Epilepsy at work

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Health Assured team

19 September 2019

Around 500,000 people in the UK have epilepsy, a neurological condition that causes recurring seizures.

These seizures can take many forms, so it’s important as an employer to be aware of the types of epilepsy, the potential causes and your obligation toward employees with the condition.


What is epilepsy?

It’s a term for a wide range of different seizures—a sudden and uncontrolled period of excessive electrical activity in the brain.

Since electrical activity is the way the brain works—sending and receiving signals to control and monitor the body’s functions—these periods of abnormal activity can cause serious issues.


What happens during a seizure?

During a seizure—most of which last less than two minutes—there can be several different epilepsy symptoms depending on the type (more on those further below). Some are far more serious than others. Here are a few of the things that may happen:

  • Loss of consciousness.
  • Jerking, twitching limbs.
  • Dissociation, staring blankly into space.
  • Suddenly dropping to the floor, limp.
  • A single, sudden, strong ‘jerk’ or twitch.

Depending on where an employee works, some of these symptoms can be very dangerous.


What are the types of epilepsy?

Since 2017, seizures have been divided into two main groups: focal onset and generalised. This depends on:

  • Whether the seizure starts in the brain.
  • If the person’s awareness is affected.
  • Whether other symptoms (such as movement) come into play.

Focal onset seizures affect—or focus on—a small area of the brain. These mostly cause feelings of disconnection, involuntary movements and sounds, strange effects on proprioception, and visual/auditory hallucinations.

Generalised onset seizures are what most people think of when they hear the word ‘epilepsy’. These affect both sides of the brain at once and cause ‘tonic-clonic’ seizures—previously known as ‘grand mal’ seizures.

In most cases, it’s not exactly clear what the causes of epilepsy are. It may be genetic in some cases. But strokes, tumours, severe head injuries and alcohol/drug abuse are also culprits.


Is epilepsy a disability?

According to the Disability Act 2010, someone has a disability if they have:

“A physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.”

As a long-term physical condition, epilepsy is classed as a disability. Employees enjoy legal protection from epilepsy discrimination at work in the same way that anyone with a protected characteristic does.

If someone has epilepsy at work, risk assessments are highly recommended. For instance, an employee prone to tonic-clonic seizures shouldn’t be working at height or lifting heavy items. Or if a staff member’s memory is affected by focal onset seizures, they may need help remembering things—this can be as simple as writing tasks down.

Best business practice is to find suitable reasonable adjustments you can make—epilepsy can be affected by stress at work, after all.

It’s a good idea to hold these risk assessments regularly—every year or so. Different epilepsy medications are more effective at controlling the condition and the abilities of someone suffering it may change.

Sometimes this risk assessment can show there are no adjustments that can be made. The work may be too dangerous. In these cases, as harsh as it may seem, it’s possible you’ll need to terminate the employee. But it’s always better to try to find whatever workarounds you can.

Health Assured are experts in caring for people with all sorts of issues—we’re here to help. Call today on 0844 892 2493 to discuss how our EAP can make your employees’ lives easier.


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