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Working from home guidance for employers

As an employer, you still have duties to ensure the health and safety of your workers, even if they are working from home.

Under NSW public health orders, an employer must allow an employee to work at the person's place of residence where it is reasonably practicable to do so.

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.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a stressful and uncertain time for all Australians. Working from home, particularly for the first time, can create additional risks to mental health.

The WHS duties apply to both physical health and mental health. This means that employers must, so far as is reasonably practicable, ensure the mental health of their employees and protect their employees from psychological risks.

Risks

Working from home can have psychological risks that are different to the risks in an office or your regular workplace.

A psychosocial hazard is anything in the design or management of work that causes stress.

Some psychosocial hazards that may impact an employee's mental health while working from home include:

  • changed family demands (for example, looking after school-aged children who are learning from home, relationship strain or family and domestic violence)
  • being isolated from managers, colleagues and support networks
  • less support (for example, employees may feel they don’t have the normal support they receive from their supervisor or manager)
  • changes to work demand (for example, the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and a move to working at home may create higher workloads for some employees and reduced workloads for others)
  • low job control
  • fatigue
  • poor environmental conditions, for example an ergonomically unsound work station or high noise levels
  • poor organisational change management (for example, employees may feel they haven’t been consulted about the changes to their work).

What employers should do

To manage risks to your employees’ mental health, where reasonably practicable, you must:

  • eliminate or minimise the risk to psychological health and safety arising from work as far as is reasonably practicable, including when your employees are working from home
  • consult with employees on psychosocial hazards they may face and how to manage them (note that employees often know what the issues are and have ideas about how to manage them)
  • review how you’re managing the risks to check your policies and processes are effective
  • providing information about mental health and other support services available to your employees, including employee assistance programs
  • have regular and clear communication with your employees to:
    • set realistic and clear instructions on workloads, roles and tasks
    • monitor work levels
    • check that work can be successfully completed from home without creating any additional safety risks
    • adjust any work tasks and ways of working, as appropriate
  • encouraging employees to stay in contact with each other
  • staying informed with information from official sources and sharing relevant information with your employees as it becomes available
  • offering your employees flexibility, such as with their work hours, where possible
  • making sure employees are effectively disengaging from their work and logging off at the end of the day
  • responding appropriately to signs an employee may be struggling (for example, changed behaviour)
  • informing employees about their entitlements if they become unfit for work or have caring responsibilities
  • eliminating or minimising physical risks
  • providing employees with a point of contact to discuss their concerns and to find workplace information in a central place.

There are also a number of other practical steps you may wish to take.  These include:

  • ensuring employees have the contact details for the relevant Employee Assistance Program
  • maintaining daily communication
  • supporting flexible work arrangements, where available.

Call the National Coronavirus Helpline for information and advice about COVID-19 on 1800 020 080.

NSW public health orders state that employers must allow employees to work from home where it is reasonably practicable to do so.

Whether working from home is reasonably practicable will depend on the specifics of the workplace, the facilities available for employees to work remotely and the ability for employees to do their work safely from home.

In deciding whether working from home is appropriate for their employees, the employer should consider:

  • the individual employee's role
  • whether the employee is in a vulnerable person category for contracting the virus
  • the suitability of work activities
  • workflows and expectations
  • workstation set up
  • the surrounding environment such as ventilation, lighting and noise
  • the home environment, such as partners, children, vulnerable persons and pets
  • the communication requirements such as frequency and type
  • the mental health and emotional wellbeing of the employee
  • safe working procedures and training requirements.

Under the model WHS laws, each employer has a duty of care for the health and safety of their employees and others at the workplace. This duty extends to identifying and managing the risks of exposure to the COVID-19 virus and putting appropriate controls in place in every workplace where the employer engages employees to carry out work or directs or influences employees in carrying out work.

If work can be completed at home, and the risks that arise from working remotely can be effectively managed, encouraging or directing employees to work from home may be the best way to minimise the risk of exposure to COVID-19.

Any existing workplace policies on working from home would apply to arrangements implemented as part of the COVID-19 response. As with all work health and safety matters, employers must consult with their employees and any elected Health and Safety Representatives (HSRs) on working from home arrangements.

An employee has the right to stop or refuse unsafe work when there is a reasonable concern of exposure to a serious risk to health and safety from an immediate or imminent hazard. In some circumstances, this could include exposure to the COVID-19 virus. Any concerns about health or safety should first be raised with an employer or HSR. If an employee decides to stop work as it is unsafe, they must notify their employer as soon as possible and be available to carry out alternative work arrangements.

