electrical activity in their brain. Sometimes seizures can involve falling and temporarily losing consciousness, jerking or twitching, or momentary loss of concentration. Seizures can be very brief and may sometimes not even be noticed by other people.

It’s important that the rest of the team the person with epilepsy will be working with know what to expect and basics of what they should and should not do if the individual has a seizure.

The help other staff can give might include guiding the individual to a safe place; protecting them from further injury; not trying to restrain them; avoiding giving them food or drink; and calling for medical help if they sustain an injury.

Epilepsy charities have some excellent learning resources, including short videos, which can support you with staff awareness and training on dealing with epilepsy at work.

Following a seizure, employees may need some time away from work to recover, and this can vary from a few minutes to several days.

As a “reasonable adjustment” for the disability, employers may allow this time off without it affecting any absence-related sanctions; possibly by recording this type of absence separately. The citrus HR system allows you to do this.

To sum up…

Employing a person with epilepsy involves avoiding preconceptions about what the condition involves and what, if any, restrictions and limitations it places on the work they can do.

People with epilepsy may be concerned that disclosing their condition to employers will put them off, but this should only be the starting point to having a conversation about what reasonable adjustments would be best to support the employee in their job.

Our HR consultants can help with advice and guidance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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