The coronavirus pandemic is challenging every aspect of our working lives. The biggest change for many workers is the sudden pivot to homeworking.

Even most experienced HR professionals will have never considered transitioning a whole team to homeworking before.

Where organisations do offer remote working, HR usually has plenty of time to fulfill the company’s legal obligations, particularly in relation to health and safety.

Unforeseen school closures, self-isolation and lockdowns has meant that this time is now in short supply.

Homeworkers’ safety is the first priority

With little notice, HR teams must urgently complete all the legal and practical tasks, to ensure staff can continue to work safely from home with minimal disruption to the business.

During this transition period, the priority should be ensuring the safety of homeworking staff.

Managing risk assessment

Your organisation may not have suitable homeworking procedures and documentation in place. If so, drafting a homeworking risk assessment should be a priority.

Considering the impact of COVID-19, asking homeworkers to complete a self-assessment questionnaire remotely is likely the best option.

There are self-assessment form templates available online to streamline this. Even if a template is not an ideal solution, it may be better to get workers to complete a more generic assessment in the first instance.

More bespoke self-assessments, information and training can then be circulated in due course.

Homeworker health and safety awareness

Many employers and employees are unaware that, under the Health and Safety at Work Act and Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations, UK companies owe the same duty of care to homeworkers as to workers on company premises.

The process for making a home workstation safe will be familiar to any worker who has taken part in an office risk assessment. Even so, some workers may consider any assessment of their homeworking space as unnecessary, or even invasive.

It is important that both management and staff appreciate that assessments (and subsequent measures) are effectively a legal requirement, not a casual exercise.

That said, it is also important for all parties to buy into the purpose of these health and safety assessments. Treating self-assessment forms as a burdensome box-ticking exercise will not make employees safer, and will not help build a collegial team relationship.

Building relationships from day one

Employers owe a duty of care towards all workers, including homeworkers, to safeguard employees’ mental health.

Many employees thrive when given the chance to work from home. However, homeworking presents a difficulty in respect of mental health.

Homeworking staff cannot be passively monitored as easily. Some can struggle with homeworking conditions.

It can help to treat this issue as part of a holistic approach to managing teams of homeworkers. There are a wide range of tools available to foster communication between staff, such as:

  • Team chat and project management apps like Slack, Trello and Microsoft Teams
  • Video conferencing tools, like Skype and Zoom
  • Phone conferencing software
  • Training and development platforms to ensure remote workers stay engaged with their role

Taking a more casual and team-focused approach from day one will encourage workers to communicate openly. This gives employees, management and HR staff a chance to discuss and catch potential issues at an earlier stage.

Identifying at-risk homeworkers

UK law requires employers to ensure that accomodations are made for workers that are at-risk, particularly those with a known history of work-related stress, depression and anxiety.

Given that we are all living in strange, stressful times, it can be difficult to isolate potentially serious cases from the general anxiety. Present conditions, added to the disruption and isolation of a shift to remote working, have the potential to push vulnerable workers too far.

Communication is again the easiest tool to use. HR can help at-risk workers and their line managers take advantage of the flexibility of homeworking. This will help to prevent workers feeling abandoned, isolated or under stress. 

The Health and Safety Executive has published guidance on stress and mental health in the workplace, including links to more bespoke resources for specific conditions.

Data security for homeworkers

Companies also owe legal obligations in respect of data security. Managing these risks is more of a technical IT challenge than a HR task, but HR does have a role to play.

Implementing the necessary security may require workers to install software on their home devices, or to improve security on work laptops and phones.

As above, communication plays a critical role in ensuring that all stakeholders recognise the legal and practical importance of data security.

Whether tasks relate to job performance, health and safety or IT security, HR can promote a more consultative, inclusive approach. This helps to ensure legal obligations are met as the company’s operations and culture evolves.

Employers liability insurance

Under the Employers’ Liability (Compulsory Insurance) Act 1969, employers’ liability insurance must offer sufficient protection to all workers, in the event of a work accident or occupational illness.

Just as an employer’s legal duties extend to cover homeworkers, so must the company’s liability insurance.

Companies who already operate some degree of homeworking scheme may already have suitable insurance in place. The fine print of the policy should be checked to ensure any requirements (such as assessments) are fulfilled.

Failure to ensure the correct insurance is in place could mean that the insurance may not pay out, if a homeworker was injured during the course of their employment.

Inadequate employers’ liability insurance could have dire consequences for both the worker and their employer.

Without insurance, a company may have to pay an injured worker’s compensation itself. This could amount to £10,000s or more in cases of serious injury or illness. Worse, the company may be unable to pay the full amount, leaving the worker in dire need of support.

Coronavirus stress and burnout

Even without the additional legal and logistical hurdles involved in a large-scale move to homeworking, employees are likely to be stressed and stretched at the moment.

Colleagues could be sick, self-isolating, or looking after children or the elderly. This leaves others to pick up the slack. There will be anxiety about paychecks, job security, and the company’s future.

Many HR professionals will be under a lot of pressure, from many different angles. In addition to the extra bureaucracy, the emotional load placed on HR managers at the moment should not be ignored.

Employers’ legal obligations protect HR staff too. Your own health should not be put at risk when attempting to safeguard the health and safety of others.

Taking time to recognise signs of stress and burnout in yourself is crucial. Communicating with peers and colleagues can help you to identify and manage issues before they become overwhelming.

Author Bio

Guest Post: Chris Salmon is an occupational injury specialist and co-founder and Director of Quittance Legal Services.

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