More information is available about workplace rights and responsibilities in relation to the COVID-19 virus on the Fair Work Ombudsman website.

When making decisions about whether employees should work from home, employers should:

  • consult with employees and other relevant persons about whether working from home is an appropriate arrangement, including at an individual worker level
  • keep up to date with information about COVID-19 risks and appropriate control measures
  • seek advice specific to their circumstances including official advice issued by the NSW Health.

During consultation, employers should consider a range of factors including communication requirements, managing workflow, use of equipment, and employees’ compensation requirements.

What you can do to minimise risks at an employee's home may be different to what you can do at the usual workplace. However, you should:

  • provide guidance on what is a safe home office environment, including what a good work station set up looks like, why employees should not be sedentary all day and how to avoid this
  • require employees to familiarise themselves and comply with good ergonomic practices, for example requiring workers to complete a self-assessment checklist and provide their responses to you
  • maintain daily communication with employees
  • provide continued access to an employee assistance program (EAP), and
  • appoint a contact person in the business that employees can talk to about any concerns.

You must also think about how your existing policies and procedures apply when working from home, including:

  • notification of incidents, injuries hazards and changes in circumstances
  • consultation and review of work health and safety processes
  • attendance, timesheets, leave and other entitlements and arrangements.

If necessary, employers may conduct a site inspection. In many cases, given types of risks associated with the activities to be undertaken, this will not be required.

Depending on the complexity of the potential risks involved, you may need to engage the services of a health and safety professional to assess the risks to a employee working from home.

Under the model WHS laws, employers have a duty of care for the health and safety of their employees and others at the workplace. This includes working from home arrangements.

Employees also have a duty to take care for their own health and safety, which includes while working from home, and must follow any reasonable policies or directions their employer gives them.

This means employers and employees both share responsibility for ensuring a safe workstation set up.

What employers should do

Reasonable steps should be taken to ensure the employee's home workstation meets workplace health and safety requirements. An assessment of the work area should be carried out, where possible, before the employee starts working from home. Use this checklist (PDF, 120.86 KB) or consider:

  • risks associated with slips, trips and falls
  • workstation ergonomics
  • manual tasks
  • electrical safety
  • psychosocial risks, such as personal security and isolation
  • environmental hazards, such as noise.

Employers should:

  • provide guidance on what is a safe home office environment, including what a good work station set up looks like, why employees should not be sedentary all day and how to avoid this
  • require employees to familiarise themselves and comply with good ergonomic practices, for example requiring employees to complete a self-assessment checklist and provide their responses to you
  • consider organising a workstation assessment
  • create a checklist (PDF, 120.86 KB) for employees to follow
  • provide employees with information on setting up an ergonomic workstation
  • allow staff to borrow equipment (such as chairs, monitors, keyboards and mouses) from the office where appropriate OR reimburse them reasonable costs for purchasing any required equipment.

What employees should do

Employees must follow reasonable policies or directions of their employer. This may include completing workstation checklists and following any other safety policies and directions given to them by their employer.

As with any other work environment, employees:

  • must inform their employer of any notifiable incidents that occur while working at home
  • are encouraged to report health and safety concerns to their employer and Health and Safety Representatives.

Working from home may change, increase or create work health or safety risks.

What the risks are

Some key considerations that may affect the WHS risks of employees working from home or remotely include:

  • pre-existing injuries the employee may have
  • communication frequency and type between the employer and employee
  • management of the work program, workload and activities
  • surrounding work environment
  • workstation set up (such as, desk, chair, monitors, keyboard, mouse and computer)
  • work practices and physical activity
  • mental health and wellbeing of the employee.

What employers should do

You must consult with employees before you implement control measures to address these risks. It is also important to review and monitor whatever arrangements are put in place to ensure that these arrangements do not create any additional risks.

You must eliminate or minimise risks to the health and safety of your employees, so far as is reasonably practicable.

While you have less control over a employee's home, you must still consult with workers and take steps to make sure they are using safe workstations. You could:

  • organise a workstation assessment
  • provide a workplace health and safety checklist (PDF, 120.86 KB) for your employees to follow
  • provide your employees with information on setting up an ergonomic workstation
  • allow staff to borrow equipment (such as chairs, monitors, keyboards and mouses) from the office or reimburse them reasonable costs for purchasing equipment.

In undertaking safety checks employers should ensure employees have access to first aid and that a plan is in place for emergencies. Employers may also need to update their emergency plans to accommodate for employees working from home. 

