Understanding the risks when employees work from home

By Pia Engstrom | 21 Dec 2020 View comments

The work from home dream has become a forced reality in 2020, and for many, it may not be the ideal way to work. Employers need to understand the risks and responsibilities involved when employees continue to work from home – some or all of the time – as Covid-19 restrictions ease.

As an employer you still have a legal responsibility to adhere to workplace health and safety laws for all employees. This includes employees who are working at a location other than the office and employees who are working from home on a temporary or permanent basis. Employees are also responsible for taking care of their own health and safety including complying with relevant company policies and procedures.

There are three important considerations when deciding whether employees can or should work from home.

Firstly, is working from home appropriate for your employees?

This decision should be made in consultation with each employee and their manager. Factors to consider include whether:

  • The work can be effectively carried out from home
  • The physical environment is suitable (e.g. is the workstation properly set-up and the ergonomics assessed)
  • Your procedures and policies on working from home have been updated to reflect recent changes
  • Your flexible-work policies and procedures have been adjusted to facilitate working from home
  • Your safe work procedures have been assessed and relevant training provided

Secondly what are the risks of working from home?

Both employer and worker share the responsibility for managing the risks. Again, it’s essential to consult with each employee about their home environment and any potential risks they may face. Conversations may include agreement on the employee’s workstation set-up including furniture and equipment, lighting, temperature, safety and hygiene.

Another consideration is how employee workload will be managed. When working from home, there’s a tendency to blur the lines with employees taking calls or answering emails outside of normal working hours. Therefore, clear guidelines are required to cover working hours and breaks. These need to be agreed to and communicated to clients and stakeholders who engage with your workforce.

In addition, employers need to understand each employee’s preferences regarding communication frequency and engagement with managers and fellow team members. This point is crucial to help address any feelings of isolation, anxieties, mental health and wellbeing.

It is also worthwhile understanding how employees want the communication. Some may prefer video conferencing while others may prefer disabling the video. Don’t be surprised if some team members are more comfortable with a simple phone call.

Don’t forget to consider the needs of employees who have additional responsibilities such as caring for children or facilitating their online learning.

Lastly, are there any unseen hazards or psychosocial considerations?

Working from home and isolation from others can present a new set of hazards that employers and employees should be aware of.

For instance:

  • Does the home environment expose the worker to domestic violence?
  • Will the employee have access to emergency care if needed?
  • Do they have a prior medical or physical issue that may be exacerbated by working from home?
  • How will isolation and reduced social support with work colleagues and managers impact an employee’s mental wellbeing?
  • Is fatigue or bullying becoming an issue?

To monitor these unseen hazards, make sure you check-in with all employees on a regular basis.

Another assistance tool to help mitigate risks is an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). These programs provide employees with confidential counselling paid for by their employer. For employees, EAP provides tangible evidence that their employer cares about their welfare.

In turn, offering EAP helps to build employee loyalty, productivity and engagement – a genuine win-win for your business.