When Prime Minister Scott Morrison “strongly encouraged” Australians to work from home where possible to curb the spread of COVID-19, the landscape of the Australian workplace changed overnight. While workplace flexibility has been mounting for close to a decade, the shift to remote working happened on such a widespread scale that it even garnered a new acronym: WFH (working from home).
Over 4.3 million Australians started working from home as a result of COVID-19, presenting a new challenge for employers as the responsibility of providing a safe work environment for employees remains.
According to Global Workplace Analytics, the trend of working from home is here to stay: “our best estimate is that 25-30 per cent of the workforce will be working-from-home multiple days a week by the end of 2021”.
With a dispersed workforce, it is still your organisational responsibility to uphold Work Health and Safety standards for employees working remotely or from home.
At Pegasus, keeping workers safe is our mandate. We help companies comply with government legislation, including the Work Health and Safety Act 2011. While 2020 has changed the outworking of this policy considerably, the outcome remains the same: a safe workforce.
From NSW Health:
The Work Health and Safety Act 2011 still applies if workers work somewhere other than their usual workplace, for example, from home. This means employers have an obligation to make sure the health and safety of their workers is maintained when they work at home.
Both the employer and employee have a responsibility for ensuring work completed from home is done in a safe manner.
According to WorkSafe ACT, possible new risks to the health and safety of employees working from home include:
• Physical risks from poor work environment, such as workstation set up, heat, cold, lighting, electrical safety, home hygiene and home renovations, and
• Psychosocial risks such as isolation, high or low job demands, reduced social support from managers and colleagues, fatigue, online harassment and family and domestic violence
As tempting as working from your lounge or bed may seem, it’s important to create a designated workstation while you work from home. Ensure you have an ergonomic set up to mitigate the risk of workplace injury. WorkSafe QLD has a comprehensive ‘Ergonomic guide to computer based workstations’ which will help you make informed choices.
The Safe Work governing bodies from all states and territories have created their own Working from Home Safety Checklists and guidelines.
• ACT – Working from Home – Work Health and Safety Checklist
• NSW – Working from Home – Workplace Health and Safety Checklist
• NT – Maintain a safe working environment
• QLD – Health and safety checklist for working from home
• SA – Work From Home
• TAS – Working From Home
• VIC – Minimising the spread of coronavirus: Working from Home
• WA – Work from Home – Occupational Safety and Health Self-assessment
For a workstation to be functional, you will need various office furniture such as a desk, chair, computer stand, keyboard and mouse, and potentially more. At an organisational level, there should be a discussion about whether employees will be allowed to take equipment home, or if they will be reimbursed for items purchased to create an ergonomic office setup while working remotely. This will of course change depending on whether employees will only be working from home, or if they will also work from the office a few days a week. Having the right equipment minimises workplace injury and should not be overlooked.
While home is now the workplace, it doesn’t and shouldn’t mean that employees are expected to work at all hours. There needs to be a clearly defined beginning and end of the working day to prevent employee burnout.
As an employer, this could look like creating a work from home policy so your employees and workers know what is expected of them while they are working from home. The policy should include: communication requirements, managing workflow, use of equipment, and employees’ compensation requirements.
Working from home brings new freedoms with the daily commute rendered redundant, saving time and money. It has also seen an increase in requests for compressed hours, flexitime, and staggered hours. As an employee, if flexible working hours would be preferable, have the discussion with your line manager. As an employer, document and clearly communicate any variance in workplace hours.
Communication is key, if an employee will be working 8am to 4pm, instead of 9am to 5pm, they should be able to finish their work at 4pm, not keep working an additional hour without compensation because their colleagues are emailing or calling them once their working day has finished.
When large chunks of the workforce are working from home, maintaining a healthy work/life balance has never been more crucial.
Australian work, health and safety legislation requires employers to ensure workplaces are safe and healthy for all workers. Employers also have an ethical responsibility to protect and promote the health, safety and welfare of their employees. In response to this, most Australian workplaces have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) which assist them in meeting their obligations under the Work Health & Safety Act 2011.
The 2018 KPMG and Mental Health Australia report, Investing to Save, estimated the cost of workplace mental ill-health in Australia was $12.8 billion in 2015-16. Extended lockdowns, remote learning, inability to see family and friends, travel plans cancelled, and life events changed due to COVID-19 have inevitably led to an increase in mental health issues among Australians which will prove costly if not appropriately addressed.
As an employer, it is important to check in with your employees working from home daily. And not just about work—find out how they’re coping with the changes COVID-19 has brought into their lives. According to a Harvard Business Review study in 2020, “Nearly 40% of global employees said that no one at their company had asked them if they were doing okay”.
As an employee, make use of the EAP. Keep an open dialogue with your line manager and colleagues. Make time for daily exercise, breaks in screen time, and eating a well-balanced diet. Gone are the days of the water cooler chats in the office when working remotely. While maintaining productivity is important, Zoom meetings don’t need to be limited to strictly business.
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