New HSE Guidance on Lone Working
Updated: Sep 2, 2020
The HSE has recently updated its guidance on Lone Working https://www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/indg73.htm. The guidance covers many definitions of lone working, and if you have employees who work on their own, without close or direct supervision, the guidance is well worth reading and implementing.
However, one significant group of lone workers needs particular attention. We are referring to the millions who were sent home to carry out their jobs by remote working in March 2020 and who may be returning to the office part time, or perhaps, in some cases, their offices have been closed permanently and they are now working from home full-time.
Particular issues arise with remote working, especially for those who have been used to an office environment and its specific features and idiosyncrasies. The HSE guidance, therefore, addresses those issues, and it is worth looking into what it says, as employers may well need to address these issues and need to do so in a manner that is compliant with health and safety law and regulations.
The risk assessment process
When an employee begins working from home, it should be remembered that the employer still has the same responsibility for their health and safety as for that of other employees. The hazards involved with a home working environment will be low-level and the risk assessment will probably not throw up any significant problems. However, thought should be given to the environment in which the work will be taking place; unless the employee has had the opportunity to take their office chair home with them (and depending on how quickly the office was closed, this may not have happened) then the chair and desk set-up – which may amount to only the dining table and a normal chair – may be inadequate from an ergonomic point of view. Allowing employees to bring home a suitable chair – which may mean opening the office up for this purpose – should certainly be considered.
If they have taken their laptop, keyboard and other equipment home with them, that equipment will likely be covered by the safety testing it has received in the office environment.
Mental health issues
Over the past few years, the HSE has highlighted an increase in work-related stress, depression and anxiety in the workplace in general. This is likely to be a factor in the adoption, and continuation, of remote working both during the coronavirus period and afterwards, as workplaces adjust to what has been called the ‘new normal’.
It has been shown that lone working can negatively affect employees’ work-related stress levels and their mental health. For example, the HSE’s Stress Management Standards https://www.hse.gov.uk/stress/standards/index.htm include factors such as relationships with, and support from, other workers and managers. If these are not managed properly, they can lead to work-related stress.
Mental health support
In normal circumstances, an employee who applies to work from home would have a consultation with their employer during which various issues would be explore and examined.
With the sudden introduction of the lockdown in March, many employees began working from home with virtually no notice. Employers were therefore faced with the problem of carrying out assessments of the effects of home working after the event and in a remote fashion themselves.
Since employers have a legal responsibility to help their employees, work-related mental health issues must be assessed to measure the levels of risk to staff. Where a risk is identified, the employer needs to take steps to remove it or reduce it as far as reasonably practicable. This could include:
• Appointing Mental Health First Aiders
• Providing links to Mental Health organisations and guidance
• Identifying risk areas and patterns that may trigger mental health issues
• Putting plans in place to reduce those triggers as far as is reasonably practicable
• Monitoring process for employees at risk of mental health issues
Managing work-related stress remotely
In order to manage work-related stress, managers need to know what constitutes normal behaviour in an employee and thereby be able to recognise abnormalities or symptoms of stress at an early stage. Whilst this may be relatively easy in an office environment where the employee’s demeanour is being informally monitored at all times - if not by managers, then by colleagues - it will be far harder to detect such symptoms while working from home. With poor levels of contact, employees may feel disconnected from an environment that had previously given them meaning, identity and a sense of belonging. They may feel isolated or abandoned, and this perception can affect their performance and their levels of stress.
Even a couple of years ago, keeping in contact with remote workers was a different matter; now, with the meteoric rise to popularity of video conferencing packages such as Zoom, Skype and Teams, it is much easier to maintain contact. A face on a screen gives a simulacrum of presence, and it is often more acceptable than a voice on a telephone. It is not without its own issues, https://theconversation.com/5-reasons-why-zoom-meetings-are-so-exhausting-137404 but it can cut the sense of isolation and connect remote workers to each other and to the wider social arena that they would usually enjoy in the workplace. Video conferencing and other packages can also be used to organise social events that, again, help to connect those who may not be physically present at an office building.
ACAS have produced helpful guidance on managing employees with mental health issues.