It can feel like the whole world is working from home now. Are we prepared for the psychological and insurance workplace health and safety risks?
In 2016 the ABS reported a third of Australians regularly worked from home (WFH). Today, as everyone adjusts to the realities of COVID-19, Gartner reports that 88 per cent of organisations it surveyed in Asia encourage or require their employees to work from home.
In a matter of weeks hundreds of businesses and millions of Australians have experienced a dramatic shift in work routines. With such a short turn around, a lot of people have been shunted into working from home without full consideration of what that means.
Here are workplace health and safety (WHS) considerations and workplace risks your WFH policy might not yet cover, including psychological risks and inadequate insurance.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, a quick browse of the Safe Work Australia website would pull up a lot of articles around physical workplace risks. Machinery safety, personal protective equipment and first aid were the kinds of topics you’d find on the front page. In some ways, this focus was already lagging behind reality; WHS has long moved past just physical dangers. In 2019, over $500 million was awarded in compensation for psychological injuries.
It’s important to know that it is still the employer’s responsibility to ensure employees are psychologically safe, even if they are WFH. Georgie Chapman, partner at HR Legal, says remote work has a huge psychological impact on workers.
“One aspect which is often overlooked is the impact of isolation in working from home, particularly in this uncertain pandemic environment. Working from home for extended periods of time can be isolating which can increase the risk of employees developing or exacerbating mental health issues.”
For employees who usually work in a team, suddenly moving to an environment where they are disconnected from each other is jarring. Studies into the psychological effects of quarantine show subjects were more likely to experience post-traumatic stress symptoms, confusion, and anger. Couple those with the anxiety caused by COVID-19 and the potential for psychological injury skyrockets.
Chapman says employees new to the workforce, and those who are not “technology savvy”, are particularly vulnerable since they may not know how to virtually connect to their colleagues. They also might feel less comfortable talking about feelings of loneliness or isolation. She says this is where managers or HR professionals will need to step in.
“It will be important to maintain regular communication through emails, virtual meetings and phone check-ins, and this should remain front of mind for leaders while we all navigate the ‘new normal’ of working from home.”
If your employees are just starting and you’re worried about them, take a look at HRM’s guide to onboarding during COVID-19.
2. Liability risks
In Australia, the model WHS laws apply to employees even when working remotely which means employers can be left on the hook for any incidents that happen in people’s living rooms.
Dr David McIvor, author Working from Home Safety Handbook, says employers should be using a checklist before setting an employee up for remote work.
“This is basic stuff, ask your employee to check they’ve got an appropriate chair, check their desk is at the right height. Go through at the start to make sure no injuries are going to happen.”
Chapman echoes McIvor’s advice saying, “Prevention is key before an accident occurs”.
“Employees should be asked to undertake a self-assessment of their proposed home workspace using simple checklists, and confirm they have taken steps to appropriately set up their workspace.”
Comcare has a useful checklist you can use.
McIvor says the area many employers forget about is their insurance when an employee is using a work laptop or other work items at home.
“Employees should check if their home and contents insurance allows working from home. Check the fine print doesn’t say ‘we exclude any damage because somebody is working from home’.”
Many home and contents insurance packages will not cover business equipment, meaning if the equipment is damaged, you or the employee could be left footing the bill. These exclusions also extend to damage caused by pets, children or other household members not on your payroll.
McIvor recommends organisations review all their current policies and how they might be interpreted when working from home.
“If an employee is using their personal laptop, can they access social media? What does your social media policy say?
“It’s almost the law of unintended consequences but allowing remote work means you need to consider these things.”
3. Cyber risks
While not explicitly covered by current WHS laws, health and safety professionals such as McIvor say cyber security risks increase tenfold when working from home.
“If someone is working off their home WiFi they could be opening your business information up to anyone clever enough to tunnel in and find it,” he says.
“Think about all the devices in someone’s home, like their smart TV or their smart fridge or even children’s toys. All these devices that connect to WiFi certainly don’t have the security measures in place that you would have in your business.”
Earlier this month, the ACCC’s Scamwatch reported it had received 94 reports of COVID-19 related scams. Scamwatch believes those numbers are likely to increase.
Like viruses, cyber attacks can cause a flow-on effect. Firstly infecting everything in an employee’s home, then moving on to anyone they might be connected to through the company’s VPN.
Experts suggest all employees have up to date antiviral and malware software installed on their computers. Organisations should also be encrypting all sensitive data.
We must keep talking
Communication is the key to getting through all of this together. Which means speaking up if you’re concerned your current WHS policies are not adequate.
Chapman says we all have a responsibility for our own safety but “we are in uncharted territory, with many large workforces working from home on a scale never seen before.
“Discussions on how best to navigate working from home should be pragmatic and appropriate to the particular workplace, with both management and employees adopting a cooperative approach.”
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