Out-Law News

TUC study highlights employers’ failings in supporting homeworking

Zoe Betts tells HRNews about employers’ health and safety obligations when it comes to staff working from home

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  • Transcript

    Employers are still getting the basics of home working wrong and it’s damaging our health. That’s the TUC’s headline following publication of research by the TUC and the University of Kent looking at the experience of 20 people working from home. We’ll speak to a health and safety expert about employers’ legal duties to support home working.

    The TUC’s overall conclusion is that whilst there were some examples of good practice where employers had purchased almost a full suite of equipment to ensure a safe working posture and screen set-up, many employers had shirked their legal duties. As a result, medical leaders have warned of a rise in back and neck problems linked to remote working without the proper equipment. 

    The TUC goes on to make a number of recommendations, which are:
    - that all employers conduct risk assessments for those working from home accompanied by a trade union health and safety rep. 
    - where hybrid/home working is agreed, employers should provide and maintain the equipment necessary for home workers to work safely and effectively 
    - that employers ensure equal access to technology and equipment at work for everyone, regardless of characteristics such as age, ethnicity, or disability
    - employers should provide support towards additional costs associated with home working

    The research was in the form of a diary study and the entries highlight some of the issue faced when trying to work from home. For example, one person said: 

    “Unfortunately, the organisation doesn't provide monitors for the purpose of working from home so I use a work laptop. I used to work from my sofa, putting the laptop on a coffee table in front of me, and then I got myself a second-hand table and then eventually a chair that goes with it. I didn't complain because I didn't want to lose the opportunity of the flexibility.”

    Another referred to the DSE assessment conducted by their employer to check the suitability and safety of their display screen equipment. They said: 

    “ I just found that DSE wasn't really helpful for me. It was more of a tick-box exercise. When I actually made requests for things like a better chair to work from home in I was told there’s nothing in the budget for that.”

    So what are the employer’s legal duties and how far does the employer need to go to enquire about the employee’s home working arrangements? It’s a question I put to health and safety lawyer Zoe Betts:

    Zoe Betts: “The law has always been quite clear. We've got the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and then subsequent to that we've got the management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999. Taking those two things together, it's long been the case that employers must take reasonably practicable steps to safeguard people's health, safety and welfare at work and ‘at work’ doesn't mean in a formal structured office setting, or in a shop, or in a factory. If you allow somebody to work from home, contractually or otherwise, then that becomes their workplace. The management regulations then say there must be a suitable and sufficient risk assessment. So really, the basics are employers ensuring that they've taken those reasonable steps to give people a safe and healthy working environment, whether that's at home or in a more formal setting, and also they mustn't forget that if you've got a hybrid worker, or a home worker, or some sort of flexible arrangement, you still need to ensure that you're giving them adequate information, instruction, supervision, and training. So, all of those things are still very important if you've got your hybrid workers at home.”

    Joe Glavina: “Of course, everyone’s home is different and you’ll have some people with plenty of space and the right equipment and others with a make-shift arrangement and the wrong equipment. The employer, in most cases, probably won’t know about an individual’s arrangements so should they go and look for themselves and check it out? How tailored does the employer’s approach need to be? 

    Zoe Betts: “There does need to be a tailored approach. I think the starting point is the no requirement to go and visit somebody at home necessarily, that might be too onerous and we can do this in a far easier and more sophisticated fashion. But also, employers must understand whether the display screen equipment regulations kick in and they will apply if you have people using equipment with screens for continuous periods of an hour or more. If that's the case, then really I think it's incumbent on employers to be training their staff who work from home to do their own self-assessment and there's a wealth of guidance out there to help employers with this. They can go to the Health and Safety Executive’s website, there is a lot of detail there on how you can train up your employees to do a suitable and sufficient display screen equipment assessment. They can do that at home and on the back of that assessment, the outcome of that assessment, is what equipment they may need. I say may need because there is no express duty in law for employers to purchase a suite of home office equipment and provide it to workers who work from home. What they need to do is ensure that that risk assessment provides a safe working environment and there are minimum requirements that have come out of the display screen equipment regulations. So for example, there's got to be adequate lighting, there's got to be legroom allowing for postural changes, you've got to have a desk with sufficient space to allow you to flexibly arrange your equipment, you've got to have a chair that is stable and adjustable. So, if actually, people working from home have all those things, then they don't necessarily need to have something purchased for them. But let's be clear, if the worker at home does need an adjustable chair, or they may need a footrest, or they may need a second monitor, if that is the way in which they can work safely and healthily, well, then it is for the employer to provide that and it cannot be charged out to the employee, it must be funded by the employer.”

    Joe Glavina: “This report highlights a rise in neck and back problems which the TUC says are linked to the rise in home working. That’s obviously a problem for the individual, but it it’s also potentially a problem for the employer because it leads to higher absence rates. Is that something you’re warning clients about?”

    Zoe Betts: “Yes, absolutely, it is Joe, and we've been giving this kind of advice since the pandemic. So in 2024 it's somewhat surprising that we're still talking about these things because really work-related ill health has been on the rise year on year. The two biggest causes of work-related ill health are stress, anxiety and depression, and then musculoskeletal disorders, which is the bad back and the bad neck that you're talking about and  this causes misery to a huge number of workers in the UK and, of course, it also leads to a tremendous amount of sickness absence which causes employers a great deal of grief. So putting those two things together, it's absolutely in the employer’s interest to get this right, to do those suitable and sufficient risk assessments and to provide any equipment that may be necessary because we do have issues with a rising number of medical problems and I think, actually, there are some relatively quick fixes here. There is no real excuse for an employer not fulfilling their legal obligations. There are many positives to be taken from home working. I think it helps to close the gender pay gap, I think it provides greater flexibility for disabled and older workers, it keeps people in work for longer and it retains talent. People will leave organisations if they feel that home working, or flexible working, is not being offered in the right way and it's not being offered in a safe way. So my advice is for employers to understand their obligations and how they can discharge those in a proportionate manner.”

    Joe Glavina: “Finally, Zoe, anything else to add?” 

    Zoe Betts: “I think the only other point that I would want to get across is that homeworking does not solely involve an assessment of the person's working environment in terms of desk, chair and monitor, I think we must remember that a lot of people who work from home are lone workers and where I talked before about stress, anxiety and depression being the leading cause of work-related ill health, there is a direct connection there to people working at home. They do need that supervision, they do need regular catch ups with managers. That's easy enough over Teams, or over Zoom, but I think we've got to be clear that well-being is a huge issue for today's workforce and one of the possible downsides of working at home is people actually not getting the work-life balance that you would think they're going to get because they extend their working hours, they end up checking emails outside of normal working hours, and the day bleeds into the night. So as part of the risk assessment into somebody working from home, I do believe that lone working should be considered. Those regular catch ups are very important and really you should be making the suitable and sufficient risk assessment part of, or a condition of, somebody working from home so they understand how important that is, they comply with the process and help their employer and then that risk assessment is revisited regularly in case there have been any material changes to the person's working environment, or even to their own health. They've got to have an opportunity to share that and then the employer can revise the risk assessment if necessary.”

    That research was carried out by the TUC and Kent University and carries the headline on the TUC’s website:  “Working from home shouldn’t cost us our health. Here’s what employers should do”. The full report is called: “Making hybrid inclusive.” We included a link to both in the transcript of this programme. 

    - Link to TUC article 
    - Link to TUC/Kent University report 

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