Homeworker duty of care: Don’t forget the physical

By Tracey Ward, Head of Business Development and Marketing at Generali UK Employee Benefits

Last year’s working from home arrangements were seen as a temporary fix, for the majority of organisations concerned. Consequently, health and safety responsibility was largely left to the individual. Now that home working has become long-term – or even permanent for some – it’s vital that organisations assess the physical, as well as the psychological, risk. The same goes for everyone, of course, whether home or in places of work, or somewhere in-between.

There has been much focus in the media on the mental health of homeworkers. And quite rightly so, when you consider that half (51%) of people last year reported a decline in their mental health with no pre-existing conditions, according to research by mental health charity MIND. Of these, 1 in 3 did not access support, while 1 in 4 tried but were unable to.

However, physical health deserves some attention too, when it comes to aspects such as workstation or, to use the official terminology, Display Screen Equipment (DSE) assessments. Unfortunately, it seems that many HR and Line Managers do not feel equipped for this; 67% reported uncertainty about whether their business was currently supporting duty of care to remote workers. While 33% were not confident that their return to the workplace strategy was fit for purpose. These were the findings of a spot poll of HR and Line Manager attendees at a recent webinar by Generali in partnership with rehabilitation and case management expert HCML.*

The extent of the ‘physical’ issues

According to the Office for National Statistics, since April 2020 coronavirus accounted for 14% of all sickness absences, with musculoskeletal conditions (MSK) not far behind. NHS information and support website YourCovidRecovery cites shoulder and back problems as the most common ongoing issue after being unwell with Covid-19.

The rushed transition to home working left many working in uncomfortable, unsuitable ‘offices’ at home, with 50% of home workers reporting increased neck pain.

So, combine this with the direct physiological links between Covid-19 and MSK, and reduced physical activity for many in lockdown, and it isn’t difficult to see why these have become the key factors in sickness absence since the move to home working. Those with MSK pain report lower job satisfaction. In short, extending duty of care to homeworkers could have a positive impact on absence and work ‘ability’.

What does the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) say?

Employers have the same duty of care responsibilities for long-term homeworkers as any other workers. It’s also important to bear in mind that being remote can make accessing support much trickier. Organisations should ask themselves the following questions:

  • How will you keep in touch with all employees, wherever they work?
  • What work activity will they be doing?
  • Can it be done safely?
  • Are control measures needed for their protection?
  • Do staff have an emergency point of contact if they need it?

What does this look like practically?

Covid-19 has presented a mix of different challenges for workers, be it balancing childcare and homeworking, recovering from the virus and experiencing fatigue, bereavement or anxiety. So, it makes sense that continued homeworking or returning to the workplace need to be managed carefully.

In response, HCML has developed new approaches such as Home Worker Support Services, aimed at evaluating ergonomics to identify any setup or environment issues, and arranging contact with physiotherapy or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) if needed.

They have also developed Return to Work Screening – a tool to assess health changes, workplace demands and necessary access to services for those returning to work after a prolonged period of absence or homeworking.

Where organisations such as HCML work with Group Income Protection (GIP) providers, some of these services may be available as part of rehabilitation or early intervention services for specific individuals. However, for a more preventative approach, it’s worth asking the GIP provider whether funding support to access services – where a specific need is identified – might be available. For example, Generali offers this in the shape of Wellbeing Investment Matching.

The vast range of challenges presented by the pandemic has undoubtedly resulted in both short and long-term changes not only to people’s working lives but also their physical and mental health. Employers have a duty to identify risks and potential hazards in order to help manage employee physical and psychological wellbeing as far as is reasonably possible. This should most certainly be factored in to home / hybrid or on site worker support strategy. After all, new ways of working are where it’s at right now, and undoubtedly for the long-term.

*To receive a recording of the 30-min workshop entitled Return to work & duty of care: Don’t forget the physical! for employees, hosted by Generali UK Employee Benefits, in partnership with HCML, please email [email protected]