Some recent research published by the Australian Institute of Health and Safety reveals the experience of OHS professionals managing the health and safety of people working from home. A survey was conducted in the last two weeks of April 2020 when most workplaces were three to four weeks into transitioning at least a part of their workforce to working from home.
Of the 310 responses, 33% had no policies for working from home in place at the commencement of the pandemic, and 81% found that their policies were not fit for purpose.
Over 70% of OHS professionals expect that at least some of their employees will continue to work from home post the Covid-19 pandemic. They must ensure that they manage the health and safety of these employees while they work remotely.
Six Identified Issues With Employees Working From Home
There are six issues related to your employees safely working from home.
- Communication – Having access to, and understanding how to use, new technology to manage virtual and remote working; a huge increase in meetings to respond to changes in work activities and work processes, and the creation of ‘echo chambers’ with siloing of employees who are maintaining contact with those who share similar views.
- Trust – There is resistance by some managers in employees moving to work from home because it is seen as a ‘rort’ or ‘holiday’ by those who must remain in the workplace.
- Physical Health – Ensuring the correct ergonomic set up of workstations and working from home environments; employees are reducing their physical activity and increasing their daily screen time; and an increasing workload, longer working hours, and more stress and fatigue.
- Psychological Health – Some experience isolation from family, peers and their social network and others have difficulty creating boundaries between ‘work’ and ‘home’ time.
- Job Design – The home environment may reduce their ability to complete tasks under the new working arrangements; some organisations may not be able to provide ‘suitable duties’ for employees on return to work, and they may have difficulty involving supervisors in day-to-day work when they manage employees remotely.
- Risk Management – Some had difficulties with maintaining an effective risk management approach to current and emerging issues.
Lessons learned around Psychological Risk
Psychological risk of employees is paramount to safely working from home. The study identifies eight areas to consider:
- It is not good practice to treat your employees working from home as one homogenous workgroup. It would help if you recognised diversity in their age, lifestyle, life priorities, physical, psychological, mental and cognitive profiles when developing policy and process and implementing working from home arrangements.
- Policies and arrangements for working from home should be flexible to allow for the diversity of your employees, their home environments and commitments as well as the requirements of the work. Try to be flexible when setting meetings and deadlines.
- It would help if you empowered your employees to have ownership of their health and safety when working from home. As an employer, you should enable and support them to establish a healthy and safe environment.
- Take a holistic approach to include information that supports an understanding of the issues that may be associated with safely working from home, the employee’s health, and integration with other aspects of their life. Consider strategies to manage these issues, including discussing suitable breaks and establishing the boundaries between work, home and leisure activities.
- Your employees need to be able to identify with their work and have a sense of identity, social connectedness and belonging to the workgroup.
- Supporting your leaders is vital to safely working from home. It would be best if you encouraged managers to support and value employees and the potential difficulties that some may face in working from home. You may need to rethink the work design and your criteria for evaluating work performance.
- You need to support and mentor your managers and encourage them to trust employees working from home. They may need to change their management style that before Covid-19 may have been predominantly face-to-face. Your managers need to get to know your employees as individuals so that they can support their individual needs and ways of working.
- Taking a risk management approach for employees working from home helps to establish safe work practices. OHS professionals, managers and workers need to work together to identify the needs and conditions to support safe and healthy work.
Take a holistic approach to safe home working
Safe, healthy and productive working from home is not about just doing the same work, in the same way, in a different location. It requires a specific mindset in the design of work. If not designed to meet the needs of the individual employee, it can have significant physical and psychological health impacts. Therefore, work arrangements for safely working from home should consider:
- Job design that gives your employees ownership of their work and of the measures to control OHS risk
- Communications that foster a sense of belonging your employees
- Leadership by the organisation and by individual managers that is enabling rather than controlling
- Trust between managers and employees which is closely related to the nature and style of the communications and leadership
- Risk management that considers the context of risk in the broadest sense, not just the work itself, but the home, community and societal context in which it occurs.
What is the role of the OHS professional?
As an OHS professional, there are several steps you can take to ensure that your employees are safely working from home and continue as productive and valued members of your organisation.
OHS professionals should work closely with leaders, managers and supervisors and consider partnering with human resources, information management, procurement, finance and facilities management people in the process to manage employees safely working from home.
For many people, working from home has been imposed on them during a period when there is also high levels of anxiety about the risk of infection and job security, together with distancing from family, social and community support networks. Because of this uncertainty, psychological health in working from home should be supported by a holistic approach to tap into EAPs, helplines and online training and support.
Respect, diversity and communication are key
It is vital to encourage the recognition of, and respect for, the diversity of the workforce. Every employee is a unique individual, and when safely working from home they have different needs and challenges. While it may be necessary for standardised organisational approaches to working from home arrangements, managers should actively seek out individual cases of different needs. The OHS professional has a crucial role in supporting managers and supervisors to consider individual personal circumstances, personality, physical and psychological health. Not everyone likes to work from home, some will thrive, while others might find it restrictive and confining.
Try to facilitate trust, which is an essential element in the relationship between the organisation, managers and employees working from home. The more that organisations and managers trust and take care of their employees, the more responsible and accountable they become. Managers may have to relinquish their ‘control’ mindset and adopt a more enabling management and communication style. OHS professionals can help in by acting as mentors.
Effective communication is vital to productive and psychologically supportive working from home arrangements. Set up mechanisms to encourage feedback from all personnel so that managers and OHS professionals have real-time information on the challenges that people are facing with safely working from home.
Use trusted risk management principles
Managing the health and safety of your employees who are working from home should be based on the same risk management principles you apply in the workplace. However, you need to place particular emphasis on the importance of considering the context of the risk in the broadest sense, not just the work itself, but the home, community and societal context in which it occurs. Also, it would help if you encouraged ownership by your employees of the measures to control the risk.
When the workplace is also an employee’s home, there should be flexibility to enable them to have some say in how and when the work is done, how boundaries are created between work and home activities and their hours of work. OHS professionals need to actively engage in the design of work for safely working from home to give employees ownership of the work and the risk controls. It would be best if you addressed working hours and routine, the physical working environment, responsibilities and decisionmaking, the flow of information and task inter-connectedness.
Advising on health and safety for employees working from home may be a new area of practice for some OHS professionals. It is essential that when providing advice, OHS professionals hold to their professional principles of evidenced-based ethical practice. OHS professionals also need to be empowering of others. For example, supervisors and managers will need to be more self-sufficient and less reliant on the OHS professional to manage day-to-day risks.
The study investigates the role of the OHS professional when managing employees safely working from home. Six critical issues were identified including communication, trust, physical health, psychological health, job design and risk management. OHS professionals have a vital mentoring role when managing employees safely working from home to act as mentors to managers and supervisors who may be used to working face-to-face with their employees.
To do so, they must remain flexible and have open communication styles and be ready to adapt policies and processes. Drawing on trusted risk management principles is a fundamental guide to the best way to manage what may be a long-term working arrangement.