Health and Safety

How working from home really worked – What we learnt from COVID-19

July, 2022

By: Paul Jarvie

Manager Employment Relations & Safety – EMA

COVID-19

We had our first case of COVID-19 on 28 February 2020. The solution was a 14-day isolation period for all incoming overseas travellers, and gatherings were restricted to 100. On 21 March, the 4 Tier Alert System was introduced, and nationally we moved to Alert Level 2. On 23 March, the Prime Minister announced the move to Alert Level 3, and then on 25 March, Alert Level 4. The period from the first case to full lockdown was just under four weeks.

Business owners were faced with figuring out how to keep businesses running, protect staff, move stock around the country. The world was turned upside down. The constants throughout this time were the need to follow Employment and Health and Safety law and manage overheads like loans, rent, power, water, rates, wages and salaries. This all occurred in an environment of uncertainty.

In the early stages, there was a sense of unknown – how long will the pandemic last, what will the Government do to help us, and how will my business survive and recover?

Working from home

The move to working from home for eligible businesses was relatively smooth for many, with agile Kiwi’s pivoting to a remote, virtual model. Businesses without a remote option suffered. Research shows management staff were negatively impacted by COVID. Staff looked at management as the “go to” people, but they were managing their own issues while trying to keep the business running.

As time progressed, the question became, how long will this last? Staff were reporting that the shine of working from home had worn off. They reported being busier than ever with more and more work being placed on them. At this time, they also reported that the wraparound support offered in the early days was waning. They were on their own. The gloss was really gone. Gone were the daily health checks, the “are you OK” call, and the call to rest and maintain a good work life balance.

Impact of working from home on staff

On younger employees: working from home was / is particularly bad for younger staff who were renting or flatting. Their office was their room. Some were lucky and could set up in a kitchen / dining room, but this again had problems.

On women: female employees reported higher stress and fatigue, as they often were at home with children and partners.

Impact of working from home on employers

Under Health and Safety law, employers are still required to ensure the workplace is safe, workloads are manageable, and staff are getting rest periods. This includes preventing harm (harm covers physical and mental harm); thus, stress fatigue and burnout are all issues to be mitigated by employers. WorkSafe NZ expect employers to provide mentally health workplaces, workloads and working environments.

Many businesses allowed staff to take equipment home to use during this period. Many followed this up with instructions on how set up workstations following ergonomic guidelines. This was very helpful.

Health and Safety Act

Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015, the meaning of workplace is:

  • A place where work is being carried out, or is customarily carried out, for a business or undertaking; and
  • includes any place where a worker goes, or is likely to be, while at work.

Given the employer has consented and provisioned for staff to work from home there is a general duty to ensure the health and safety of their staff.

Given the person’s home (place of residence) does not fall under a workplace for H&S purposes, there was no right of entry for employers to gain access to conduct inspections of workstation set ups, unless prior consent was gained. We also noticed that staff working from home were showing signs of presenteeism, i.e., they were home sick but continued to work. In hindsight, they should have taken sick leave to rest and recover.

With poor oversight and enquiry, these issues can make minor illnesses become chronic health issues. It is also becoming an increasing liability on the employer with staff are not using the leave they are entitled to use for sickness. More work in this area needs attention from MBIE.

Time spent dealing with children was not considered working time and therefore needed to be made up, whereas a coffee with other staff at work was considered normal.

Under ACC, a place of employment means any premises or place—

  • Occupied for the purposes of employment; or
  • to which a person has access because of his or her employment; or
  • attended by a person for a course of education or training for the purposes of his or her current employment, if he or she receives earnings from that employment for his or her attendance.

This definition is useful as both the employer and employee can agree to define which part of the home will be considered as a workplace for the purpose of working from home. It also allows other areas to be excluded as places of work for the purposes of ACC and workplace accidents. Like all legal definitions, all cases are determined on the facts of the day.

Traffic light settings

Currently, we are working under the Orange setting (this will remain in place all Winter). Things are normal, however, what we see now is a random moving lockdown system caused by family members having COVID and the other family members having to isolate for 7 days as well. These random lockdown episodes are causing major workplace disruptions, including forcing school closures.

Long term impacts

We see and hear the call from Government and businesses to return to work, use public transport and spend money in the CBD. The question is, how will staff transition into becoming a 9- 5 employee working in an office in a busy city or town?

Employees have experienced full lockdowns with good wraparound support through to being busier than ever, tired and fatigued with decreasing wraparound support to now being asked to return to BAU.

Many have made the decision to operate a ‘hybrid style’. This means some time at work and some from home. They have adapted their lifestyles, families and situations to accommodate work. They are now not prepared to return to the office, or at least not fulltime. Many business owners are pondering the amount of office space they have, is it really needed?

The whole COVID experience up until now has required different thinking, changing long held beliefs about staff working from home, requiring a lot more trust and allowing employees to conduct work their way. As long as the work is done to the required standards and time frames what is the problem?

Staff have experienced the benefits of hybrid working, it works for them and their families. Businesses would be well advised to embrace this new style of working, and together with their staff explore a range of options that work for the staff member and the business. Requiring all staff to return to the office might be counterproductive.

That said, businesses need to analyse what their experiences were and how might a ‘new normal’ be created.  Staff members will want flexibility and support from their managers.

Lessons

  • Staff can be trusted in times of crises to pull together
  • Managers need to look after themselves so they can look after others
  • Working from home is a new normal, but may require more oversight and continued support
  • Managing workloads and working times is required
  • Communication with staff to find shared solutions will always provide a win-win outcome
  • Both H&S, ACC and Employment law remains intact and must be followed
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