The pandemic has forced many employees to construct makeshift workstations, while battling family members for space. One year on, and with millions still at home, is there a looming threat of occupational health risks ahead?
In the second half of 2020, 60% of firms started looking more closely at risks from employee health and safety as a result of Covid-19, according to a Gartner study. Increased spending on external compliance experts and services soared by 30% in 2019-2020, on average, with compliance technology expenses increasing by 15%, and training and communication vendors by 13%.
“Compliance’s mandate has expanded and organisational risks have been heightened by the pandemic,” says Brian Lee, managing vice-president in the Gartner Legal and Compliance practice. “It’s also critical to work more closely with other functions, including legal and privacy, to better manage new and existing risks within a remote workforce and establish clear guardrails around risk.”
In this era of mass homeworking, it will fall on team managers and human resources to engage more regularly with employees, to ensure they have an adequate office setup and a healthy work-life balance. Vince Toman, barrister at HR law firm Lewis Silkin, cautions that physical and mental issues from remote working are likely to emerge in the near future, including “work-related upper limb disorders, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, eyesight issues from poor lighting and isolation”.
While businesses need to act quickly to protect against ill-health and even legal action, the simplest way forward is to engage with people. Toman says that although some employers are using software to monitor worker engagement and productivity, the human element is still important and managers should check in regularly to give employees the opportunity to ask for support.
Procurement’s role in mitigating health risks and ensuring staff stay protected, trained and supported, with the correct work equipment, will be heavily led by risk assessments, according to Duncan Spencer, head of advice and practice at the International Occupational Safety and Health. “You need to make sure you’ve got good risk assessments, you’re very clear what the hazards are, what the controls are, and what equipment and training can be given to them to mitigate the risk – internal or externally.”
It is highly recommended that companies revise their risk assessments and policies to account for home working, where applicable. Compliance is a key issue here and companies still need to comply with their country’s equivalent workplace health and safety legislation, such as the UK Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, the US Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, and China’s Work Safety Law 2002. These broadly mandate, to varying extents, that employers must conduct risk assessments to inform safe working environments for employees, with regular reviewals.
“The law is very clear on this,” says Spencer, “wherever you ask an employee to work with whatever equipment you give them to do that, the employer is creating risk, and they have responsibility for that risk”.
Yet despite legal obligations, Toman said not enough businesses have carried out recent workplace risk assessments, due to expectations that home working would be a temporary issue and therefore a “pragmatic approach” was acceptable. However, it’s a year since ad-hoc arrangements were adopted – whether enforced or voluntarily – and companies need to prioritise occupational health risks to ensure compliance.
With the paradigm shift to remote working comes the need to take a personal approach to human resources, says Meghan Condon O’Doherty, senior principal of procurement at Gartner. And procurement is a key player in coordinating HR, legal and buyers to draft and adhere to new policies, share risk assessment data, and implement the processes required to make one-off purchases efficiently. To this end, procurement can tailor support to individuals’ needs, for example through buying speciality office equipment for pre-existing injuries, and noise-cancelling headsets for parents with busy home environments, she says.
It’s also important to increase the programmes and processes available for employees to openly discuss disruptions to their environments and help generate effective resolutions in response, such as forums, says Condon O’Doherty.
Pre-Covid, many procurement leaders focused on finding ways to make buying a faster, smoother experience; however, the acceleration of hybrid working models have made this more urgent and valued across the business. “It’s about how you can make buying feel faster for the business because when procuring for a large, remote workforce this could become even more critical,” says Condon O’Doherty. “Make getting started feel easier, and then eliminate what people feel is any unnecessary work, such as inefficient communication, and poor design of purchasing technology.”
A failsafe record
Realistically, the majority of office employees are unlikely to develop physical health problems if they have a functional home workspace in the short term. But as remote working stretches on, “going from months into a year or more, then it is more likely individuals are going to suffer some kind of chronic condition as a result of a poor workstation”, says Spencer.
To support workers who may be struggling, Toman emphasises the significance of implementing wellbeing checklists and questionnaires in order to open the conversation with employees and gauge how they are coping. Also, in terms of compliance, reaching out to people can “stop long-term problems by providing the employer with an audit trail to demonstrate to the authorities what they did, rather than what they should have done”.
Spencer agrees, saying that remote workers may be an “Achilles heel” in terms of risk, as they “are entitled to refuse support because you cannot force anything in their home”. Therefore, it is important to keep appropriate records to demonstrate the organisation has reached out, offered support and made all reasonable attempts to safeguard workers.
Returning to the office
Flexible working is likely to play a part in our lives for some time yet and companies should exercise caution when preparing a return to physical offices, if they haven’t done so already. Don’t assume this will be a comfortable transition for everyone and take time to work with people to minimise risks and concerns, engaging all departments and stakeholders where possible.
- Put in place systems to review remote workers’ wellbeing on a weekly basis
- Keep compliance records of support offered and/or given
- Consider if your remote workforce needs occupational health services
- Engage early with employees to create a return to work strategy