How to reduce the safety, health and wellbeing risks associated with hybrid working was the topic debated by an expert panel in a webinar hosted by IOSH magazine and sponsored by EHS software specialists EcoOnline.
Louis Wustemann, former editor of IOSH magazine, kicked off proceedings asking why employers needed to prepare specially for part-time home working as part of hybrid schemes when their employees had already spent two years on and off working from home.
‘The key difference is that we are looking at making this sustainable now,’ answered Matt Birtles, principal ergonomist at Great Britain’s safety watchdog, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).
‘Initially, when we were all sent home a couple of years ago, the HSE wasn’t asking duty holders to do risk assessments, for fear of people sending DSE assessors to people’s houses,’ Matt continued. People were working at dining tables and in little homemade office spaces in corners of bedrooms and so on. We know that had to happen so we didn’t ask people for specific assessments. What’s changed since December is we are now asking people to risk manage home working, albeit hybrid home working, as they would for the office environment.
‘So the key change is doing a risk assessment of the DSE workstation, providing the equipment that people need to have a sustainable and healthy posture while working at home.’
Judith McNulty Green, safety and health application manager at IOSH, added that the difference lay in ‘the opportunity to learn the lessons – and we all made mistakes when we went to work from home in that emergency situation.
‘Now we have the opportunity to reflect on what went well from that and what we could learn from and do better,’ she added.
Louis cited the findings of a survey commissioned by EcoOnline, which found that 74% of organisations had dealt with employees who suffered from isolation during pandemic home working and 49% had staff who had reported musculoskeletal problems.
A risk assessment of hybrid workers’ home work space should be reasonable, said Matt, ‘As long as it’s proportionate and an employee’s health is not affected, we have a bit of leeway in home assessments to manage people and what we provide.’
He said an adjustable chair, a desk and a screen that can be set at the user’s eye level were all reasonable things to check in home workspace, using the standard checklist used for office DSE assessments, but the desk might be a dining table in a smaller home.
‘Rendering a laptop screen at eye level could mean spending a few hundred pounds on a monitor or it could mean a laptop stand and separate keyboard for tens of pounds. The outcomes are the same,’ he said.
Louis noted that the EcoOnline survey showed that a monitor or laptop stand was the most common piece of equipment provided by employers for hybrid workers, followed by adjustable chairs.
Matt said that the proportion of time spent at home also helped dictate how closely the employers should look into the DSE set-up.
‘Where we’ve got less exposure it will have less of an effect on our bodies and we can compromise a bit more.’
Jade Walton, product manager at EcoOnline, raised the issue of establishing work patterns through discussion between the employee and employer, ‘So you can reach that level of understanding of what level of assessment needs to take place and where the dominant set-up is, in the home or in the office.’
Self-assessment questionnaires completed by the individual employees and checked by a line manager or safety and health practitioner was an adequate form of risk assessment, Matt confirmed. He advised risk managers to concentrate on the DSE set up in an employee’s home ‘but don’t look too much further afield it will quickly become too much to manage.’
Judith said that one way to look at risk assessment was to identify the hazards that the employer is introducing into the home by expecting people to work there.
‘It’s important to look at the psychosocial hazards and the right to disconnect from work,’ she said. ‘We can all imagine circumstances where that work computer is on in the corner and you can hear it pinging away. It’s that draw to be available for your employer versus needing that time to rest and recuperate at the end of the day.’
Asked what they expected to be the biggest psychosocial risks associated with home working, the panel agreed stress was the one to watch out for.
‘Isolation is another big one,’ said Jade. ‘Feeling disconnected from the people you work with. When we are in an office it is very easy to pop into another section or go to the kitchen and make a cup of tea and chat to people. It’s very easy to feel isolated at home if you don’t have any touch points with people as you would in an office.'
‘It is critical that the organisation sets out its stall about how it wants these things to be dealt with and that is evidenced in the training provided'
Judith said her experience of managing a team that included hybrid workers had made her aware of the pressure some people feel to be ‘always available’ and that the new pattern also presented challenges in supporting less experienced or junior staff who might have sought help through informal conversations.
Louis suggested that to reduce the risk of isolation employers should be doing as much as possible to double up communications channels to make sure everyone is kept in contact with developments in their team and the wider organisation during their days working remotely, as well as when they are in the office.
‘Everybody that started working from home in the lockdowns fell into communicating via applications like Microsoft Teams, Zoom and Skype very quickly and quite easily,’ said Jade.
‘If we look at the kind of technology that can support communication from a health, safety and wellbeing perspective, it’s more how technology can act as a prompt to get in contact with a certain person and to ask how they are, how they find working from home, what their workload is like.’
Judith said training for hybrid workers and their managers should clarify exactly what the organisation expects of people and, for line managers particularly, their responsibilities for checking in remotely, as Jade had suggested.
‘It is critical that the organisation sets out its stall about how it wants these things to be dealt with and that is evidenced in the training provided,’ she said.
Jade showed some screens from the EcoOnline EHS Platform, which allows managers at all levels to monitor and track the health, safety and wellbeing of employees, calling up dashboards showing where everyone is working, schedule check-ins and enabling quick questions to be sent out asking how people are feeling and recording any follow-up for those who need support.
It also allows recording of equipment provided to home workers and incidents and conditions that develop, for easy monitoring of trends. ‘The technology doesn’t provide the contact for you but it provides the information you need to raise issues and to guide you,’ she said.