Working from home
Many workplaces have now come to terms with the work from home arrangements that have become part of our everyday lives in some way or another. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, work from home may have been seen as a luxury, or a last-resort necessity, but humans are adaptable, and a surprising outcome (for many people) has been that work from home can work! It can create efficiencies and productivity for a business, and for roles that can function from a remote workplace – there may be great work-life balance benefits.
However, experience has also allowed us to see that work from home comes with Work, Health & Safety challenges, and hazards. And those hazards and associated risks can be different for each person, and different from those we experience in a usual workplace environment.
Now that pandemic safety has become more stabilised and we understand more about how to manage the risks associated with COVID-19 – it may be a good time to now focus on a business’ obligations regarding the safety of remote workers.
When understanding work from home hazards, we should focus on mental health, psychological injuries, and physical hazards and recognise these are a reality of any workplace.
Psychological injuries are becoming more prevalent in workplaces. They are more complex to manage and expensive in terms of workers’ compensation costs (the average cost is three times higher than a typical workers’ compensation claim).
Some key takeaway points when understanding your Work, Health & Safety obligations during COVID-19 and in a remote workplace are:
Work from home and its status under Work, Health and Safety legislation
An employee who works from home, or any remote location is technically “at work” for the purposes of WHS legislation. The WHS legislation generally defines a workplace as a place where work is carried out for a business or undertaking and includes any place where a worker goes, or is likely to be, while at work. This means that all the associated employer obligations regarding WHS apply to that workplace and employee, including the employer having a primary duty of care to ensure, as far as reasonably practicable, the health and safety of employees when working from home.
Hazard and Risk Management
- Remote work arrangements are unique for each person, but the duty of care to provide a safe workplace still applies to employers. A good place to start is by implementing a Working from Home Safety (WFH) Safety Checklist. This can be completed by the employee and sent back to the manager for review and approval. It can detect issues like poor ergonomic setup, or slip/trip/fall risks. Employment Innovations recommends that the employee is asked to include a photo of their work area/workstation, for a visual of the environment and to assist with hazard identification.
- Checklists should include questions around security and personal safety. Domestic violence risks are unfortunately a reality for many employees. These employees should be empowered to alert the business to such risks confidentially, and safe practices or options should be discussed with the employee. This may include a different work location.
- Emergency Plans are equally as relevant in a home workplace, as they are in a warehouse or office. Emergency plans should include procedures for what to do in an emergency while working from home. Most importantly, employees need to be trained in these procedures.
Mental Health and Psychological Injuries
- Attention should be given to psychological hazards and risks associated with remote work. Remote work has specific hazards that could trigger a psychological injury, such as working in isolation, feeling unsupported, and disconnected, and workload control issues, including over-working and not taking breaks. To combat these hazards, employers must first recognise that psychological hazards do exist and can impact any employee.
- Following assessment of psychosocial hazards in the business, systems should be developed to mitigate risks. Good support and supervision systems should be in place for managing and connecting with employees who work from home, and effective communication procedures should be part of that system. Work-life balance and clear boundaries are important.
- Access to an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or provision of free resources (e.g. through corporate social responsibility partners like Black Dog Institute) should be part of the system.
Consultation is KEY (and mandatory!)
Consultation, or engaging with your employees to discuss matters which will (or may) impact their health and safety at work, is an essential part of the obligations of employers under WHS legislation. As well as being mandatory, consultation is a great mechanism for involving employees in creating solutions that will keep them safe at work, and solutions that they will have ownership of, and a higher likelihood of adhering to in the long term. Consultation around remote working is critical due to the unseen nature of their workplace, and their in-depth knowledge of their own circumstances.
Work from Home/ Remote working Framework
A good Work from Home/ Remote Working framework may consist of;
- A Work From Home (WFH) Policy
- Updated Risk Management Procedure including WFH considerations and psychological hazard reporting procedures included
- Updated Incident Reporting and Investigation Procedure with psychological injury reporting procedures included
- WFH Safety Checklist
- If appropriate, a WFH Agreement with each employee
- WFH Safety Guidelines (including EAP numbers and other support resources)
- Supervision, Support, and Communication guidelines for managers with their employees
- Emergency Plan with WFH procedures included
- Employee consultation with, and training for all the above
Returning to the actual workplace or worksite
While there is a range of jobs that could continue to WFH, and some businesses can offer ongoing WFH arrangements, not all can. In most cases, employees who work in frontline roles (e.g. a retail sales employee) understand that they need to go back to work to perform their job. However, in some cases, there might be some employees who wish to keep WFH despite the workplace re-opening, because they are in roles that might be able to continue in the current set up (e.g. an accountant who is usually office-based but can work remotely).
