With more than 450,000 people now receiving the pandemic unemployment payment, there is a reluctance among those who still have jobs to rock the boat. People are just grateful to be employed and are willing to put up with the difficulties many face in working from home.
That said, employers have a duty of care to employees whether they’re in the office or not. And if employers don’t know what people’s problems are, then they can’t try to fix them.
The solution is for employees to speak up, says Criona Turley, chief executive and co-founder of Irish company Capella, which specialises in helping organisations keep their employees physically and mentally "safe" whether they're working remotely, in socially distanced office settings or are at the planning stage of reconfiguring their space for when employees return.
“People are afraid to say anything in the current circumstances for fear of sounding like they’re complaining, but it is possible to speak up constructively and get a problem solved. It’s not in anyone’s interests for people to suffer in silence,” Turley says.
“When the first lockdown began, everyone grabbed what they needed and scattered. There was no time to think about it. But things have settled down into some sort of pattern now.
“With up to a third of employees likely to be still working remotely at least some of the time until the end of 2021, employers need to be aware of and tackle any issues arising. They have specific duties under 2005 legislation to ensure the safety, health and welfare at work of all.”
Turley acknowledges that employees can feel awkward about bringing up what might seem like small or personal problems at the moment. To get over this, her company has introduced a GDPR-compliant online portal that helps employers manage their obligations under health and safety legislation and lets employees provide feedback about their working environment via an independent third party.
The feedback is analysed by Capella and employers are sent a dashboard of the results with supporting documentation. This means they are aware of their employees’ working conditions and can use the information to identify and prioritise high-risk situations.
From the employees’ perspective, the system provides ergonomic training to ensure that office equipment such as desks, chairs and monitors are set at the correct height as the musculoskeletal pain a lot of remote workers are now complaining about is often a symptom of bad posture and/or bad ergonomics. Employees also complete a self-assessment questionnaire and upload photos of their home “office”.
This forms the basis of a risk assessment of their environment with recommendations on how to make it better.
Turley says sectors already taking a more structured approach to their health and safety responsibilities around working from home are typically industries with existing high compliance obligations, such as legal, finance/accountancy and insurance.
The other early adopters are organisations where people are the company’s “product”, for example, graphic designers, or where employees are paid by the hour for their skills or services.
For companies unsure where to go next in terms of bolstering their health and safety procedures, there is an Enterprise Ireland/IDA Lean Business continuity voucher available which can be used for health and safety consultancy. It provides eligible companies with up to €2,500 in training or advisory services support (from approved providers) related to the continued operation of a business during the pandemic.
Working from home has been an eye-opener for employers and employees alike but it has created winners and losers. Some have taken to it like a duck to water but others have struggled, and Turley says her company has come across situations where people are trying to operate in very challenging conditions.
“We’re seeing mental health problems arising with young people sharing houses where they’re stuck in their bedroom all day, and with women who are pregnant and struggling with the overly long days people are now putting in – often sitting for 10 hours on an unsuitable kitchen chair.
“We’ve also encountered people working from their cars because there are children at home and no quiet space,” she says.
Employer liability aside, these things matter, Turley says, because productivity is heavily influenced by the working environment and the physical and mental wellbeing of employees. Secondly, employers who actively support staff working from home experience fewer issues around retention.
“One worrying development is injury claims against employers,” she says. “Some are being quietly settled rather than hitting the WRC [Workplace Relations Commission] so it’s not as public an issue as it could yet become. But the cases are absolutely coming and the issue is resonating more and more with employers in recent weeks.”
The first case to make the headlines was in January when an office-based employee was denied remote working by her employer. The WRC judged Covid-19 to be a “biological hazard” and found in the employee’s favour.
At the time, employment lawyer Richard Grogan described the ruling as "a wake-up call for employers", predicting that more cases would follow.
However, if personal injury claims related to working from home start to escalate, there could be unforeseen consequences, according to the CEO of Insurance Ireland Moyagh Murdock.
“What we certainly don’t want to see is a healthy environment, where you can work safely from home, becoming so prohibitively expensive for employers that they can’t facilitate home working because of the risk of frivolous claims,” she says.