Prior to the pandemic, relatively few employees were based at home. Now, most of us have experienced the advantages of successful telecommuting and flexible work hours, and for many, there’s no going back. In consequence, worker health and well-being are presently top of mind in organisations as they tussle with how to safely accommodate work-from-home, and hybrid work models.
- Cost savings
- Increased attendance and productivity
- Improved recruitment and retention
- Better employee engagement
- Greater diversity across the organisation
- An avenue for encouraging ethical behaviour
- A means by which they can be socially responsible
- Increased job satisfaction
- Elimination of commute time
- Freedom from the strictures of 9-to-5
- Scope for Improved work/life balance
Understanding the risks
Not that long ago, notions of the workplace were more tightly defined. Now they can include a kitchen counter, or the corner of a bedroom. Regardless of the location or configuration of the workplace, employers and employees continue to have work health and safety obligations, and while a work-from-home model provides many benefits, it can also place employees at risk.
Key areas of concern include:
- Unsafe physical environment: Issues ranging from poor workstation ergonomics that may lead to musculoskeletal injuries, to under-maintained spaces resulting in trips, slips and falls, to exposures in electrical and fire safety, all need to be addressed.
- Physical and psychological impacts of isolation: Workers-from-home who live alone are particularly at risk of social isolation, which has been linked to outcomes such as depression, degraded sleep, stroke, coronary heart disease, cerebrovascular disease, and even mortality.
- Exposure to domestic violence: Safe Work Australia advises that organisations need to provide workers with an environment in which they can safely and confidentially disclose domestic violence, and if working from home isn’t a safe option, then an alternative must be offered, so far as is reasonably practical.
- Overwork: Flexible hours can pave the way for some employees to work too much, leading to fatigue and burnout, which can also place them at greater risk of sustaining a physical injury. Home-based employees also tend to continue working while they are sick, which can increase recovery time.
6 tips for risk mitigation
Work-from-home risk exposures leave organisations open to increases in injuries, absenteeism, compensation claims, and a decline in productivity.
Shae McCartney, Bianca Mendelson and Mitchell Teasdale from Clayton Utz suggest employer actions for work-from-home risk mitigation. These include the following.
- Set clear boundaries between work and personal time: Clarify when the employee is ‘at work’. Consider establishing set times for when people are expected to be online while working remotely. You may even decide to close systems access at the end of the agreed work day, implementing a virtual ‘shutting of the doors’.
- Incident reporting: Adjust your workplace incident reporting policy to include working-from-home-related incidents, and ensure employees fully understand the importance of immediately reporting all incidents, including those that happen at home.
- Act promptly: Investigate a home injury as soon as it’s reported. Speak to the employee and request details to ascertain whether they were injured during the course of employment, or while pursuing private activities unrelated to work. Lines of distinction can be blurry.
- Communicate daily: Keep in regular contact with employees to check whether they might be at risk of physical or psychological WHS concerns.
- Update policies and procedures: Make sure these include working from home, and that they remain fit for purpose.
- Consult with workers: Speak to them regarding work-from-home WHS risks and concerns, and seek their suggestions on how to best manage those risks.
Effective risk mitigation strengthens the work-from-home model, and prevents the erosion of its benefits.