How to support an employee with Multiple Sclerosis
Health & Safety
What every employer needs to know
More than 100,000 people live with multiple sclerosis (MS) in the UK. For many people with MS, having a supportive employer is what enables them to manage their condition at work, and to remain in employment. As an employer, you need to be aware of what you can do, as well as what the law says you have to do.
What is MS?
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a condition that affects the brain and spinal cord, causing a wide range of potential symptoms, including:
Vision problems, such as blurred vision
Problems controlling the bladder
Numbness or tingling in different parts of the body
Muscle stiffness and spasms
Problems with balance and co-ordination
Problems with thinking, learning and planning.
MS is a very individual condition: no two people are affected in the same way. The symptoms someone has will depend on which parts of their brain and spinal cord are affected. And depending on the type of MS a person has their symptoms may come and go in phases (relapsing remitting MS; this is the most common type) or get steadily worse over time (progressive MS).
MS and the law
Although many people with MS don’t see themselves as disabled, MS is defined as a disability under the Equality Act. This means it is unlawful to discriminate against someone because they have MS.
As the employer of someone with MS, it’s your responsibility to ensure they’re treated fairly in the workplace. You must:
Put in place any reasonable adjustments your employee needs in order to do their job.
Not treat them unfairly. This means you can’t harass them or discriminate against them or allow them to be harassed or discriminated against by someone else at work. For example, if you or someone else made jokes about their symptoms, this would be harassment. And if you decided not to promote them because of their MS, even though they were capable of doing the job, this would be discrimination.
What can I do to support employees with MS?
It’s important to remember that there’s no ‘one size fits all’ approach to managing MS in the workplace: the support your employee will need – if any – will be individual to them.
Talk to your employee
The best way to find out what support your employee needs is by talking to them to find out how their MS affects them, the job they do, and their own abilities and coping strategies.
Don’t make any assumptions about what your employee can and can’t do. And if you know someone else who has MS, try to avoid making any comparisons between your employee and the other person. Everyone’s MS is different. While your instinct might be to show sympathy, an emotional response isn’t helpful. It’s better to focus instead on the support you can offer to your employee.
Talking to your employee needs to be more than a one-off conversation. Try to foster a relationship in which they feel they can trust you, and you can both talk about any of your concerns. For example, you could arrange a quarterly meeting – separate from their performance review – to talk about how their MS is affecting them and whether any reasonable adjustments you’ve agreed on are working for them.
Make reasonable adjustments
A reasonable adjustment is a change to the job or the working environment, that enables your employee to continue to do their job. Reasonable adjustments are a key part of the Equality Act.
Examples of reasonable adjustments for people with MS may include:
A chair or stool to sit on
Flexible or reduced working hours
Working from home
Moving their workstation away from a source of heat, or closer to a toilet
Time off for medical appointments
A car parking space nearer the entrance to work
Voice recognition software, or a specialist keyboard or mouse
Changes to the workplace layout to make it more accessible
Somewhere to rest for short periods during the working day.
The duty to make reasonable adjustments applies to employers of all sizes, but the question of what is reasonable may vary according to the circumstances of the employer.
Factors which should be considered include:
Whether taking any particular steps would be effective in preventing the substantial disadvantage
The practicability of the step
The financial and other costs of making the adjustment and the extent of any disruption caused
The extent of the employer’s financial or other resources
The availability to the employer of financial or other assistance to help make an adjustment (such as advice through Access to Work – see below)
The type and size of the employer.
Ultimately the test of the ‘reasonableness’ of any step an employer may have to take is an objective one and will depend on the circumstances of the case.
Access to Work support
Access to Work is a government-funded service that offers financial support to help someone who is disabled or has a long-term health condition to stay in work.
It can pay for extra equipment or support for your employee with MS, such as:
Adaptations to the equipment they use
Taxi fares to work if they can’t use public transport or drive
A support worker or job coach to help them in the workplace disability awareness training for their colleagues.
If your employee is having a relapse, they may not be able to work. Keep in regular contact with your employee. Don’t pressurise them into returning to work; the unpredictable nature of MS makes it impossible to know how long it will take them to recover.
When your employee is ready to return to work, meet with them beforehand to discuss any extra support they may need. And consider a phased return, building up their hours over a number of weeks until they’re back to their normal hours. This also gives you and your employee time to learn whether any reasonable adjustments you’ve put in place are working for them.
Support the rest of your team
Staff may be worried about what’s happening to the person with MS. They may also have to take on extra work if the person with MS is off work. You need to ensure these issues are addressed sensitively, while also respecting your employee’s confidentiality.
Ask your employee whether they want to tell their colleagues about their MS. If they are happy to disclose this information, you can help them do so, for example giving them time in a team meeting, or by telling the other members of staff on their behalf. If the other members of staff know why they are being asked to do extra work, for example, they may be happier to do so.
However, if they decide not to tell their colleagues, you must respect that decision.