With the UK entering its third week of lockdown, the majority of the workforce continue to work from home. However, there still remains numerous challenges with this almost-overnight switch to remote working.
What is this doing to employees’ health, especially physical health? Do staff have access to the equipment that will enable them to work productively while businesses battle with the challenges the coronavirus has brought?
At the end of the first two weeks of lockdown, more than half of the 500 people who responded to an Institute of Employment Studies homeworking wellbeing survey reported experiencing new aches and pains: 58% complained of neck pain, 56% experienced shoulder pain and 55% had experienced back pain.
Working from home
Lee Chambers, a workplace wellbeing consultant, believes that, with many people lacking a desk at home and having to work hunched over coffee tables or on kitchen stools, more people are likely to emerge from the coronavirus crisis with musculoskeletal conditions.
“People who normally work from home would have had much more time to prepare for the transition, having the time to create a designated workspace, schedule their day and buy the equipment they need,” he tells Personnel Today.
“Now, people have had to cobble together a workspace from what they’ve already got. They’re probably sitting on chairs that don’t adjust or don’t have back and neck support.
“There’s been about a seven million hours decrease in the amount of working time lost to musculoskeletal problems over the past 10 years because employers understood it, had become more aware of it, and had been taking it seriously. But if you remove them from the office scenario there’s less investment in it.”
Chambers suggests the line between who is responsible for employees’ health and wellbeing during this unprecedented period has blurred.
People have had to cobble together a workspace from what they’ve already got. They’re probably sitting on chairs that don’t adjust or don’t have back and neck support.” – Lee Chambers, workplace wellbeing consultant
Under the Health and Safety at Work Act employers still have an obligation to ensure staff are working safely and in ways that does not jeopardise their health – even from home – but both the employer and employee have responsibilities, says Deb Tweedy, head of employment and HR law at Gordon Brown Law Firm.
“By allowing employees to complete a home working risk assessment this can assess if the work can realistically be carried out both effectively and safely,” she says. “Where necessary, employers should also consider what reasonable adjustments, if any, can be made – where there are extenuating circumstances.
“In turn employees should take the time to identify any safety risks [and] put in place measures which will mitigate [them]. Where homeworking is not a practicable solution, it may instead be necessary to furlough staff.”
Some employers have removed some of the risk by purchasing equipment or delivering furniture from the workplace to employees’ homes. The day Boris Johnson told the nation to work from home, digital marketing agency Hallam arranged the delivery of desk chairs and second screens to the homes of its 51 employees.
Jake Third, client services director, says: “Many staff don’t have ergonomic chairs or second screens at home. It showed we cared, while also providing a practical solution that allowed our colleagues to continue working as usual without interrupting the service that we provide to our clients.”
Not every employer will have the financial or practical ability to do the same, but there are a number of administrative alternatives organisations can take to minimise health risks, suggests Rachel Suff, senior employee relations adviser at the CIPD.
“Bearing in mind the urgent need for home working, and it’s going to be relatively short term, it wasn’t feasible to carry out physical risk assessments. But you can still carry out electronic risk assessments – there is really good guidance and tools from the HSE,” she says.
Remote and flexible working consultant Marilyn Devonish says: “You need to put some administrative controls in place by sending out guidelines. For example, the organisation could remind employees to get up every 15 to 20 minutes and have a simple stretch.
“There might be things you prohibit; for example clearly state working hours, and issue a directive to stop at the enf of the official working day.
“It’s about doing what’s reasonably practical. If you can’t eliminate the risk, how can you substitute it? If you’re not sitting with the correct posture, where the top of the thighs should always be at 90 degrees to the hips, the substitution would be something like sitting on a cushion so that your back and neck are in alignment.
“Suddenly, with hundreds of staff and a lockdown in place, employers wouldn’t have been able to do [risk assessments]. The next best thing is issuing guidelines, outlining the basics, so staff at least know what they should be doing.”
If somebody is really struggling and would normally use ergonomic equipment in the workplace, organisations should consider whether its practicable to deliver this to their home while they are working remotely, she suggests.
While most workplaces would by now have ironed out any issues with their remote working capability, accessing these systems from home might have been a challenge – not least because of the network pressures and outages reported by some internet and mobile network providers in the first week of nationwide remote working.
With many employees owning smartphones or tablets for personal use rather than laptops or desktop computers, the switch to remote working where company-provided IT was not available would have left some employees unable to work. Due to a surge in demand for laptops, one major insurance company eventually had to let staff take their desktop PCs home with them.
Suff says employers are under no obligation to provide technology to enable employees to work from home, but most employers would have needed to do so in such an unprecedented situation.
“There’s been very little time to put in place adequate technology and support for technology, which is really important. It’s a major stressor for people if technology fails,” she says.
“Some of these systems people will be using for the first time, so it’s really important where you’re having large-scale shifts to homeworking that the IT department really make sure that people have the tools they need to do the job. Can they print at home, for example? A lot of people don’t have a printer.”
She said there would have been little time for employers to “audit” what staff had at home, so most employers would have had to “make do” with what people had – a less than ideal situation.
It’s really important where you’re having large-scale shifts to homeworking that the IT department really make sure that people have the tools they need to do the job. Can they print at home, for example?” – Rachel Suff, CIPD
Having little control over what condition employees’ personal IT equipment is in could also present cyber security risks for businesses. Ben Griffin, director at cyber security firm Computer Disposals, says employers need reliable tools to keep workers’ productive and company data safe.
“First, you’ll need to assess your technology infrastructure. Are things like bandwidth and storage capacity at levels that can handle regular remote operations?” he says. “Security is crucial too. VPNs can be used to establish secure connections and communications between remote employees and the company’s IT computer network, while multi-factor authentication strengthens the stronghold you have over your remote security.”
Finally, Griffin notes that remote working policies need to be defined and procedures put in place to ensure smooth operation if there are technical difficulties.
With the number of daily coronavirus deaths in the UK still in their hundreds, it is unlikely that the lockdown will lift any time soon. Employers still have the opportunity to put simple controls and guidance in place to help support workers’ physical health, and to assess whether they can provide more equipment, to make home working comfortable and effective.