Employer’s Legal Responsibilities - Working from home, Covid-19
The Government’s current guidance is that you should only travel to/from work only if it is absolutely essential. To put it more bluntly you should only go to your place of work if it is not possible to work from home.
Suddenly millions of people up and down the Country are turning homes into places of work and at the same time having to compete with other demands such as looking after children at home, or having to shield themselves from the outside World if they have an underlying health condition. The pressure, demands and uncertainty could not be greater.
But what are an employer’s legal responsibilities with a whole work force now at home for the foreseeable future? Employers owe a duty to take steps that are reasonably necessary to ensure the health, safety and welfare of all their employees even when they are working from home. In practice, this means employers need to consider taking the following steps.
Asking employees to carry out risk assessments
Simply telling employees just to get on with it is not going to cut the ice. Employers have a responsibility to ensure that the working arrangements at home are safe. A lot of employees will be ‘making do’ working from kitchen tables and having work stations that are far from ideal. Employers therefore have to ensure under the health and safety regulations that risks are identified; risks are reduced; that adequate training is provided; and important safety information is provided to employees at all times.
Whilst it will be impossible for employers to visit homes during the current crisis to undertake a risk assessment, they should nevertheless send to their employees a check list so that a self assessment can then be undertaken. This will then need to be considered with the employee in order to identify risks and then for steps to taken to mitigate them.
The maintaining of confidential information in the home needs again to be carefully assessed and considered. Is this stored securely? Who has access to it? It has even been suggested that virtual assistants such as Alexa, Google Home etc should be turned off.
Reducing risks and providing information to employees
An employer as a general rule does not need to provide specialist equipment but it is still responsible for reducing risks. This could include providing information on the right posture when sitting in front of a computer; making sure there are no dangers such as extension leads likely to cause a fall; allowing employees to take more breaks; does the employee’s insurance policy permit home working; informing a mortgagee/landlord if required; ensuring employees can raise concerns without fear they will be told to work from the office; providing equipment on a case by case basis; and above all keeping the situation under constant review.
In respect of expenses for heating, lighting, Broadband usage, use of equipment, phone calls will the Employer be making a contribution towards these costs? What about the provision of equipment that the Employee is going to need such as a printer/scanner and a shredder? Above all an Employer needs to be receptive to concerns raised by an Employee such as poor internet speeds, the computer unable to function properly etc.
There is a huge difference to spending one or two days at the kitchen table every now and again and an enforced period of home working running potential for a number of months. Policies for home working need to be in place and these must be kept under constant review.
Keeping up to date with guidance
The Health & Safety Executive will no doubt be issuing specific guidance given the present crisis. Presently its website refers you direct to the Gov.UK website for further information. ACAS has published a detailed guide to working at home prior to the current crisis but contains very useful information.
Making reasonable adjustments for disabled employees
Under the Equality Act 2010 disabled employees may be entitled to certain aids as a reasonable adjustment. If such an aid is reasonably needed, the employer needs to make sure it is provided to the employee when working from home. If possible disabled employees could be encouraged take their usual office equipment home with him.
Taking steps to protect wellbeing and mental health
Employers owe a duty to protect their employees’ mental health as well as physical health. Homeworking can present risks, including feelings of isolation and inability to disconnect. Steps to protect employees’ wellbeing could include, for instance, advising them to create a routine, go for a morning walk, having a defined lunch break and regular breaks. They could be encouraged to have regular calls with colleagues, rather than relying entirely on email and to take exercise in line with the Government’s current guidance. Employers should also be mindful of anxiety levels especially at the present time, when an employee is understandably concerned about his/her own health and that of loved ones. A responsible employer needs to advise its employees on what mental health support is on offer and how it can be accessed.
Looking to the future will the demands for working from home become an increasing demand and will employer be receptive? Our whole way of working could change quite dramatically with company’s using much smaller office space, hot desking becoming the norm and perhaps the ‘rush hour’ becoming a thing of the past.