The year 2020, has been a pretty exceptional year and we are only half way through!
One of the incredible, seemingly transformational changes we have experienced has been the way we work. At the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic in the UK, there were interesting statistics on the impact on the UK workforce (See post here). Interestingly, in the months of April and May 2020, it was reported that 46% of the UK workforce spent time working from home, often at short notice from their employers. This is in comparison of 30% of the UK workforce reported having any experience of working from home in 2019. This then means that during lock down 16% more workers, as compared to 2019, were working from home for the first time, and many are continuing to do so.
It should be noted that certain sectors of the economy experienced a greater proportion of their staff working from home e.g the information technology and education sectors saw close to 100% of its non-furloughed workers working from home.
While it will take a while to determine if home working will become an increasingly defining trend for businesses and employees, somethings however, are currently clear to a growing number of HR professionals. There is an increasing downturn of employee well-being and this is possibly related to the increasingly popular trend of working from home (WFH). There are increasing reported instances of anxiety, stress and the impact of social isolation (See the Guardian’s report on this). This well-being trend has had mild to profound impacts on millions of people across the country, affecting their personal and working lives. In addition, the sharp sudden rise in absences due to sickness and mental health or musculoskeletal problems have left many HR professionals and departments in uncharted territory. This is particularly so because some affected employees are not desirous of visiting hospitals due to the fear of contracting the Coronavirus.
Employee well-being and safety
Remote working for many has always been a contractual for a small population of workers or as a planned business continuity measure to mitigate unforeseen crisis situation. However, the scope planned for is usually not on the scale and duration experienced during the pandemic. As such, adapting to hundreds or even thousands of employees changing where and how they work presents a world of challenges that need to be addressed. One key challenge organisations experience relates to employee well-being and this demands the attention of HR leadership in particular.
With employees being the most important asset to any organisation, employee well-being, health and safety have to be the highest priority for employers. Health and safety as a function has rightly or wrongly, has not always been perceived as having the best reputation amongst the general public (https://www.hse.gov.uk/myth/top10myths.htm). Perceptions aside, employers are required to comply with a range of UK H&S guidance related to the pandemic to protect employee health and reduce the likelihood of injured or incapacitated due to their work environment. With many people working from home, these regulations still apply and need to be applied or adapted to suit the employee home working environment.
How do we ensure employees stay safe at home, and what issues need to be considered? Some key issues are addressed below:
Safe working environment at home:
Employers have a duty of care to provide a safe place of work as stated in a range of legislation (e.g Health and Safety at Work etc. Act of 1974), which includes people working from home.
In line with the increasing number of employees working from home, there are an increasing number of people using equipment not DSE checked or compliant or not suitable for the nature and type of work that they are employed for. Also, employees have been discovered to be working very long hours and for some, these hours are mostly from one position – behind an unsuitable desk and on an unsuitable chair or sofa. It is understandable that due to the sharp rise in numbers of employees needing to work from home, and the economic instability, organisations have inadvertently overlooked well-being as such, HR are beginning to also experience a rapidly increasing number of well-being issues reported by their workforce; Musculoskeletal conditions such as back pain, RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury), neck pain and arthritis to name a few. It is worthy to note that the most recent report by versusarthritis before the pandemic, showed that the UK had approximately 18.8 million people suffering from Musculoskeletal ailments (8.3M, 27.1% – Men, 10.5M, 32.5% – Women). Some of these conditions, caused or exacerbated by work activities such as heavy lifting, bad sitting posture, poor mobility, lack of or wrong positioning of work equipment e.g. lack of laptop riser are some examples.
There are lots of measures, guidelines and regulations available to organisations and HR to ensure their employees work safely and also in a safe working environment – particularly, when working for extended periods of time from home. In complying with relevant Health and Safety regulations, it is critical for HR to involve the organisation’s health and safety representative in considering employee well-being related issues when employee working environments have changed such as we are experiencing.
Employee well-being can very easily and swiftly be overlooked, especially in an environment of economic or political uncertainty. HR professionals however, need to be ready and are indeed already finding ways to support their workforce.
There have been some great examples of companies liaising with staff on their well-being needs and, in some cases, offering to offset the cost of office equipment and supporting employees in an adaptive manner to ensure particularly at-risk employees do not have their health compromised.
The following banks: Citi, Morgan Stanley, Deutsche, HSBC, Lloyd, Wells Fargo & Co have all decided to suspend planned redundancies which although seems on the face of it a financial benefit for their workers but, such decision goes a long way in preserving employee well-being (See reports from Bloomberg and the Guardian).
There is no 'one size-fits-all' solution to ensuring employees, the greatest asset to any organisation are well looked after, particularly in a pandemic situation. However, the best start point for organisations is to ensure that employees understand their rights and feel supported. This is particularly important for issues like sickness or self-isolation related absences. While maintaining professional ethics, being proactive, open, considerate and compassionate in solving problems are great assets for all HR professionals. Many companies have been seeking to keep engaged with staff, including those who might have been furloughed, to maintain a sense of community. Some organisations have employee assistance programmes that can provide support and now is a great time to remind staff about these services for those that have them.
Check in with management to ensure that all staff, regardless of work status, are supported and in communication with their manager or HR representative.
Establish/Revise/Revamp risk assessment protocols, with the engagement of a union/health and safety representative as may be necessary.
Consider expanding existing business protocols or initiating new ones to manage employee stress and isolation (See some guidance from HSE).
Develop employee assistance programmes and regularly remind staff of the availability of these programmes.
Generally but with all seriousness, keep an eye out for the well-being of employees who are working 'out of sight', working from home.
Call to Action:
For small and medium scale enterprises looking to explore their post Covid-19 workforce strategic options, do contact us for a free consultation.
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