Just one in six workers have gone back to work in cities this summer after companies and staff ignored government pleas to return, so it seems that many employees could be working from home for a lot longer than anticipated. Kathryn Fielder, senior associate in the employment team advises on employer’s legal responsibilities towards their staff.
Employers have long had a legal obligation regarding the health and safety of their employees, regardless of whether they worked from home or in the office, which covers both their physical and mental health. However, with the onset of Covid-19, and the huge surge in the number of people working from home, those duties are now more than ever under the spotlight.
If not taken seriously, there could be a surge in claims being brought against employers including resignations, leading to claims for constructive dismissal as well as personal injury claims. With the increase in awareness over mental health too, employers must be mindful of both, in ensuring their employees’ safety for both their physical and mental health.
Creating a safe place to work
Legally, employers must make sure that employees have a safe place to work, but how is that achieved in these days of social distancing or in very large companies? Essentially, it is up to the employer how that is achieved, but they should follow a common-sense approach and ensure that it is more than just a box ticking exercise.
Ideally employers should already have a policy on working from home and if not, it is a good time to create one. As a minimum they must do some form of risk assessment with their employee. In an ideal world that would involve a physical inspection, however that is probably unrealistic especially during the pandemic, so what can they do instead?
As a minimum, employers should ask employees to complete risk assessment questionnaires, and will need to satisfy themselves that their work place is suitable and ensure they have the right equipment as well as enough light, ventilation, IT training and space to work safely. They will also need to ensure that their employees feel supported, are not being ignored and have a clear level of understanding of what is expected of them while working from home.
Employers should also check their insurance policies and ensure that they are still covered for losses arising from damage to any of their equipment or any injuries caused at “ work” if the injury occurred in the course of the employee’s employment and can be attributable to that employment.
Regular keeping in touch calls right through to formal questionnaires about their thoughts on working from home, could encourage inclusion and help to improve employees’ mental health. This is especially so when people are experiencing a general level of anxiety as well in connection with the physical threat of Covid-19.
Confidentiality and data security
Working from home creates a new way of accessing confidential information for hackers and creates a higher risk of a security breach. If data is compromised while a staff member is working at home, it can be tricky to discover how it happened and when. To avoid a violation of confidential data employers must put additional measures in place to prevent data from being abused or lost at home. They should have clear policies for their employees to follow by offering training and ensure that data protection measures that are used in the office can be replicated at home.
Employment tribunal and court claims
If the worst happens and employers end up facing a tribunal claim or a personal injury claim against them, it is important to remember that courts will be far more sympathetic to employers who have acknowledged and acted upon their obligations towards their employees, than those who have adopted a more cavalier approach.
Unfortunately, it is possible that when the government’s furlough scheme ends, more mass redundancies may follow. Employers must factor in the numbers of employees working from home and ensure that they make extra allowances and ensure that they still consult properly. They may need to think smart and devote more resource to this so that they can realistically communicate with the employees. A generic ‘Zoom’ call with lots of employees, might be a little unmanageable for them. Employers must find the right balance, so that fair and meaningful consultation can take place.
In summary, employers should not adopt an “out of sight is out of mind approach” to their employees who are working from home. They should make sure that they are keeping in touch with those employees as much as, if not more than they had done previously, and ensure that they pay particular attention to their employees’ mental health as much as physical.