With the COVID-19 situation, more people than ever are working from home. Some organisations which had previously encouraged occasional home working were well-prepared. Other organisations found themselves running to catch up.
Glossy articles on homeworking are appearing, showing a smiling worker sitting in a large well-lit room with a spacious table and a desktop computer, or a laptop raised on a stand with a separate keyboard.
The reality for many people now having to work from home is quite different. Two working parents at home, sharing space at a kitchen table with children home from school. Or young people in house shares, where their only personal workspace is sitting on their beds.
We recently created a practical guide on remote working for H&S professionals, but what about the issue of general employee wellbeing?
Display screen equipment (DSE) risk assessments can easily be done with online tools (or using the free HSE checklist) but you don’t need an assessment tool to tell you that working 8-hours a day, five days a week on your bed, or using a tablet computer, will lead to aches and pains that might cause musculoskeletal problems beyond any period of isolation. And your homeworkers might face greater hazards than DSE.
Here are our top three things to do to manage the wellbeing of home workers during the current crisis, and perhaps beyond.
It’s good to talk, especially now. If you are using the opportunity of a closed workplace to collaborate on revising procedures, risk assessments and policies you might have plenty of opportunities to catch-up. But don’t rely on emails or online messages. Make an appointment to talk at least once a week, either as a one-to-one, or if you have the technology, as a team. Even if there is nothing much to say – if staff are on short hours, have been laid off, or are being paid to do nothing – keep in touch with everyone in your team at least once a week.
If someone is on their own, or is a lone parent, they might appreciate a voice call more often. Be careful not to be seen as prying, but you could offer a daily call to help someone avoid a sense of isolation. If homeworking or lone working is hazardous, for example, if someone uses power tools or has to travel for work, make sure there are buddy arrangements in place to check-in at the end of a shift.
Make sure you know where to refer people to if you sense they need help, and are not coping with the isolation of homeworking. Check current arrangements with employee assistance programmes, or check external services to refer people to.
The greatest risk for many will be depression and anxiety. Anxieties about COVID-19, about job security, about other family members. Depression because so many of the things that make us happy - trips to the gym, the cinema, eating out – are now forbidden, dangerous activities.
One of the best ways to prevent anxiety and depression, and to detect any signs early, is to establish a routine of regular communication, exercise, sleep and diet.
Tips for a mentally and physically healthy routine
- Be flexible with people about the timing of your catch-up. Some will be working around home‑schooling, shopping for vulnerable neighbours or family, and their own welfare needs. But once its agreed, try to stick to it.
First thing in the morning might give people a reason to get up and dressed; late in the day might be a signal to switch off from work.
- If you have a budget, can you send relevant gifts to your colleagues to brighten their day (taking account of contamination issues). What about a packet of seeds to encourage them into the garden? Even someone stuck in a flat could grow some cress or salad leaves in a window box. Connecting with nature can be a great mental tonic.
If you have a bigger budget, what about a fresh food hamper? Even with no budget, you can send links to healthy recipes or exercise tips.
- Work is good for us. If work is slow, give people a target each day – review a risk assessment, re-write a procedure, complete some online learning.
Courses on lone working, positive mental health, data protection, cyber security, infection control and DSE might be relevant to refresh.
- While you want people to stay in touch, encourage them not to spend all day dipping in and out of the news, and of social media’s response to the news.
Set a time each day to catch up with developments, but then focus on positive things.
Do you need to get equipment sent to people’s homes? A separate keyboard and a mouse is a cost effective option for a laptop, and the screen can then be raised to a better height using books, boxes or other improvised riser.
Even a tablet computer can be provided with a stand for the screen and a separate Bluetooth keyboard, while a stylus is a better option for the touch screen elements. If a worker spends a long time on the phone, have they got a headset they can use to keep their hands free?
Encourage staff to change position, change activity, and move around. The HSE recommendation of at least 5 minutes every hour applies to an ideal set-up. If someone is using a laptop or tablet without a keyboard, ergonomists advise a break every 15 minutes.
It is easy to see why providing a separate keyboard can improve productivity. Perhaps work standing at the kitchen worktop for an hour, then switch to a table. Move to the sofa for a phone call, or better still use your headset and walk around the garden while you’re talking.
As of 24 March, the UK government have stated people can go out for exercise once a day if they can keep their distance from other people. In Ireland, people must remain within 2km of their home for exercise. Encourage workers to make use of this opportunity.
If people are stuck inside, Sports England have some tips on indoor exercise. Perhaps it’s time to dig out the gym clothes and start a daily online keep-fit session with your team?