Epilepsy affects over 50 million people worldwide or approximately one in 100 people (more than multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy and Parkinson’s disease combined) yet it is a very misunderstood and often stigmatised condition.
Epilepsy is a condition of the brain that is characterised by recurrent seizures (when there is a sudden excessive electrical discharge that disrupts the normal activity of the nerve cells in the brain). Approximately one in ten adults will experience at least one seizure during a lifetime. Seizures can be:
- partial, which take place in one part (lobe) of the brain – what happens during the seizure depends on the lobe of the brain that’s affected (e.g. visual disturbances, a feeling of numbness or tingling, stiffness or twitching in one part of the body, sensing an unusual smell or taste);
- generalised (epileptic activity in both parts of the brain, which often causes the person to lose consciousness, even if only for a few seconds).
Common experiences include during seizures, include:
- muscle spasms;
- uncontrolled movements;
- altered awareness;
- odd sensations;
- ‘losing a few minutes’ and not knowing what has happened;
Having one seizure does not constitute epilepsy as there are a number of possible causes of occasional seizures such as a faint, drug overdose or chemical imbalance in the body. Where epilepsy is diagnosed, if successfully controlled by medication, people can be seizure-free, so there is no reason why most people with epilepsy shouldn’t lead a normal working life.
Employers need to carry out a risk assessment for employees diagnosed with epilepsy in order to identify any possible safety risks to the employee or others in the workplace. As epilepsy affects each person differently and every workplace is different, it is not possible to have set guidelines for risk assessments for people with epilepsy. Each person must be assessed individually for any potential risks to health and safety that they may face at work.
A risk assessment may indicate that a person’s epilepsy would have little effect on their ability to continue with their job, or that some changes may be needed (i.e. avoiding the use of dangerous machinery) or, in some cases, that certain parts of a person’s job pose too much risk and should therefore be avoided. Information from the risk assessment (and subsequent re-assessments) should then be used to make appropriate adjustments in the workplace (see our guide ‘Making workplace adjustments’). Those whose epilepsy has a substantial effect on their ability to carry out day-to-day activities would usually be classed as disabled, and may be covered by the Equality Act.
It’s particularly important to know what triggers a person’s seizures, so that where relevant, the necessary adjustments can be made to a person’s work, e.g.:
- adjusting a person’s work hours if they are prone to seizures at a particular time of day or if fatigue is a trigger and the shifts at work might trigger this;
- where stress is an identified trigger for seizures, a stress risk assessment would help to identify where this impact could be minimised.
More information on epilepsy can be found on the Epilepsy Society website or in our guide (‘Employees suffering from epilepsy’). For further guidance on work-related health issues, visit the Fit for Work website or call the freephone telephone advice line on 0800 032 6235 to speak to an advisor.