It’s already a cliche to suggest coronavirus has wrought seismic changes in daily life. The Office of National Statistics has found that half of Britons are suffering from high levels of coronavirus-induced anxiety, and 20% of the nation’s workforce has been furloughed.
Outside of the heroic efforts of medics, carers and other key workers, many of the remaining 80% of employees have fortunately been able to continue to work, in greater safety, from home.
Homeworking health and safety
As staff acclimatises to remote working, the priority for many businesses will be to ensure continuity of service and productivity.
Despite the pressure to ensure a smooth transition, employers and HR professionals cannot neglect their immediate legal obligations. In particular, companies must be mindful of their evolving health and safety obligations.
Homeworking, UK law and insurance
The Employers’ Liability (Compulsory Insurance) Act 1969 requires businesses to carry employers’ liability insurance. The Act ensures that, if an employee is injured or becomes ill due to their work, they can claim compensation against this insurance.
Are you covered?
Under ABI guidance, most EL policies offer some degree of cover for remote workers as standard. Standard policies should cover “clerical activities” at an employee’s home or when working remotely.
EL insurance is compulsory, and in the vast majority of cases, the insurance will pay out if a homeworker is injured during the course of their work.
There are, however, two critical caveats.
First, if the employer has failed to carry out sufficient risk assessments and other health and safety management, and an employee is injured, the insurer must still pay out. In these circumstances, the insurer may then sue the employer to recover their costs.
Second, the limits of what counts as “in the course of an employee’s work” at home are a grey area. Certain non-clerical activities may also not be covered under a standard EL policy.
The case law on the issue of homeworking injury claims is still evolving, and there is likely to be a surge of cases as so many workers commence homeworking for the first time.
Read the small print
Despite the general principle that all employees are covered by EL insurance, you must check the wording of your policy to confirm what is and is not covered. Employers must also address their responsibilities towards homeworkers as set out in the policy wording.
Risk assessments for homeworkers
Your office-based employees will be familiar with the kind of health and safety assessment required for a homeworker. You should check the terms of the EL policy for any special requirements, but existing office worker risk assessments are likely to be suitable for assessing remote workers.
If your organisation does not have any suitable process or documentation in place, self-assessment templates are available online.
Given the urgency, it may be better to instruct homeworkers to complete a generic assessment ASAP. You can then circulate a bespoke assessment that meets the specific needs of your business at a later date.
Workers may be unfamiliar with the self-assessment format of an at-home risk assessment. HR managers for smaller firms could offer to help first-time homeworkers with their self-assessments, over the phone or via the now-ubiquitous Zoom.
COVID-19, remote working and mental health
As the recent ONS survey suggests, the coronavirus-induced anxiety felt by many has underlying factors. These include financial worries, depression triggered by social isolation, health fears and the stress of major lifestyle changes.
Research has shown that homeworkers are generally happier and more productive. However, these studies largely relate to workers who choose to work from home. Many employees have now been forced to work from home.
Employees who enjoy the social aspects of working could struggle. A worker’s living circumstances may make homeworking stressful. Urban homeworkers without a study space or home office may lack the privacy to work effectively. Others may find the change to their routine hampers their productivity or ability to focus, leading to additional stress.
When undertaking risk assessments, employers and HR staff must consider the mental health-related aspects of their health and safety obligations to homeworkers.
Managing mental health risk
The risk of homeworking employees developing mental health issues is arguably greater than the risk to in-office workers.
Not only are the pressures of isolated working in a time of global pandemic already unprecedented, HR managers cannot easily carry out the same level of passive monitoring. Given that standard homeworking revolves around email and structured video conferences, there is not the same opportunity to casually observe and manage those workers who may be struggling.
The skills and tools that HR professionals already use in the office are essential when managing mental health hazards for remote workers. Communication, and particularly fostering a culture of open communication, will help.
Tools like Whatsapp, Zoom and Slack can help to recreate the convivial atmosphere of the office. HR staff can engage with these tools, broadcasting general advice and support, while offering private support to those workers who need it.
Embracing the spirit of homeworking health and safety management
This article has highlighted the legal aspects of employers’ liability insurance and remote working. That said, it is crucial that both employers and employees recognise that fulfilling health and safety duties is more than a box-ticking exercise.
All sides should be encouraged to follow the spirit as well as the letter of the health and safety regs. This will help to ensure that, during this time of unprecedented upheaval, unnecessary risks are not taken and staff are not left isolated and exposed to avoidable harm.
Editor’s note: Given that this piece is focused solely on U.K. law, British spelling conventions have been left intact.