UK: Fit-Out For Employment? – The Impact of Employment Law on Property

Last Updated: 20 December 2005
Article by Anne Marie Balfour

Think of a building and the chances are that building will be a place of work. Office blocks and factories are obvious working environments, but so are farms, hospitals, shops, bars and restaurants, building sites, campsites and courts of law. All of these are somebody's place of work. Whether designing, marketing, buying, leasing or fitting out a building, it makes sense to bear in mind the rights, requirements and expectations of the people who work there.

Whilst it goes without saying that a favourable working environment can assist in attracting and retaining the best job candidates (larger employers provide the best examples in the form of swimming pools, crèches and on-site staff canteens), employment regulations provide guidance on the extent to which employers must consider fitting out their properties to the needs of their workforce. It is not hard to see that one size does not fit all.

All employees enjoy a wide range of legal rights and protections in the workplace, wherever that may be. Therefore all employers, and not just those in a position to provide generous facilities, need premises that take account of these rights and protections. The most obvious example of this is health and safety. It is trite law that employers are under a duty to provide a safe place of work. However, all occupiers/employers must also ensure their premises comply with other legal obligations, including those under discrimination law, for which compensation is uncapped. For example it has been widely publicised the extent to which the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA) impacts upon buildings, particularly in the form of access.

Much has been made of the implications of the DDA for property - while under property law it is not always clear whether a landlord or tenant is responsible for making 'reasonable adjustments' to a property to assist those with disabilities, employment law is clear. The employer is responsible. Accordingly, employers must take heed as they are under a duty to take reasonable steps to prevent any physical feature of the premises from placing a disabled employee at a substantial disadvantage. Like all legislation, case law will provide guidance and examples of 'reasonable steps'.

Many employers may be unaware, however, that they must also be mindful of the impact of sex discrimination legislation on their place of business. For example, employers have obligations under health and safety law that are intended to protect employees who are pregnant, have given birth within the last six months or are breastfeeding. Failing to accommodate the needs of such employees can constitute indirect sex discrimination.

Religious discrimination must also be taken into consideration eg employees may require a prayer room.

Regardless of legal requirements, consideration is now also being given to how premises can help improve employee disposition and productivity. A recent DTI publication stated that a total of 13 million working days are lost through absence as a result of work-related stress, costing UK employers in excess of £3 billion. Some employers are combating this problem by adapting premises to accommodate designated 'relaxation rooms', or temporary treatment rooms for alternative therapists so that employees can enjoy a massage.

Staff productivity can be boosted, particularly where roles involve working under pressure, or long hours. Some workplaces incorporate sleeping quarters to allow staff who do not have time to go to bed to powernap. And in cases of extreme pressure, staff retention can be boosted by keeping an on-site defibrillation unit.

When it comes to planning a building that will meet an employers' obligations to its employees, it is not always a case of 'one-size fits all', and features that will be necessary for one section of the workforce will be inappropriate for another. However, at the very least, employers will need more space than at first thought to avoid the one spare office having to be shared when breastfeeding time clashes with prayer time and appointments with the mobile aromatherapist.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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