Home Working: Coronavirus and Beyond

This post considers the health and safety implications of working from home, against the background of the COVID-19 pandemic.

What is Home Working?

A form of flexible working, ‘working from home’ means different things to different people.  For many, it will refer to just taking work home now and again to get something finished, perhaps to meet a deadline.  For others it is part and parcel of their working life and might be written into their contract of employment – for example, working from home one day per week, or even being based permanently at home.

Occasionally, working from home is a necessary response to circumstances.  For instance, a fire or flood may result in the office being unavailable to use for a period – in the absence of anywhere else to go staff could be asked to work from home.   While business continuity planning considers foreseeable events, few could have predicted the sweeping global change to normal life and working practices as a result of coronavirus.

Home Working and Health & Safety

Being able to work from home undoubtedly brings benefits – for staff, individuals have more flexibility, increased autonomy, and a reduced carbon footprint because of less commuting.  Organisations require fewer resources in terms of physical space and workstations.  However, there are challenges too.  One of the biggest issues is the natural reduction in direct management oversight.  Feelings of disconnection or isolation, along with a lack of accessible support for employees, can have an impact on mental health.  Regular contact between staff, managers and colleagues is therefore a key element of managing the health and wellbeing of home workers effectively.

Another recognised issue with working from home relates to the working environment – by their nature, our homes are very different, individual places compared to controlled, shared offices.  Available space, as well as the types of furniture and equipment used while working from home are all variables which managers and employers need to consider.  Homeworkers’ use of display screen equipment (DSE) – and in particular prolonged use of laptops and tablets – should also be taken into account.

Coronavirus & Home Working

The COVID-19 crisis has changed life for everyone across the world.  Millions of people have had no alternative but to work from home – possibly for the first time – against a backdrop of wider concerns about health, loved ones and the future.  The World Health Organization and national governments alike are understandably concerned about the implications of the virus and prolonged lockdown measures for physical and mental health.  

In normal times, home working for individuals or small groups is usually well considered and planned in advance with issues such as network connectivity, or the provision of any required furniture or equipment, being thought through carefully.  Coronavirus presented a unique challenge on a huge scale – how to fundamentally changing working practices for the most, if not all staff – with little time for preparation or planning. 

Home Working Law and Guidance 

The duty of care which employers owe to their staff is well established (see. UK HSE information).  They must ensure the health, safety and welfare of all employees at work, and this extends to wherever staff are working, including from home.  Employers don’t have to do everything possible to ensure health and safety, but they must do what is reasonably practicable in all the circumstances.  But what is reasonable for an employer to do for staff in an office environment may differ from what is reasonable to do for employees working in their own homes.  Providing suitable furniture and equipment is an example of this – in the office everyone would expect suitable furniture to use, but home workers may already have their own ‘home office’ set up, or at least a table and chair they can sit at.

Employers have other legal duties which apply to home working – these include identifying, assessing and managing any risks (for example, risks to health such as musculoskeletal disorders from using DSE), providing adequate information and supervision, and addressing other risks such as fire and first aid for injury for illness.

The unique circumstances we are all living through at the moment impact on official health and safety guidance too.  In the U.K., the Health and Safety Executive’s guidance on coronavirus states that DSE risk assessments – sometimes called desk or workstation assessments – are not required where home working is “temporary”.  However, this does not diminish an employer’s legal duties to protect staff.

It’s important to remember that we as employees have legal responsibilities too – a key one is to take reasonable care of ourselves and others, whether we are working from home or not.

The Future

While lockdown measures begin to ease in some countries, what is becoming clearer is that we will need to get used to living with coronavirus for the foreseeable future.  This is likely to involve continued physical distancing, and possible further waves of outbreaks and lockdowns until a vaccine can be developed and delivered.

One method of ensuring physical distancing in workplaces could be to allow some staff to continue to work from home – anyone who is identified as vulnerable may be required to do this.   Staff might alternate between working at the office and from home on a rota basis.

Coronavirus continues to take a terrible toll on people, families, communities, organisations and nations across the globe.  But in terms of working patterns, there will be a significant number of people for home working has been a positive experience.  Many will be keen to continue working in this way well into the future, and long after COVID-19 has faded away.

The Working from Home Course

Working from Home: Health & Wellbeing for COVID-19 and Beyond provides staff, line managers and organisations with the information they need to understand and manage common risks associated with home working.

While content is relevant to home working at any time, reference is also made to the exceptional circumstances around COVID-19, together with guidance on how to cope with stress and anxiety during this period.  The course also covers legal duties of employers and staff, as well as common risks linked to home working (such as DSE use) and how to manage them.  A multiple choice quiz at the end of the course checks understanding.

All learners also have the option of accessing a free ‘Working from Home Checklist’ to assess their own personal circumstances and record their findings.