The number of employees working from home has increased significantly following government advice to avoid unnecessary travel and to encourage employees to work from home where possible. With all the IT and logistical challenges this presents, it is easy for employers to forget about their legal responsibilities. As an employer, you owe a duty to take steps that are reasonably necessary to ensure the health, safety and welfare of your employees and to provide and maintain a safe system of work. So, what does this mean in the context of your employees who are working from home?
Health and safety
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has acknowledged that this is a difficult time for employers and has stated that it will take a flexible and proportionate account of the risks and challenges arising from the covid-19 pandemic. That said, employers are not excused from health and safety requirements simply because employees are working temporarily from home.
As an employer, you have a duty to conduct a risk assessment of all the work activities carried out by your employees and to take measures to reduce any associated risks. There are also specific obligations under the Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations 1992, for example, to identify risks for individuals who regularly use display screen equipment (DSE), including laptops, as a significant part of their usual work and to reduce the risks identified to the lowest extent reasonably practicable.
Reducing risks and providing information
In these exceptional circumstances, it's very unlikely that you can safely carry out usual health and safety risk assessments at an employee's home, but employers should still consider how best to identify and minimise risk in these circumstances. Acas recommends that employers should check:
- each employee feels the work they're being asked to do at home can be done safely
- employees have the right equipment to work safely
- managers keep in regular contact with their employees, including making sure they do not feel isolated
HSE’s guidance on homeworking states that there is no increased risk from DSE work for those working from home temporarily, so employers do not currently need to undertake a full home workstation assessment. However, it is advisable to provide guidance and information on health and safety risks arising from homeworking such as:
- providing information on the importance of posture, how to make equipment adjustments, the need to take breaks and to change activity
- being clear that employees must raise any concerns or issues that arise
- considering a variety of risk mitigation strategies, such as allowing employees to take more breaks than usual
- providing equipment on a case-by-case basis if employees are identified as being at risk
- keeping the situation under review, some risks may increase the longer the period of homeworking continues.
There is no legal obligation for employers to provide the equipment necessary for homeworking, although it would be sensible to pay for and provide equipment if the employee cannot work otherwise. The government’s current guidance on social distancing encourages employers to take every possible step to facilitate their employees working from home, including providing suitable IT and equipment to enable remote working.
Disabled employees may be entitled to auxiliary aids as a reasonable adjustment under the Equality Act 2010. If such an aid is reasonably required, you need to make sure it is provided (at your its expense) to the employee when working from home.
Protecting employees’ wellbeing and mental health
As an employer, you owe a duty to protect your employees’ mental health as well as physical health. Working from home for a prolonged period can potentially have a detrimental effect on employees’ health, such as feelings of isolation and an inability to disconnect. It is also possible that some employees are experiencing a high level of stress and anxiety at the moment.
Steps to protect employees’ mental health and wellbeing could include:
- advising employees to create a routine, go for a morning walk, have a defined lunch break and mid-morning/afternoon coffee breaks etc.;
- encouraging employees to take regular breaks to avoid sitting at a computer for too long;
- reminding employees that it is important to do other things to stay mentally and physically active outside of their working hours. This might include things like cooking, exercise, watching favourite TV programmes or other hobbies;
- if possible, having regular video calls with colleagues, rather than relying entirely on email.
Acas has published new guidance on working from home. It touches on various issues including health and safety, mental and physical health, equipment and technology, setting expectations, working from home and childcare and expenses
HSE’s website also has a dedicated coronavirus area, which contains their latest information and advice for employers, including in relation to homeworkers.