Health and safety considerations of agile working

More and more businesses are embracing flexibility, but are they considering all the risks and requirements? Verity Buckingham reports

Few would disagree that technology has improved the way we work. We can turn work around quicker, we can update and amend documents more easily, and we can work at whatever location is most convenient for us. The ability to work anywhere, and at any time, has created a workforce that can be much more agile in getting its work done. This works for many employees because they can have some flexibility around attending to commitments and social affairs outside work.

However, agile working can also have some downsides, which employers should not overlook. The ability to work from anywhere at any time can create a situation where an employee never ‘switches off’. The line between work life and home life becomes blurred. Employees find themselves checking and replying to emails, and downloading documents between, if not during, engaging in family or social activities. This can soon become a habit that can cause anxiety and stress as there is no ‘down time’.

For some employees, agile working is not just about fitting in family and a social life. They may have other motivators for wanting to embrace it, but they could still find that they end up reclusive and lacking any other human interaction. This could lead to a feeling of isolation, which may trigger a mental illness.

Employer’s duties

Health and safety legislation applies to agile workers and home workers in the same way as it applies to office-based staff. An employer has a duty to take reasonable care of an employee's physical and mental health. The steps an employer would normally take in the workplace to assess health and safety should also be taken at home. This should extend to assessing the employee's workspace and equipment where the employee permanently works from home.

It is not just advances in technology that have enabled employees to adopt an agile working approach. Some employees who do manual jobs may also find their tasks can be undertaken in an agile way. The risks that such an employee faces should be considered. It may be appropriate to issue an employee with personal protective equipment for use outside the workplace, and employers should remember they remain responsible for it. Any equipment used away from the workplace, which the employer does not supply, is not the employer's responsibility.

As with most work issues, the best first step with agile workers is to always keep the lines of communication open. You may not see them in the workplace as much, but maintain contact and undertake regular updates on the extent and timing of work undertaken by an employee. Be alert to triggers of ‘burnout’ and require employees to come into the office regularly for catch-up meetings. For those employees who appear to have isolated themselves, this will assist in avoiding the feeling of being cut off. Employers should consider putting in place policies and training sessions to cover issues such as health and safety regulations; the employer's and agile worker's responsibilities; designing a safe working environment; and making healthy choices.

Overall, agile working brings many benefits and the risks associated with it are generally low. However, employers should remain alert to the above issues and others that may arise from agile working, and be prepared to be proactive in taking remedial action.

Verity Buckingham is a senior associate in Dentons' employment team