With millions of employees working from home, and this practice likely to remain long after the pandemic is over, a new set of occupational health challenges are emerging. Adapting their approach and using the tools developed for remote working will ensure that organisations are able to safeguard their employees’ health and wellbeing.
Home working has exacerbated two occupational health issues in particular – musculoskeletal and mental health problems. Poor home office set-ups, make-shift desks and increased inactivity have pushed up musculoskeletal issues, while the isolation, pressures around work and worries about the virus have led to mental health problems including anxiety, depression and burnout.
As employers begin to think about the new normal, there are expectations that these health issues will result in an uptick in legal action. “We’re already seeing more claims and cases for both musculoskeletal and mental health issues,” says Health Shield director of wellbeing Carl Laidler. “The novelty of lockdown meant it wasn’t such a problem initially, and the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) also saw it as a temporary situation and didn’t insist on any additional requirements. But, a year on and more and more employees are finding themselves with a health problem and considering their options.”
A further uptick in legal action may also come as organisations begin to introduce more long-term working patterns. Although many are proposing a hybrid model, Laidler believes this won’t suit everyone. “Some employees will be feeling anxious about changing their working routine again, especially if they’ve been enjoying the way they’ve worked over lockdown,” he says. “This could result in further friction and conflict.”
Whether employees work remotely full-time or split their week between home and office, employers need to be aware of their occupational health responsibilities. This includes ensuring the workstation is set up correctly and that employees aren’t putting their health and wellbeing at risk.
While this is relatively simple to check in the office environment, Premier senior consultant, risk and healthcare Simon Curtis says there are plenty of options for remote workers. “Employers can use online ergonomic assessments but also surveys, questionnaires and guides to help employees set up their workstations correctly and reduce the risk of musculoskeletal problems,” he explains.
Having the right kit also supports employees’ wellbeing. Aon head of wellbeing solutions Charles Alberts recommends considering aspects such as the lighting and technology when assessing home working set-ups. “Something as simple as not having the right technology can cause stress and affect productivity,” he adds. “Employers should look to replicate office conditions in the home as much as possible.”
As well as checking the physical aspects of a home office set-up, it’s also important to make sure working remotely isn’t detrimental to an employee’s health. To assess this, Laidler recommends offering an annual remote worker review.
This runs through areas such as the employee’s working environment; the support they have; and the contact they have with their line manager and colleagues. “This can be done virtually, either as an online questionnaire or by video consultation,” he explains. “A nurse- led review is also available, which will assess an individual’s suitability for home working and the risk of mental health issues.”
Line managers have a key role to play in ensuring the health and wellbeing of those working remotely. During lockdown, some organisations rolled out training on managing staff remotely, teaching line managers effective management techniques and how to identify potential issues.
Towergate Health & Protection head of specialist consulting Debra Clark says this is essential. “Line managers need a different set of skills to manage staff remotely. It’s also important that they understand the support the organisation offers and can signpost employees to it when necessary,” she explains.
In particular, employers need to pay close attention to the support that’s in place for employees’ mental health and wellbeing. “Organisations will need to have processes in place to make sure health issues aren’t missed,” says Curtis. “It’s much easier for an employee to put on a brave face if they’re only in the office a couple of days a week.”
He’s buoyed by the fact that, over the pandemic, attitudes to mental health have shifted significantly and it’s become much more acceptable for someone to say they’re struggling.
There’s also room for home working training for employees according to Alberts. He says this should cover everything from how to set up a workstation correctly to managing workloads and wellbeing. “Responsibility for ooking after wellbeing is shared between the line manager and the employee. Employers need to have clear documentation around how to do this, ideally supported by a policy.”
While the onus for ensuring safe working environments, either at home or in the office, lies with the employer, insurers have developed plenty of tools to support this objective. During the pandemic, many launched health and wellbeing apps and redesigned services to suit the virtual space. Examples include virtual GPs and online physiotherapy triage services.
Clark believes this is a major benefit. “Rather than having to get a referral from a GP, many of the nsurers now offer direct access for anyone with a musculoskeletal
problem,” she explains. “This encourages employees to get help sooner, when it may be possible to recommend exercises that can solve the problem.”
Although the switch to virtual services was driven by lockdown, advisers are hoping that they’ll continue to offer them when the pandemic is over. Curtis expects that insurers will need to see the benefit first. “Insurers will want to see whether these services drive an increase in claims spend in a normal year. The last 12 months can’t really be considered normal,” he says.
But Alberts is more positive and expects to see more innovation in this area as organisations adopt more home working on a permanent basis. “There’s room for some really interesting wellbeing propositions aimed at the home worker,” he says. “These could support the way they work, including reminders to take breaks and incorporate activity into the day. It could be really exciting.”
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