How can HR and employers support vulnerable employees working exclusively from home?

As MP Mel Stride announces a consultation to reform the welfare system, People Management asks how to properly enable people to do their job, happily and healthily, from where they live

Rasid Necati Aslim/Anadolu Agency, RLT_Images/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images

The post-pandemic influx in home and remote working has brought many benefits for employers and employees, while making inroads towards more accessible, inclusive and diverse workplaces. 

With this in mind, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has this week (5 September) announced the launch of a consultation on reforming the welfare system, “reflecting the rise of flexible and home working and better employer support” so disabled people and those with mental ill health can return to work. 

The consultation will explore any updates to the work capability assessment’s categories, to better “reflect” the modern world of work and the opportunities available to those who currently cannot access it. 

The plans – which are not expected to be implemented until 2025 – are said by secretary of state for work and pensions Mel Stride to help people currently excluded from the labour market to “realise their ambition of working”.

Keen to see the government’s proposals “move forward”, Iván Williams Jiménez, senior policy and public affairs manager at the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, tells People Management: “Such work needs to be good work – meaning it’s safe, healthy, sustainable and accommodates people’s needs – and should be implemented through improved access to flexible working, occupational health services and occupational safety and health advice.” 

He adds that this will make the labour force more “diverse” and that government reforms to improve occupational health provision will “cater for the needs of these workers through an occupational health equity strategy that seeks to address historical health inequities”.

But how else can businesses support those working exclusively from home? 

Rachel Suff, senior wellbeing adviser at the CIPD, says that many people benefitted from the shift to greater home working and it has the potential to help some people get into and stay in work. But she adds that some people on disability benefits have “complex physical and mental health issues” and need support from businesses. “The onus should be on employers to provide quality, flexible and inclusive employment opportunities with occupational health support,” she says. 

“Working from home can be helpful but is not suitable for all jobs and more holistic support is needed including confidence to manage people with a disability or health condition, good people management and an effective reasonable adjustments process.”

Previous People Management reporting on The Business Group on Health’s 2024 Large Employer Health Care Strategy survey revealed that 77 per cent of employers are reporting an increase in employee mental health needs, with 16 per cent expecting this to rise in the future.

Speaking to People Management at the time, Alicia Nagar, head of people, wellbeing and equity at Mental Health First Aid England, said organisations needed to invest in this area. “Employers should listen to what their people need and their concerns and ensure that any wellbeing strategy reflects the requirements of their people,” said Nagar, suggesting that, currently, some UK businesses are ill equipped to deal with supporting those with physical or mental ill health. 

Rebecca Francis-Davies, founder of Swansea Bay HR, says the most successful approach will be ensuring line managers and employers have the “capacity, competence and compassion” to best support employee wellbeing in the workplace. 

“Having EAPs, access to OH services, using wellness action plans, having regular check-ins and of course ensuring that all the foundations for good work are present in the workplace. Whether employees are working remotely or not, their line managers should intentionally seek out opportunities to build trust and rapport,” says Davies. 

She adds that the government “cannot expect employers” to provide support to those in crisis, or on the verge of crisis.

Pat Ashworth, learning development director at AdviserPlus, acknowledges that people with disabilities often face “unique challenges” in the workplace and that, while working from home could be a “great reasonable adjustment”, wellbeing should be a top priority. 

“Organisations need to consider various factors to prevent isolation, including individual preferences, the nature of disabilities, company policies and support systems,” says Ashworth. “They should also provide accessible tools, encourage social interaction, offer flexibility, support mental health and promote disability awareness and inclusion.” 

She adds that support may involve “improving infrastructure, ensuring that workplaces comply with disability accessibility standards and offering training programmes to create a more inclusive and accommodating work environment”, alongside partnerships with advocacy groups and agencies, which will create an inclusive job market in the future.

Legal considerations 

Andrew Willis, associate director of legal at Croner, says employers have a duty of care towards their workers and must put in place reasonable adjustments for disabled employees.

But on working from home, he advises: “Employers should already consider whether working from home could be a reasonable adjustment for an employee with a disability. Health and safety implications of working from home should also be considered, given that this is seen as an extension of the workplace. 

“Employers will also need to consider how they can ensure that any employees working from home remain part of the team, so communication and working practices will need to be carefully thought through.”