OH and health and safety practitioners are finding that staff working from home can provide them with just as many challenges as more conventional office-based workers. Nic Paton
For the commuter grimly stuck in traffic yet again on a wet Friday night, or making their way home crammed in a filthy, standing-room-only train carriage, the thought of working from home can seem like paradise. No commuting, just a quick trek upstairs or down to the ‘garden office’, being able to manage your own time, no boss constantly breathing down your neck.
More than a million people are now estimated to work from home on a regular basis, and the numbers are rising. According to the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), some 2 million people now use IT for work away from the traditional office environment. And last year’s change in the law to give parents of young children a right to ask to work flexibly has, if anything, accelerated this trend.
But to think homeworking is simply a question of signing someone off, waving him or her out of the door and then letting them get on with it would be a big mistake. For employers, homeworkers may be a useful way of freeing office space and so reducing costs, but for OH and health and safety practitioners, homeworking can throw up as many issues as the more conventional ways of working.
At a practical level, the logistics of homeworking have to be right if the worker is to be protected from physical risk. In recognition of the growth in homeworking, and the implications of this for health and safety and OH, late last year, the Health and Safety Executive re-issued its guidance document, Homeworking – guidance for employers and employees on health and safety.1
This sets out the duties of an employer, gives advice on how to carry out a risk assessment, and looks at some common hazards faced by homeworkers (see box opposite).
Similarly, the DTI brought out a guide to teleworking last year in conjunction with the CBI, TUC and CEEP UK, the Employers’ Organisation for local government (EO).2
“It highlighted the usual things: heat, lighting, wear and tear, accessibility, equipment, insurance, holidays, sick leave, how to notify the office when you’re away and what to do if you realise it has all been a dreadful mistake and you want to come back. It is very useful and readable,” says Roger Steel, a partner at solicitors Eversheds.
Beyond these practical issues, there are other, more subtle problems that need to be addressed. Making sure there are no cables trailing on the floor is a pretty obvious thing to look for, but the psychological pressures that can come with homeworking – the potential for isolation, the invasion of home and private space, the sense of having stepped off the career ladder – are less commonly recognised.
Three years ago, research by Sandi Mann, senior lecturer and occupational psychologist at the University of Central Lancashire, found that working from home, if managed wrongly, could lead to employees suffering higher levels of stress and emotional difficulties than their office-based colleagues.
In her study of 14 teleworkers in the telecommunications and banking sectors, Mann found there were some significant benefits to be had from homeworking. Less travel (57 per cent), a better working environment (50 per cent), and fewer distractions (43 per cent) all rated highly.
But the other side of the coin was that 57 per cent of those polled complained of isolation, half said they were actually working longer hours, and 28 per cent felt they lacked support. Other complaints included less sick leave (21 per cent), less career progression (14 per cent), and greater costs (7 per cent).
As one homeworker on the US chat forum, www.homeworking.com, puts it: “Anyone else out there feel that they never leave the house and seem to be working every hour of the day? I have been working from home for the past year-and-a-half and while it’s been good, sometimes I feel I’m never out the door.” This type of story is not uncommon.
Similarly, a study of 35 homeworkers by Nottingham Trent University in 2002 found many put in more hours than they would have done at the office because they were worried colleagues might think they were not pulling their weight. Family lives were sometimes disrupted, with children and partners having to agree not to use the telephone at certain times or giving up rooms for office use.
Some workers were even considering going back to the office, despite the extra costs of commuting and childcare, simply because it would give them a more ‘normal’ working existence.
Another study published in the same year, by flexible working specialists Flexecutive and the Chartered Institute of Marketing, found that while the vast majority wanted more flexibility in how they managed their working lives, 81 per cent of those believed working flexibly would have a bad effect on their careers.
In another 2002 survey, by the Institute for Employment Studies, the existence of a ‘take-up gap’ was revealed, with employees reluctant to take up flexible working options even when they were on offer, for fear it would damage their career prospects.
But where you are prepared to do the planning legwork, and think about the sort of issues you are likely to face, homeworking need not become an OH nightmare. In fact, as BT has found, it can become almost routine.
BT has long been a pioneer of homeworking in the UK, and now has hundreds of staff from its 90,000-strong workforce who either work solely or partly from home.
Accordingly, the health and safety protocols in place for homeworkers are now largely second nature both to line managers and the organisation as a whole, argues Richard Willcox, health and safety officer for BT Exact, the company’s research and development arm.
Anyone coming forward asking to work from home discusses the request first with their line manager, after which, assuming the request is agreed to, a risk assessment of the proposed location is required to be carried out as a matter of course.
