If you’re currently relying on home-working or overseeing a staged return to the office, are you still responsible for your employees’ mental well-being? The short answer is yes.
You still have moral and legal duties to take care of them, on top of which doing so is in your best interests if you want them to be productive. Of course, doing this in practice requires a different approach from looking after workers in an office environment. This article will help you understand how it can be achieved.
Duty of care
As an employer, you have a duty of care to your employees, which remains in place when they’re working from home. That means you are obliged to ensure they have a safe and healthy working environment. When it comes to mental health, the most important thing is to communicate. This needs to be frequent enough and supportive enough for employees to be able to talk about any difficulties they’re having. It’s also important to be aware of the most common risks and have support mechanisms in place if something does go wrong.
HSE requires employers to carry out risk assessments of any premises where their employees are working. That includes employees’ own homes. This requirement allows for a flexible and proportionate approach, so in a pandemic, it’s reasonable for you to ask your workers to carry out these assessments themselves under your guidance. If any hazards are identified, it will be your job to deal with them. That could mean, for instance, providing longer breaks to someone whose mental health is affected by a shortage of natural light in the available workspace or changing communication or monitoring practices that are causing anxiety.
Specific risks facing home workers
There are some risks faced by home workers which employers are less used to dealing with because they don’t appear under usual working conditions or don’t manifest in the same way. A major one that has affected people during the pandemic is domestic abuse, which can have a catastrophic effect on mental health even if it doesn’t involve physical violence. If you suspect it is happening, you could be the person best placed to prompt the affected person to get specialist support.
Another is addiction, with rates of drug and alcohol abuse rising significantly during lockdown periods. Obviously, you can’t go about drugs and alcohol workplace testing in the same way as usual, but you can, for instance, ask workers to use saliva tests where you can see them on screen and then seal the tests so that they can be sent to the lab and checked. The crucial thing is to be ready to help if it turns out that they do have a problem and to understand that people often get into these situations by accident when trying to cope with stress.
Ongoing risk management
Assessing the risks facing your home workers is not a one-time solution. You’ll need to track and manage risks on an ongoing basis. Many larger companies appoint specific members of staff to handle the task. You should also be looking at how you can modify your working practices to reduce risks day to day. Establishing a routine is beneficial for most workers, though different people may need other routines in order to flourish. A sense of structure helps people feel confident and secure and reduces the risk of them exhausting themselves mentally by allowing work time to bleed over into social time.
If you have an Employee Assistance Programme, make sure it’s equipped to deal with mental health issues, that suitable training has been provided and that it can provide or refer workers to counselling if needed. Online counselling is a good option for people who cannot get out and about much, such as those with health conditions whose doctors have advised them to continue shielding.
Returning to the workplace
If you’re getting ready to bring employees who have been working from home back into the office, be aware that some of them will be bringing mental health problems developed during lockdown with them, while others might have difficulty readjusting. It will be more important than ever for you to be attentive to their needs and ready to help. Supporting one another is the best way for us to make a successful post-pandemic transition, and employees need to know that their employers are there for them.