While working from home hasn’t always been taken seriously by organisations- often jokingly referred to as an ‘alternate sickie’ - these assumptions were turned on their head in 2020. Due to the pandemic and the urging from the Australian Government for Australians to work from home as a safety precaution, there are now more employees working remotely than ever before. In fact, according to the latest research from Roy Morgan, 4.3 million people (32% of working Australians) have been working from home since April. Of that percentage 58% of Australians working from home work in Finance and Insurance, 51% work in Public Administration and Defence and 47% work in Communications.
Even with social distancing restrictions starting to ease due to the decline in COVID-19 case numbers, health professionals are still encouraging workplaces to work remotely where they can, to minimise the threat of further outbreak. Many organisations have announced that they’ll be working from home for the rest of the year, while others have adjusted their flexible working schemes to make working from home a long-term option. However, while remote work was originally enforced to safeguard employees, it has created new components of safety for organisations to consider; how do we ensure workers can work safely from their homes? Are there any new risks to contemplate?
Health and Wellbeing
The mass migration to remote work paired with lockdown restrictions has highlighted the importance of mental health and wellbeing, especially within the workplace. While we know the important role mental health plays at work, COVID-19 has emphasised new dimensions of mental health that workplaces now have to consider. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, since the start of ‘lockdown’ in April, almost half (46%) of Australians have felt nervous at least some of the time, two in five (41%) have felt restless and that everything was an effort and one in six people (17%) have felt the need to seek professional help due to growing levels of depression and anxiety. Experts believe the increased levels of anxiety and stress are due to a number of compounding factors, but Safe Work Australia have identified the following work related psychological risks for workers since being in lockdown :
While trying to monitor and oversee the wellbeing of employees can be difficult while working remotely, organisations are still responsible for minimising or eliminating psychological health and safety risks as much as is reasonably practicable. More importantly, being able to help support employee’s mental health during this time will not only contribute to improved productivity levels but a healthy and happy workforce.
For Public Sector People and Design & Build, looking after the team’s mental health and well being was all about communication. Our dedicated HR and Workplace Health and Safety (WHS) team ensured prior to lockdown that all employees had access to the technology to maintain communication with the team and were confident in using these to continue performing their dedicated tasks. Setting up things like Microsoft Teams and Zoom accounts and making a concerted effort to check in regularly with teammates during the week - especially for Melbourne teammates in extended lockdown- has become a vital part of each employee’s workday. Teammates were also encouraged to pick up the phone and call their colleagues for ‘regular check-ins’ as a substitute for the normal workplace interactions that we can take for granted, like the conversations you share with teammates in the lift or making a cup of tea etc. Our HR Business Partner Alex Barclay, believes encouraging these different forms of communication are increasingly important.
“Sometimes it’s hard to tell if someone is struggling just by having a ZOOM catch up with them, especially if they appear cheerful, positive and upbeat. Mental health issues present in different ways and you need to create an environment that allows workers to express their concerns should they have any. Communication after all is a two way street and as an employer, you want to be able to support your workers the best you can, especially during a pandemic.”
There are also a number of Australian services and contacts you can share with employers who have reached out to you about their struggles with mental health during this time.
For individual workers, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention have provided some immediate stress busters for employees to try if they’re feeling stressed or anxious during their working week:
A Safe Workspace
Just like in an office or on a worksite, an employee’s home environment will pose its own set of safety risks that need to be managed by an organisation. Having insufficient equipment or an inappropriate office space can contribute to an injury, however the added challenge of remote work is ensuring all employees are working in a safety approved environment, as each workstation will differ for each employee and come with its own variables. Consequently, it’s integral for WHS professionals to communicate the potential risks to employees and clearly advise them on the best way to manage these in order to comply with workplace policies and procedures.
Safe Work Australia advise that the best way to assess the safety of each employee’s home environment is to ask each employee to complete a working from home checklist in order to identify potential hazards or risks. For example, asking whether employees have access to an appropriate work surface or an office chair. Of course, not all employees will have access to the same resources – many individuals living in apartments for example, have found it difficult to find the physical space for their workstation or don’t have their own work computer or office chair already set up. In this instance it is the organisation’s responsibility to provide this for employees who need it. Many WHS professionals have resolved this by organising schedules to help coordinate when their employees can safely re-enter the office to borrow their equipment. For Public Sector People and Design & Build, Alex said it was important to make sure everyone had what they needed to create their workspace ahead of time.
“It can be hard working off a laptop so we made sure employees had access to a work mobile phone. keyboards, mice and stands.”
Another key focus for creating a safe workspace is ergonomics – where the work environment like the height of someone’s desk for example, is modified to fit the individual worker. Poor ergonomics practices can result in muscle strain, muscle imbalances and fatigue which is why ensuring employees familiarise themselves with good ergonomic practices is important.
Health and Wellbeing Queensland have created a list of great pointers for both employees and employers to consider when setting up their workstation ergonomically:
Aim for 90 Degrees
Office workstations are set up to ensure an individual’s joints are aligned – when joints are misaligned or have to sustain awkward postures your muscles overcompensate, often leading to pain and injury. To ensure your joints are aligned correctly, you should try and set up your desk and chair so that when sitting or even standing while using a computer, your elbows, hips, knees and elbows are at a 90 degree angle.
Alter Your Screen Set Up
With a laptop, it’s easy to set yourself up at the dining room table, or work from the couch however this tends to have us looking down at our screen which can cause stiffness in the neck and shoulders if maintained for a long period of time. Ideally you want your screen to be straight ahead, with your eyes looking at the top third of your screen. This can be achieved by using a computer stand or stacking some books underneath your computer to prop it up.
Re-think Your Lighting
Low light will cause your eyes to strain as the muscles in your eyes are working overtime, so it’s always important to where you get the most natural light when setting up your workspace, especially if you spend a lot of time reading or on a computer screen. It’s also recommended to give your eyes a break from the screen for a couple of minutes every hour, as this will help them to relax and reduce strain.
Don’t Be Sedentary
Having your workplace set up ergonomically is important for maintaining long periods of sitting, but it’s important to encourage employees to get up and move around throughout the day. This can seem difficult with so many of us in lockdown, but even taking five minutes to walk around the backyard or get up and do some quick stretches not only help employees feel refreshed, but allows your body to use different muscles and reset.
When advising Public Sector People and Design & Build’s own team, Alex had the following tips:
“Ensure you have an adequate space set up for work, if you can, keep your workspace separate from your living areas. Stay connected with your team and check in regularly. Take the time to get up from you workspace and move around, its also important to get some fresh air, so go for a walk, especially if the weather is nice!”
For more advice on ensuring the safety of employees while working at home, or tips for individual workers looking to improve their workspace, visit Safe Work Australia. They have created some dedicated resources for workers during COVID-19, as part of Safe Work month this October.