Information for employers

Not everyone with MS will need extra support in the workplace, and many of those who do will only require small changes – known as reasonable adjustments – to enable them to continue working. 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.

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MS and the law

Although many people with MS don’t see themselves as disabled, MS is defined as a disability in the Equality Act, or the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA), if you’re in Northern Ireland. This means it is illegal to discriminate against someone because they have MS. This applies from the moment they are diagnosed, no matter how their MS affects them.

As the employer of someone with MS, you have certain duties:

  • To put in place any reasonable adjustments your employee needs in order to do their job. 
  • Not to 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. 

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Confidentiality

You should take care to ensure that any information your employee shares with you about their MS remains confidential. For example:

  • Do not discuss their MS with anyone else, unless they have said you can.
  • Do not discuss their MS with them in situations where other people may be able to find out – for example, in an email that could be passed on to someone else, or in an open-plan office.
  • If your employee has an occupational health assessment, clarify with them exactly who can see the report. 
  • If you have any meeting notes discussing your employee’s MS, or any other documents that give any details of their condition, make sure they are kept secure.

If you do have to share information about the workforce as a whole, for example, for health and safety purposes or when tendering for a contract, you should do this in a way that maintains the privacy of your employee.

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Supporting your employee

For many people with MS, having a supportive employer is what enables them to manage their condition at work, and to remain in employment. The MS Society has made this short film demonstrating the difference that a supportive employer can make.

Most people with MS don’t have to tell their employer about their diagnosis. As a result, the decision to reveal their MS is often a difficult one to make. Many people are afraid they will be seen as less capable, or that it might affect their career progression – or even that they could lose their job as a result. 

The chances are that it’s taken your employee a lot of courage to tell you about their MS. It’s important to recognise this, and to provide them with the reassurance and the support they need. 

 Shift MS produced this short film about the challenges of disclosing an MS diagnosis at work.

 

Talk to your employee

There’s no ‘one size fits all’ approach when it comes to MS, so the support your employee will need will depend on how their MS affects them, the job they do and their own abilities and coping strategies.

Establishing an ongoing dialogue is the best way for both you and your employee to express your concerns, determine what they need from you and how you can help.

Don’t make any assumptions about what your employee can and can’t do. They might be able to continue doing their job as usual, without any additional support. 

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. 

Don’t pressure your employee into making decisions, or changes to any aspect of their job, particularly if they are newly diagnosed or recovering from a relapse. Give them time to process their situation and think through their options. 

While you may have feelings of resentment – for example, if you feel your employee should have told you about their MS sooner – it’s important not to share these with your employee. You might find it helpful to discuss your feelings with a line manager, although you should ensure you respect your employee’s confidence. 

Talking to your employee needs to be more than a one-off conversation. Try to foster a relationship with your employee in which they feel they can trust you, and you can both talk about any of your concerns. 

 

Reasonable adjustments

A reasonable adjustment is a change, perhaps to the job or the working environment, that enables your employee to continue to do their job. Your employee’s right to reasonable adjustments is a key part of the Equality Act, or DDA in Northern Ireland.

What is considered ‘reasonable’ will depend on the company and the job your employee does. Many reasonable adjustments cost little or nothing to put in place. 

Examples of reasonable adjustments that people with MS have asked for include:

  • a chair or stool to sit on
  • flexible or reduced working hours
  • working from home
  • moving their work station away from a source of heat, or closer to a toilet
  • time off for medical appointments

An occupational health assessment can identify any reasonable adjustments that would help your employee. 

The cost of an adjustment can be a factor in deciding whether it is reasonable or not. If your employee has asked for a piece of specialist equipment, or adaptations to existing equipment, that goes beyond what would be considered reasonable for your company, you may be able to get funding for it through Access to Work

Whatever reasonable adjustments you agree with your employee, you should review them on a regular basis – perhaps quarterly – to make sure they are working for both you and your employee. Because MS is a progressive condition, your employee may need further reasonable adjustments over time. 

 

Time off work

Your company may already have policies in place regarding time off related to a disability or long-term health condition. If not, a reasonable adjustment you could put in place might be to allow your employee time off to attend appointments related to their MS. 

You may also want to consider recording any time off related to their MS separately from ordinary sick leave, and discounting it from any absence management procedures. This is particularly important if your company places sanctions on people who take too much time off sick. 

 

Access to Work

Access to Work is a government-funded service available in England, Scotland and Wales, that offers financial support to help someone who is disabled or who has a long-term health condition to stay in work. It also provides practical advice and support to help overcome work-related obstacles.

It can pay for extra equipment or support for your employee with MS, such as:

  • adaptations to the equipment they use
  • special equipment
  • 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
  • a communicator at a job interview

Depending on the size of your business and how long your employee has been with you, Access to Work may cover 100 per cent of the costs of any equipment or support. 

The Department for Work and Pensions has a factsheet called Employers’ guide to Access to Work

Fit for Work

Fit for Work is  a government-funded service. It offers information and advice through a website and telephone line. It also provides free health and work advice through a website and telephone line. It also provides free referral for an occupational health assessment for employees who have reached, or whose GPs expects them to reach, four weeks of sickness absence.

The Department for Work and Pensions has published Fit for Work guidance for employers, which includes further details about the service and how to access it.

Managing relapses

If your employee is having a relapse, they may not be able to work. Supporting them through this time is a vital part of their ongoing management. 

Keep in touch with your employee, without pressuring them into returning to work. Although you may want to know when they’ll be back, the unpredictable nature of MS makes it impossible to know how long it will take them to recover.

Encourage your employee not to make any major decisions about work – such as changing jobs, reducing their hours or stopping work completely – during a relapse. They may be feeling particularly vulnerable, and any decision they make at this time may not be the best one for them. 

When your employee is ready to return to work, meet with them beforehand to discuss any extra support they may need. This gives you time to put into place any reasonable adjustments they may ask for.

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.

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Supporting the team

Your employee’s MS can also have an impact on other members of staff. They may be worried about what’s happening to the person with MS, particularly if the person hasn’t told anyone else at work about their MS. They may also have to take on extra work if the person with MS is off sick for a number of weeks, which could cause resentment.

As the employer, it’s your responsibility to ensure these issues are addressed sensitively, while also respecting your employee’s confidentiality. 

You may want to discuss with your employee whether they want to tell their colleagues about their MS. 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. 

Any decision about telling other members of staff has to come from the person with MS. If they decide to tell their colleagues, you can help them do so. Perhaps by giving them time in a team meeting, or by telling the other members of staff on their behalf, if they have asked you to do so.

However, if they decide not to tell their colleagues, you must respect that decision.

Download our booklet for employers and MS

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