As events associated with the COVID-19 crisis have progressed in Ireland and worldwide, there has been an urgent need for more people to be able to work remotely. It has become increasingly essential for employers to maintain business continuity in order to preserve their business’ in the uncertain weeks and months ahead.
The measures announced by An Taoiseach on 27 March 2020 now mean that people have been told to stay at home in virtually all circumstances (with the exception of essential workers who are exempted from the provisions) and all public and private gatherings have been banned for two weeks as part of the Government’s latest sweeping measures to tackle the crisis.
While the aim of working from home at this time is to minimise the spread of infection, it brings with it other possible risks for employees. Employers' obligations to their employees continue, even in these difficult times. However, the risks arising from homeworking must be viewed in the context of an employer seeking to eliminate the risk of an employee contracting coronavirus in the workplace. At this time, one of the primary concerns for employers is to prevent exposure of employees to the virus and working from home is a measure that will assist.
Risks associated with working from home
Stress and isolation – While working from home it is important to maintain contact to avoid people feeling isolated or stressed. With the benefit of technology, it is easy to set up regular virtual meetings which enables teams to come together on a regular basis and be able to air and share any issues being experienced
A balance between ensuring business continuity (and in some cases business survival) and the wellbeing and safety of employees should be considered and examined regularly in the short, medium and long term as well. Regular contact with staff will help everyone’s wellbeing.
There will be a need for a degree of flexibility, as some of those working from home many also have childcare commitments. Businesses must be mindful of this and allow employees to work more flexibly, to ensure that a balance is achieved.
If the more restrictive measures put in place by the Irish Government are prolonged, employees may become concerned that their professional development will suffer. Webinars, online training and ensuring regular check-ins with team members will assist in maintaining morale.
Back and upper limb disorders - Employers owe their employees a duty to ensure their workstations are assessed and any identified risks reduced. Where an employee’s workstation is altered, an employer must ensure that a new assessment is undertaken
In the current climate, it is important that employers have regard to their existing obligations and to consider the following:
It is simply not feasible, nor would it be permitted under the current lockdown, for employers to undertake physical assessments of their work forces home work stations. Online training will allow employees to undertake their own assessments from home
Employees can and should be reminded to position their work equipment as ergonomically as they can and to remember to take regular breaks from their screens and their keyboards
Employers should check with their employees to ensure that no one is experiencing any issues with any back or upper limb disorders. On-line training can ensure that employees are aware of their obligations and can demonstrate that all reasonable steps have been taken by employers to comply with their obligations
Ensure that employees have a suitable workstation and that they understand the importance of not working on their lap (whether on a bed, sofa or elsewhere).
Employers and their employees need to be prepared to be flexible to ensure that businesses continue, jobs are retained and the risks to all are minimised.
Ensure that teams can continue to work together, as collaboratively as possible, and maintain positivity and motivation and preserve mental health and well being.
Employers and their employees need to be aware of and monitor the issues of working from home to be able to ascertain if any issues need to be addressed, if any equipment can be provided and if there are any training needs which, if fulfilled, would reduce risks to mental and physical health.
From a practical point of view, employers may need to remind their employees of the need to take breaks, to sit as ergonomically as possible and to make their employers aware of any concerns they have as to their ability to work effectively.