Toggle high contrast

Working from home shouldn’t cost us our health. Here’s what employers should do

Published date
Some employers are still getting the basics of home working wrong and it’s damaging our health.

Since the pandemic lockdowns, the number of people able to work from home for all or part of their working time has increased. This opportunity has been beneficial for many workers. Home working, as well as other forms of flexible working, helps to close the gender pay gap, removes barriers to disabled and older workers, can offer a better work life balance and supports workplaces to be more productive. 

But many employers have seen this as a chance to shirk their legal duties to protect workers from work-related health risks. As a result, medical leaders have warned of a rise in back and neck problems linked to remote working without the proper equipment. 

This doesn’t mean we should all return to the workplace full-time, but it does show that employers should be carrying out risk assessments for home working environments and providing equipment so people can work safely. Employers benefit from the productivity gains home working can bring, and they should be proactively avoiding creating long-term health problems which can drive sickness absence.  

The TUC and the University of Kent carried out a diary study, looking at 20 people’s experiences of working from home. The good news is there were some examples of good practice where employers had purchased almost a full suite of equipment including apparatus to ensure a safe working posture and screen set-up. Workers were not left out of pocket to protect their health and were able to work from home productively. Where hybrid policies were in place most of the participant’s employers had recognised the importance of providing at least basic equipment for people to be able to work successfully from home.  

I’ve got computer monitor. I've got a laptop which acts as a second screen. I've got a desk, keyboard, mouse and a chair as well. The chair and the desk was bought during COVID. There's special funds set up where we were allowed to buy something that suited us, which I did then, and the IT equipment was provided by my employer. Since then, as hybrid working has become more of the norm, a regular fund has been set up.  

Not all stories were positive. Other workers told us they had only been provided with a laptop and had subsequently experienced pain whilst working. Often this was in workplaces were working from home was not seen as part of the normal culture, so people were too scared to cause a fuss in case their flexibility was taken away. No one should have to choose between flexibility and their health. And if people are working from home for caring responsibilities or a reasonable adjustment, employers could be putting carers and disabled workers at a disadvantage.  

Unfortunately, the organisation doesn't provide monitors for the purpose of working from home….Yeah, so I use work laptop and that's it…. I used to work from my sofa, put the laptop on a coffee table in front of me, and then I got myself a second hand table and then eventually you know got a chair that goes with it. It [home working] saves me a childcare nightmare sometimes, so I didn't want that to be taken away. So even though when I was working mainly from sofa and coffee table and it, it wasn't really good helping my posture and my back, I didn't say anything. I didn't complain because I didn't want to lose the opportunity of the flexibility. 

Half of the participants told us they had paid for their own equipment and others said they wouldn’t ask as they knew it would be a ‘no’. Whilst many were happy to do this as they needed items for other reasons, it raises concerns as to whether there is equitable access for workers to healthy and safe home working environments. For those on lower salaries, purchasing items will be unaffordable or they may be forced to pay for lower quality items.  

I would like to have a special chair because the chairs that I have, they’re just sort of more everyday chairs so it gets a bit uncomfortable. But I think if I ask I know the answer would be no because we are only a small charity and we have very little resources.  

To ensure the health and safety of people at home, employers should also be doing risk assessments. Eight participants said they hadn’t received any risk assessment for home working despite them all working from home for a significant amount of time, this included the same two people experiencing pain. Of those who had a risk assessment, feedback was mixed with some saying that equipment was then not provided to address the health and safety concerns, or it felt like a tick box exercise.  

So with regards to our DSE assessments, we had DSE assessments done by the Health and Safety Officer of our company. We have training online where you log on and then go through the briefs with regards to the positioning of your chair, the distance of the screen from where you're sitting, how to adjust the chair, the angle of the chair… We had to go through the DSE assessment and all of that health and safety assessment to confirm that the home working space is in compliance with health and safety regulations.” 

 I just found that DSE wasn't really helpful for me. It was more of a tick boxing exercise …when I actually made requests of things like, oh, I would like a better chair to work from home in…., well, there's nothing in the budget for that. 

Homeworking does not exclude employers from having to meet their obligations under the Health and Safety at Work Act, and other relevant laws that protect us. Employers must ensure that everyone working from home, whether this is a policy or an individual request, is working safely. This ensures everyone can do their job productively, does not put those who have to work flexibly at a disadvantage and avoids long-term health problems.  

The TUC recommends that: 

  • all employers conduct risk assessments for those working from home accompanied by a trade union health and safety rep. These should include both physical and mental health. Reps can use this guidance from TUC Education to support them.  

  • where hybrid/home working is agreed, employers should provide and maintain the equipment necessary for home workers to work safely and effectively 

  • employers ensure equal access to technology and equipment at work for all, regardless of characteristics such as age, ethnicity or disability and should recognise that workers will experience inequalities in their homes, for example, the amount of space and furniture available to them. Equipment should therefore include all items needed by these workers not just IT equipment, to facilitate a good working environment.   

  • employers provide support towards additional costs associated with home working.  

The research conducted was carried out by Heejung Chung, University of Kent and the TUC. The write up of the rest of the research including the methodology is in the full report.  

Enable Two-Factor Authentication

To access the admin area, you will need to setup two-factor authentication (TFA).

Setup now