Expert insight

Looking after your workforce- what are your responsibilities for lone workers?

Before the outbreak of the COVID -19 pandemic, many employees already worked without supervision or colleagues by their side. This included those who visit clients, customers or service users on-site or in their home, as well as those who worked at their company premises on their own.

With almost all office workers having shifted to homeworking during the pandemic, many managers are now faced with the task of supervising employees remotely.  The news that “everyone who can work from home must do so” once again will be distressing for many.

This comes at a time where the UK is experiencing a mental health crisis. The Health and Safety Executive report a statistically significantly higher prevalence of work-related stress, depression and anxiety in 2019/2020 compared with the previous year.

Did you know that an employers’ responsibility for the health and safety of their workers includes mental health? This applies to home-workers as much as any other kinds of lone workers.

Below, the leading Banner Jones employment law team answer some of the most common questions they get asked by clients.

Is my employees’ mental health my responsibility?

One of the biggest challenges of working alone is staying mentally healthy.  This is particularly the case for those who have been forced to work alone because of the pandemic, but were not recruited for a homeworking role. Desk-based personnel may now find themselves in a lonely situation with only minimal contact from their colleagues.

The Government’s Good Work Guide recommends some core standards that employers should meet to promote the wellbeing, safety and security of their team. This emphasises the importance of supporting mental health in the workplace.

Furthermore, mental health is considered to be part of the duty of care an employer owes to its employees.  Neglecting this could be a breach of this duty and result in costly claims by the employee.

If an employee has a longstanding (usually for 12 months or more) or serious mental health condition that impacts on their ability to carry out day to day tasks, this could amount to  a disability under the Equality Act 2010.  Under the Equality Act, disabled employees are legally protected from being discriminated against at work  and failing to give a disabled employee  adequate support could mean you are not fulfilling your obligations as an employer.

What can I do to promote good mental health in my team?

The most important thing employers can give to their employees is time and understanding. Feeling judged, unsupported or even discriminated against will not only make your team members unproductive and potentially impact negatively on their mental health, but it may lead to them taking legal action against you.

You can support your team by communicating regularly and openly. One way to do this is to carry out team meetings and activities remotely via video based apps like Zoom and Microsoft Teams. You should also check that lone workers are able to manage their workload and ensure they are taking regular breaks.

Remember that a mental health issue can be a legitimate reason for absence from work. Your employee is still required to notify you of their sickness absence in line with the terms of their contract and where they request adjustments to their work or role, or reasonable adjustments are recommended by their doctor, you should consider these properly and in a timely manner.   Such adjustments might include adjusting their working hours or providing specialist equipment.

Can employees claim for additional expenses while working at home?

Employers are obliged to carry out a risk assessment of a homeworker’s working environment to ensure they are safe and not at risk of harm when working. Employers are not legally obliged to provide additional expenses for homeworkers, but it may be necessary to provide them with the equipment they need in order to work from home. If you feel it would be conducive to productivity, then you may choose to reimburse your employee for certain items.

At the moment, employees can claim up to £6 per week in tax relief to cover things like broadband, heating and lighting which they would not usually contribute to their energy bill if they were working in the office. You can either pay this directly to your employee or encourage them to claim via HMRC.

This tax reduction and opportunity to be better equipped at home could help employees to feel less stressed about their working situation during the pandemic.

What about employees who are at risk when working alone?

Employees who would normally return to an office after completing a challenging lone-working task, like visiting a family as a social care worker, may now return home and have nobody to talk to.

It’s vital that you keep strong communication with your team members who face triggering activities and put measures in place to replace the natural support from working together that may have now disappeared.

If your team members could be at risk of verbal or physical violence while lone working, you must have a clear management plan to prevent or control these risks by law. They may not report incidents as readily as they would have done when seeing you in person. You should make amendments to your health and safety policy to reflect the current situation if necessary.

Violence or risk of violence has a high chance of leading to work-related stress. This could result in serious mental health issues. You may wish to visit the Health and Safety Executive’s website for further guidance on this: https://www.hse.gov.uk/lone-working/employer/violence.htm

If you would like to discuss issues surrounding lone working or mental health in more detail, please contact the Banner Jones Employment Law team. We are able to support you with Workplace Mediation, Contracts of Employment and Employment Tribunals among other services.

Sara Ellison and Banner Jones