“This will include looking at the size of the rooms and its location – is there a risk, for instance, of problems such as violence, or are there parking issues for those who can expect lots of deliveries?” Willcox says.
Employees have access to a dedicated homeworking website that offers advice and information. They can also select appropriate, ergonomically-tested BT furniture, up to an agreed amount, with which to furnish their home office. Similarly, computer equipment and printers and any other work-specific equipment will be supplied, as will high-speed broadband internet access. A dedicated phone line is installed, and there is an allowance for calls to cover any bills on that line.
For HR, there is a dedicated website with templates of all the letters that need to be sent to mortgage and insurance firms telling them of the change of use.
The initial risk assessment is followed up annually to check for wear and tear and any degradation of fixtures and fittings, particularly of the electrics.
“All managers with line responsibility are required to carry out at least one annual face-to-face discussion with the employee, and that’s the absolute minimum, and we encourage managers to have team meetings at least monthly. If the distance is very great, they can arrange to do it by video-conferencing,” explains Willcox.
“I know of one team that meets up on a regular basis in the centre of the UK. Everyone has e-mail and there’s instant messaging and tele-conferencing. There is really no reason why anyone working from home should feel isolated.”
This maintaining of the assessment process is vital, and often overlooked by companies with homeworkers. Because line managers often grumble that it is harder to manage people who are not physically in front of them, getting them on board, giving them appropriate training and ensuring they understand exactly what is needed is a key part of the process.
In the middle of last year, BT launched a stress analysis tool that, while not specifically designed for its homeworkers, can be used by them. Users simply call it up on the dedicated website, fill in the form, and are given a traffic-light scoring system.
At the start of the year, BT began rolling out its stress analysis tool across the entire company.
“We are currently analysing the results to see where the problem areas are and what we are going to do about it,” says Willcox.
Where stress is identified as an issue, the normal procedure – which would be the case for a homeworker as much as any other – is to have a review either with your line manager or another manager to discuss the problem. Additional help can then be brought in from OH or, if necessary, outside agencies. The key is to ensure all sides are aware of the avenues of assistance that are available – something that is even more critical if the worker is 200 miles away, says Willcox.
One issue for OH in these circumstances, particularly if the OH team is not very big, is accessing the employer. While telephone consultations have their place, it may well be that there is little alternative than to carry out a home visit, agreed in advance, of course.
“If someone has an issue, they can elect to see somebody from OH, regardless of whether they are working from home or in an office,” he adds.
What’s clear for OH, then, is that as much as homeworking itself should not be done in total isolation, the set-up, maintenance and support of the homeworker should not be in isolation either. A full home and ergonomic assessment is critical but, just as importantly, it is imperative that when it is agreed that someone can work from home, it is set up as a process involving HR, IT, security and OH, as well as the immediate line managers.
The employee needs to be given clear guidance on who to approach if it isn’t working, how to access OH in this situation, and what their rights are. These support mechanisms and assessment tools should then be brought back into play at regular intervals further down the line, and the appropriate training and support given to line managers to ensure the worker is not left isolated and unsupported.
“OH is primarily involved when it all becomes too much for the person. But it is important to involve OH from ground level, from when people are being set up at home,” says Willcox.
Ultimately, the worst thing for a homeworker is to feel they have to suffer in silence. This might be because they don’t know who to turn to, or they are worried they’re too far away from the office to be visited. Or that they might be so grateful they’ve been allowed to work from home that they are terrified the option will get taken away, or that they will lose face if they admit that the arrangement is not working. It is therefore vital that the support structures are in place from the very beginning. When it comes to homeworking, out of sight should definitely not mean out of mind.
- Homeworking – guidance for employers and employees on health and safety, free publication HSE Books, tel: 01787 881165 or via website (above)
- DTI Telework Guidance, tel: 020 7215 5000 or via website (above)
Homeworking: key questions to ask
- Will they be handling loads? Has correct training been given? Will they be lifting things? Is the right equipment in place?
- Will they be using company equipment? Is it right for the job? Is it being checked and maintained? Has training been given? This is particularly important for electrical equipment
- Is the homeworker required to use any substances at home? Has the correct training been given? Are they being stored safely? Does the home insurer know?
- Does the home insurer/mortgage company know there will be a homeworker in the property?
- Will the homeworker be using VDUs? Has the correct training been given? Is it installed correctly and ergonomically?
- Is the homeworker (or their partner) a new or expectant mother?
- Does the employee have, or need, any first-aid training?
- Does the homeworker know how to report any injuries, diseases or dangerous incidents?
- Do they have access to office communication and networking systems?
- Are there clear management protocols in place?
- Does the homeworker know who to contact in OH?
- Has the homeworker been briefed on the possible pitfalls of homeworking (for example, isolation)?