Dementia Action Week is just around the corner, running from the 13th  – 19th of May, helping to raise awareness of the condition and encouraging action from and on behalf of those suffering.

Now is the ideal time to make preparations for the campaign, and begin thinking about how your business can help support employees who may be dealing with dementia in the workplace.

Statistics from the NHS show there are more than 944,000 people in the UK who have dementia. Of those suffering from dementia in the UK, 70,800 people developed symptoms before the age of 65 (young onset dementia), according to Alzheimer’s Society – which shows this is a condition that impacts the working population, with many of those diagnosed continuing to work.

Following the removal of ‘retirement’ being a potentially fair reason for dismissal in 2010, there is an increasingly older workforce in the UK – which therefore means an increased possibility of dementia directly impacting employees.

Given the above, dementia is likely to be more common in workplaces than you might expect, and it will not always be apparent that someone is suffering with the condition. Therefore, it is important to show compassion if an employee is struggling with responsibilities that they had in the past typically been competent with.

Typical early symptoms of dementia:

  • memory loss;
  • difficulty concentrating;
  • finding it hard to carry out familiar daily tasks;
  • struggling to follow a conversation or find the right word;
  • being confused about time and place;
  • mood changes.

Creating a dementia-friendly workplace culture

Those who develop young onset dementia however are likely to experience different symptoms such as stress, tiredness and behavioural changes. It’s important that employers don’t make any assumptions about the changes to an employee’s behaviour and instead take time to understand the issues that an employee is facing in order to support them.

The Equality Act 2010 provides protection for employees against discrimination on the grounds of disability and dementia would almost always meet the definition of disability.  Any employee with dementia who is treated less favourably in the workplace because of their condition will be able to make a claim in the Employment Tribunal.

Legal responsibilities and best practices for employers

If an employee’s dementia places them at a disadvantage in the workplace, their employer has a duty to make reasonable adjustments. This may mean, for instance, that the employer will need to look to potentially adjust the employee’s role and responsibilities, provide support equipment, consider altering hours/ days of work, or look for other roles that may be more suitable for the individual. It is important to remember that employees have the right from ‘day one’ of their employment to request flexible working.

It is not only employees who are suffering from dementia themselves who have protection. Remember that, under the Carer’s Leave Act 2023 and the Carer’s Leave Regulations 2024 which are now in force, employees who provide or arrange care for a dependant with a long-term care need such as dementia now have the right to request up to one week of unpaid carer’s leave from work in any 12-month period, which can be taken all at once, or split over time. This is also a ‘day one’ right of the employee. An employer can only seek to postpone a request, not refuse it.

In addition to this new right, employees who act as primary carers for a close relative with dementia could also be protected under the discrimination by association provisions of the Equality Act 2010. This could arise, for instance, if an employee in that situation made a flexible working request to change their working pattern to help complement their caring responsibilities for their relative with dementia. If the employer rejected the request without being able to objectively justify the decision to reject it, the employee concerned could potentially claim that even though they are not themselves disabled, they have suffered less favourable treatment by reason of their close association with a disabled person.

That is not to say that every such claim of this nature would be successful, but the risk of this being the outcome is there, so employers should ensure that flexible working requests by employees in that situation are carefully considered in accordance with the statutory flexible working process. Any refusal of these requests should be carefully thought through, justifiable and ensure that reasons given for the refusal are based on genuine business reasons, ideally ones that can be backed up with evidence.

Final thoughts

If you believe any of your employees are regularly displaying any of the symptoms listed earlier in this article or if you suspect someone you work with may be suffering with dementia you should speak in confidence to your HR advisor. Having policies in place around diversity, equality and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace are key to ensuring employees are supported with conditions such as dementia, and a DEI compliance audit can help make sure employers are doing the right thing legally and ethically to support employees.

Paul Ball
Paul Ball
Employment partner at Gateley Legal | + posts

Paul has advised employers on all aspects of employment law for over 25 years and has particular experience in relation to discrimination issues, contractual issues arising on business transfers, and diversity, equality and inclusion.