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Case studies

‘Reasonable adjustments saved me from medical retirement’: Malcolm’s story

Securing reasonable adjustments from his employer saved Malcolm, a scientist with a major UK research council, from being forced into retirement on medical grounds after what felt to him like a prolonged campaign to oust him from his job.

And it was only after he sought assistance from a Prospect rep that Malcolm was able to secure the reasonable adjustments, despite legislation designed to assist employees like him.

Here’s his story.

Malcolm has suffered from epilepsy since an early age, though generally his condition has been well controlled for many years.

After graduating from Edinburgh University with a degree in geology he worked as a member of a geological mapping team, a job that he enjoyed and was well suited to.

However, in 2005, he was transferred to a research unit where his job demanded considerable computer programming expertise and data processing knowledge, areas in which he had little experience.

Malcolm struggled with these tasks as a result of the side effects of the medication he takes to control his epilepsy, which impair his judgement and memory.

He was sent on a two-day programming course, which he found insufficient and difficult to manage, only serving to damage further his self-confidence.

He says: “The company expected me to fulfil duties I wasn’t capable of, such as writing computer programs. My line manager knew I struggled with this.”

Consequently, his performance was adversely affected to the extent that colleagues had to help him with or take over tasks with which he was struggling.

After a while his line manager issued him with a written warning, gave him a list of tasks to complete, including programming, and instructed him to write a weekly report on his progress.

This put additional pressure on Malcolm, creating considerable anxiety, as he had to meet deadlines he knew he could not meet. This proved to be counterproductive, creating a vicious cycle in which anxiety undermined his performance and led to increased levels of anxiety.

“Writing the progress report was stressful, because there was no progress to report on. They asked why, but I couldn’t tell them because they weren’t listening to my reports of epilepsy,” he says.

After a disciplinary meeting, Malcolm began to suffer from depression. Eventually, senior management attempted to force him to take retirement on medical grounds.

This fuelled Malcolm’s anxiety; he was only 45 years old. Then, when faced with the prospect of demotion or marking time –­ in effect a year-on-year pay cut – he felt that the case was becoming personal and that one manager in particular wanted to get rid of him.

“I had been sent to see an occupational therapist – I think the company was hoping he’d support their plan for my retirement on medical grounds, but he didn’t. He was the one to identify the stress spiral and first suggest that the company make reasonable adjustments.”

‘Things improved quickly after I spoke to my union rep’

Malcolm contacted his local rep and, after another disciplinary meeting, his case was passed on to a Prospect officer.

“It was only then that I felt I had someone speaking for me. For a year, it had been me against the system,” Malcolm says. “The rep knew the procedures to follow, who to contact and what to do.”

The union argued that the employer had ignored the Disability Discrimination Act (now part of the Equality Act 2010) by not making reasonable adjustments and threatened to take the case “to the wire”.

After meetings with Malcolm’s managers, Prospect was able to ensure he was transferred into a role that did not involve programming. The previous pressure to meet tight deadlines was also reduced. Malcolm did not suffer any loss of grading or have to face the prospect of marking time, as had been previously proposed.

Malcolm says: “Things happened quickly after the meeting I had with a Prospect rep present. The company found a role for me, as if by magic. I still do computing, but it’s simpler and a job I do well. But it took a while to get used to not being under that continuous pressure all the time.”

As a result of Prospect’s intervention, which forced management to look at their responsibilities properly, Malcolm’s obvious skills in this post have earned him recognition as well as a bonus.

He has since become a Prospect rep to help other members struggling with issues at work.

When asked what advice he would give other members in similar situations, Malcolm says: “Contact your rep. If they can’t deal with your case, they will pass it on and action will be taken on your behalf.

“Now, when I am given a new task, I ask for it to be explained to me and written down so that I can refer to it. And I have a great relationship with my line manager.

“The organisation has turned around. It now has a diversity committee, on which I sit as a union representative. It is very good about making reasonable adjustments now. For example, employees on my floor have been given special chairs, keyboards and even lighting.

“The situation has gone from one where I was unsure about having a job in three weeks’ time to one in which I feel like I work for a good employer.”

Identifying and handling neurodiverse cases

People choose professions based on their strengths. For example, many people with dyslexia work at the BBC because the organisation is creative, while many workers on the autism spectrum work at GCHQ, the UK’s largest intelligence and security agency, because they can see patterns.

Neurodiverse people typically choose roles that tend to be self-governing and have minimal contact with line managers.

Companies generally don’t understand the pressures and challenges that neurodiversity brings. Different conditions come with unique skills and abilities, just as neurodiverse individuals possess unique strengths and limitations.

Getting people to “put yourself in their shoes” is very hard to do with autism spectrum conditions because people often see neurodiverse people as behaving like spoilt children. Managers might say: “He (or she) is not getting that adjustment because the rest of the team don’t.”

Spoilers

  • Change, particularly to routine, gives heightened emotional arousal
  • Conflict affects performance
  • Inability to explain feelings and outline issues

Performance management

It is important that performance management systems identify neurodiverse conditions at the outset. Most cases come to reps through criticisms of performance, typically including: 

  • Lack of team work
  • Poor in terms of contribution at meetings
  • Lateness in producing reports
  • Not understanding instructions (unless presented in a particular way)

Any ambiguity, especially in describing tasks, issuing instructions etc works against neurodiverse individuals.

By the time members come to us, they tend to be broken and need help to get back to normal. Fortunately, in 90% of cases the performance management has been sloppy and that can be used to stop cases proceeding.