What employees should do

Employees also have health and safety obligations to minimise risks when working from home including:

  • following procedures about how work is performed
  • keeping work equipment in good working order
  • using equipment provided by the workplace as per the instructions given
  • maintaining a safe work environment (such as, designated work area, moving furniture to ensure comfortable access, providing adequate lighting and ventilation, repairing any uneven surfaces or removing trip hazards)
  • managing their own in-house safety, such as maintaining electrical equipment and installing and maintaining smoke alarms
  • notifying the employer about risks or potential risks and hazards
  • reporting any changes that may affect their health and safety when working from home.

You must identify and manage any risks to employees working from home. Undertaking a risk assessment will assist you to determine what is reasonably required to keep employees safe. It may not be reasonably practicable to conduct a physical inspection of your employees’ home, but there are other ways you can assess the risks by requiring staff to complete a self-audit that you may discuss with them.

You may determine that is appropriate to allow employees to borrow equipment from the office or reimburse reasonable costs. Employers and employees must discuss what equipment may be required for the employee to safely carry out their work as early as possible during the workstation set up and continue to monitor their ongoing equipment needs throughout the time they are working from home.

If you are not satisfied that a safe workstation can be created, it may not be reasonably practicable for the employee in question to be allowed to work from home. In these circumstances, alternative arrangements may need to be made. This could include setting up a safe office space for the employee in the office and flexible work hours to minimise contact between employees.

You must ensure employees continue to access their workplace entitlements, including breaks, standard hours and any agreed to flexible work arrangements. Employers should also review any existing workplace policies and procedures that may need to be reviewed in light of the COVID pandemic and increased working from home arrangements.

Information on employee's entitlements, including breaks, standard hours and flexible work arrangements, is available on the Fair Work Ombudsman website.

Good communication between you and your employees is especially important when employees are working from home. You should ensure their employees are aware of any working from home and carer policies that apply to your workplace. Employees may also wish to discuss their entitlements to carers leave and other relevant forms of leave. Further information on leave entitlements is available on the Fair Work Ombudsman website.

Employees may wish to share tips on balancing work and caring responsibilities with others. Tool box discussions and team meetings can be a great place to share this information in a friendly environment. This might include tips on how employees have managed to balance their caring arrangements with their partner, where available.

If your employee test positive for COVID-19, they must follow the health advice provided by the local public health authority and notify you (the employer) as soon as practicable (even if they have been working from home).

You should discuss leave arrangements with your employee and will need to determine if the employee has had contact with any other employees while they were infectious.

You must ensure that the employee does not return to the workplace until they provide evidence that they are no longer contagious and are fit for work.

It is possible that a employee with COVID-19 could potentially work from home, if for example, they have no or minor symptoms. Your employee should seek advice from their treating clinician about whether to continue to work from home. 

If your employee has  not been confirmed as having contracted COVID-19 (for example, because they are in quarantine for 14 days due to contact with a confirmed case or returning from overseas travel), they should not need to provide evidence that they have tested negative for COVID-19 in order to return to work. 

Whether or not you can reasonably direct employees back to the workplace will depend on a number of factors, including public health requirements and the individual circumstances of the employee working from home.

What employers must do

You must ensure return to work arrangements adhere to relevant Commonwealth, state or territory government advice (for example, physical distancing requirements).

Before directing employees to return to the workplace, you will need to undertake a risk assessment and consult with employees.

This risk assessment will need to include consideration of the government’s advice on physical distancing and whether your workplace can support all your employees returning at the same time while meeting those requirements. You may consider options for staging a return to the workplace, to ensure that physical distancing requirements are met in accordance with government advice.

As part of your risk assessment you must consider vulnerable employees and ensure that they are not put at risk by a direction to return to the workplace. Pending your risk assessment, it may be that vulnerable employees should remain in a working from home arrangement for a longer duration that those employees who are not vulnerable.

You are also required under the WHS laws to consult with your employees and any elected Health and Safety Representatives (HSRs) about any direction to return employees to the workplace.

Finally, you should keep up to date with the latest health and government advice on COVID-19.

Other

Where circumstances change, you may be able to direct employees to return to the workplace. For example, where it is no longer safe for an employee to continue working from home due to a change in the employee's home situation or the ability of the employee to continue working from home effectively. 

What employees must do

Employees must follow any reasonable policies or directions you put in place in response to COVID-19. 

Working from home resources

Mental health resources

Family violence resources

Last updated: 28 May 2020

Checklist

If your workers find themselves working from home unexpectedly, they may not have access to the same type of office furniture and equipment you would do in an office.

This workplace health and safety checklist (PDF, 120.86 KB) outlines what to consider when setting up a computer-based workstation at home.

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