Maintaining staff health and safety while working remotely

Daniella McGuigan explains what businesses should consider to make sure their employees stay safe and well while working from home

The pandemic has seen an increasing number of employees fully embrace the opportunity to work from home. According to analysis by newspaper the i, the UK has maintained higher levels of remote work than most of Europe and has 25 per cent fewer people in workplaces now when compared to before the pandemic. 

Yet remote working poses some potential issues for employers, particularly when it comes to the health and safety of the workforce. Legislation under the Health and Safety at Work Etc. Act 1974 states that employers have a duty of care to ensure the health, safety and welfare of all their employees, including employees working remotely.

Understanding the legislation

By law, employers must conduct a risk assessment of employees’ working environments which includes working from home, and the legislation states the risk assessment must be ‘suitable and sufficient’. In most cases employers do not need to attend an employee’s home to conduct the assessment, although an employer may wish to visit an employee who has additional needs that need to be accommodated, such as if they are disabled or vulnerable.

It is usually sufficient to ask each employee to conduct a self-assessment of their home workspace and equipment to highlight any potential risks and help to identify any measures that ought to be put in place.

Generally, most work carried out at home is low-risk, and while employers are expected to give advice on minimising hazards in the home working space, employees also have a duty to take reasonable care of their own health and safety and report any risks or hazards to their employer.

If an employee suffers an accident or injury while working from home, determining if the employer is liable would be assessed on a case-by-case basis. Therefore, a comprehensive and up-to-date risk assessment which the employer acts upon is essential to minimise risk.

Advice for employers

A template risk assessment should be provided by the employer for all home working employees to complete. Once completed, the assessment must be reviewed properly in partnership with the employee to ensure that any issues are addressed. 

It is advisable that organisations have a remote working policy in place that is kept under regular review. In so far as it is possible, there should be consistency of approach between those employees who are office or site-based and those working from home.

The policy should set out clear expectations, for example, in relation to working hours and taking rest breaks. A criticism of home working is often that it is easy for the line between home and work to be blurred – a good remote working policy can help to prevent that. 

For the policy to be effective, training on the policy (including how to conduct a risk assessment) should be provided and be kept up to date. The employer should keep a record of who has completed the training. 

Mental health and wellbeing

While hazards to physical health can be identified and addressed, mental health and wellbeing is more complex and difficult to mitigate. However, there are a few things that employers can do to ensure that their staff are coping with remote working. 

Keep in regular contact with employees – this includes regular team and one-to-one meetings or calls. Talk openly about workloads and demands to ensure that employees are not suffering in silence and encourage a clear distinction between work and home life, such as being mindful of the timings of scheduled meetings. 

Encourage employees to take regular breaks and to use their annual leave and ensure that employees do not feel undue pressure to work if they are ill.

Finally, make sure that employees are aware of the signs of stress and burnout, as well as the support that is available to them. Talking about stress, mental health and/or burnout openly can help reassure employees that they do not need to work to the detriment of their health.

Daniella McGuigan is a partner at Ogletree Deakins