Enabler questions

Reps use questions such as:

  • Do you see a lot of this?
  • Has your family noticed…?
  • How else are you affected?

And follow up with: “The only reason I’m asking is that my friend/a colleague….”

If there isn’t a positive response, then you can’t pursue the neurodiversity discussion.

If a positive response is received, reps should advise the member to speak to their doctor, as a GP consultation is the springboard to getting an assessment.

After assessment, many companies have support programmes that are helpful, benefiting both the company and the individual. A line manager recommendation may be required.

If a line manager understands neurodiversity, it can make a massive difference to the member, case management and, ultimately, the resolution.

 

Billy’s strengths and weaknesses

Billy is a member in his early 50s. His wife is a GP and she suggested he get tested. The assessment revealed that he has Asperger syndrome and is exceptionally high functioning.

Billy is very sociable and outgoing, with a good sense of humour, although he is often a fraction of a second behind others in “getting it”. He has a wide range of interests, is intense and doesn’t know when to stop. (In company, his wife stops him.)

Based on observed interactions with colleagues, the Prospect rep judges Billy to be well-liked.

Billy sees his problems as:

  • Not being very good at taking verbal clues
  • Finding sarcasm difficult
  • Getting confused over new information
  • Finding it hard to determine priorities

Billy says his mind is like a bookshelf in that if you add a book at one end, a book falls off the other.

He has ways of coping. For example, if he can establish a pattern, he will work strongly to that pattern.

Billy’s job is firefighting computer problems and producing the related communications to explain and update those affected.

Performance management

Under performance management, Billy was marked in the lowest category overall (putting his employment at risk), based on the timeliness and complexity of his communications – though he is great at fixing the computer problems. Billy had tended to sort the problem out before producing any communications.

Billy was given a six-week plan and advised to show evidence that he had met the plan.

Due to the worrying situation, Billy was signed off sick with depression and work-related stress.

Although Billy had difficulties talking about his Asperger’s, the Prospect rep encouraged him to be open, explaining that there was nothing to be ashamed of and that adjustments could be made, as well as other things done.

Billy also has dyslexia and asked colleagues to double-check his communications.

Despite no colleagues complaining about this, “constantly asking colleagues for help” became a performance issue too

First meeting with the manager

The first line manager didn’t know about neurodiversity. There was no referral to occupational health. The manager’ held the view that equality meant treating everyone the same. The Prospect rep pointed out that we don’t all start at the same place.

The rep requested some more time for some activities and some software.

The manager kept Billy on an informal warning, adding to his stress levels.

Addressing the performance issues

Billy tried hard, made great progress and got some good testimonials from internal customers.

Billy continued to be conscientious, including, for example, volunteering to cover other’s shifts.

The line manager continued to say: “But I haven’t seen X.”

The rep categorised the manager’s attitude as “this is how the system works”, rather than looking into making reasonable adjustments.

The rep noted that Billy got angry and that the line manager’s behaviour was (deliberately?) making Billy angry and stressed.

Managing the member

The rep read a comment about himself on Billy’s timeline that cast him as very laid back, leaving Billy unsure that he was committed to his case. This was discussed. Billy didn’t realise his comment was hurtful, and the “lack of commitment” had been due to the rep taking a day to respond!

Following that, the rep time-managed Billy by specifying a time and date for their next contact. If that had to be changed, he contacted Billy to re-arrange it. Written communications were kept clear, concise and directive; any explanation was dealt with verbally. Oral communications were direct, with no colloquialisms.

Appeal

The Prospect rep insisted that the person hearing the appeal should be trained in neurodiversity issues. He also warned the manager that he was blundering into a discrimination case.

The case went quiet and didn’t go to appeal. Billy worked with the plan and is still in touch with the rep. Billy’s world of work has returned to normal.

Additional comments from the rep

Billy was socially high functioning, until the line manager entered the equation.

When Billy got a new manager, the previous manager insisted on overseeing progress on the improvement plan.

Handling the case was a journey for the rep.

 

Good practice at the Intellectual Property Office (IPO)

The IPO, based in Newport, Wales, is the UK government body responsible for intellectual property (IP) rights including patents, designs, trade marks and copyright.

IPO has a number of staff with neurodiverse differences, including dyslexia and autism spectrum disorders.

Its in-house Diversity Group recently focussed on neurodiversity, with an emphasis on autism spectrum disorders. Working with the National Autistic Society (NAS) and Autism Spectrum Connections Cymru (ASCC), they provided:

  • team training on working with people with neurodiverse difference
  • individual training on workplace engagement
  • specific training for managers on how best to engage with their employees who have neurodiverse differences.

Reasonable adjustments successfully introduced for individuals with autism spectrum disorder include:

  • reduced productivity targets
  • a structured workflow process, including timings; being given clear instructions over what work to do when
  • statements to help with decision points, for example “If…” “Then…”.
  • the introduction of coping strategies: for example a phone call strategy whereby a caller is asked for their case number and a summary of the issue and a time to call back is agreed with them. This strategy can also benefit neurotypical members
  • making sure that meetings are scheduled in advance and not moved so that the individual can plan their day
  • provision of coloured lenses, desk mats to reduce glare (the standard desks are bright white), ability to lower lighting and by contrast, provision of a very bright desk lamp
  • noise cancelling headphones, quiet desk location, screens around desks to reduce noise and distractions, access to a quiet space

Prospect’s branch at IPO report that workplace assessments by experts, and a willingness from the employer to try different options, are key for success since the reasonable adjustments provided for one person will not necessarily be appropriate for someone else with the same condition. The adjustments set out above have worked well where individual needs have been taken into account.

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