Whichever is the case, employees who are asked to come back to the workplace should be given plenty of notice and be given clear information about what the return to work will look like. For example, will their role be the same? Where will they sit? Any changes to the rosters/hours of work, and whether there will be additional requirements (e.g. temperature testing, or desk cleaning).
At this point, some employees may request changes to their work arrangements. They may ask to keep working from home permanently or work from home some days and in the office on other days. Employers should consider each request objectively and with an open mind. Progressive workplaces may identify that WFH is a great perk that (if possible) can retain talent and can be promoted as a benefit of working for the business. If there is genuinely not too much disruption in allowing a WFH arrangement, it should be considered. A trial period and agreement might be an option here.
To enable a smooth transition back into work, we consider these points to be important:
- Create a Plan. Include who, what, when regarding the return, and specific information.
- Share the Plan with the team as soon as possible.
- Be fair but firm. Once consultations and case-by-case conversations have been held with employees about returning to work, stick to the plan.
- Have your COVID safety in place back at work, including an updated COVID Safe plan and PPE, sanitizing wipes, and consider other safety measures, like temperature testing or rapid antigen tests if appropriate for your workplace.
If an employee wishes to remain WFH but the business cannot accommodate that, the employee should be given this information in a sensitive manner, and then given clear advice about when they are expected back at work and how / what that looks like for them. If no agreement can be reached, this might ultimately give an employer a ground to terminate an employee’s employment, but this should be a last resort and professional advice should be sought in advance.
The jury is still out on what will happen in the legal space when it comes to mandating vaccinations and the outcomes for workers who do not comply with vaccination requirements.
COVID-19 is a workplace health hazard. And hazard management requires the hazards to be identified, risk assessed, and control measures put in place, ideally, all in consultation with employees.
Where COVID-19 may pose a significant threat to the health and safety of employees, or others who may be affected (e.g. customers), then reasonable control measures should be put in place. Other risk factors associated with business should be considered as well, including financial impacts as a result of needing to close down if there is an infection onsite.
Consideration should be given to those with exemptions or medical reasons, and this can be assessed through a risk management approach, case by case.
A risk assessment and analysis of what those control measures look like (considering the hierarchy of controls, with elimination as the best solution and PPE as the least preferable), should happen. Controls could include a range of measures, from social distancing, temperature testing, COVID testing, COVID vaccinations, and PPE. Those who cannot be vaccinated for valid reasons may need to have alternative work arrangements considered, where available.
Each workplace will have a different risk assessment outcome, and controls should be tailored to that individual business and its unique set of circumstances.
Where a business wishes to mandate vaccination against COVID for its workforce, it should complete a risk assessment and seek further advice to clarify any legal or ethical risks.
There will be no doubt be test cases to arise in the near future, and Employment Innovations will provide further updates when there is information to share.
WHS as part of your business strategy
HR and WHS overlap in many ways, including when dealing with drug and alcohol policies, bullying and harassment, incident management, injured worker support, and recruitment/ induction. Those responsible for HR and WHS generally need to work together on a range of matters.
Working together on shared responsibilities is important to ensure there are effective systems in place, and delivery to the business stakeholders is consistent. HR activities may affect WHS responsibilities and vice versa. What HR does in a performance management process can influence outcomes of employee health and safety, for example, particularly when thinking about psychological injuries.
Having your WHS and HR aligned can streamline your operations and alleviate risk.
Most businesses have a Business Strategy that defines the plan of action to achieve the vision and set objectives of the organisation. It probably includes sales, productivity, growth, and revenue targets.
What many businesses have started to incorporate is an HR strategy, this involves the people, how HR processes and initiatives will align and support the business strategy.
A Work Health and Safety Strategy should also be part of business planning and vision.
This should include setting safety-related objectives and targets, that are designed to improve safety outcomes, and support the achievements of other business objectives. It can include actions to reduce injuries, improve consultation and engagement, improve safety training, implement new policies and procedures. These objectives should be measurable and promoted by the leadership team once established. If you require assistance in developing a WHS Strategy please contact us at Employment Innovations.
About Employment Innovations
Employment Innovations is one of Australia’s leading providers of employment services designed to increase productivity and ensure compliance. Its services and solutions include all the tools that every Australian small to medium sized employer needs – including workplace advice, legal services, payroll solutions, migration, human resource management and HR software.
The information provided in these blog articles is general in nature and is not intended to substitute for professional advice. If you are unsure about how this information applies to your specific situation we recommend you contact Employment Innovations for advice.