What are the risks involved in telework?
What preventive measures can companies adopt?
It will come as no surprise to anyone that telework is a hot topic these days and that it is here to stay. Although telework was regulated in the original version of the 2003 Portuguese Labor Code, the COVID-19 pandemic was the real driving force behind the interest of employers and employees in this type of work arrangement. They realized that as well as enabling companies to cut costs, telework also provides the necessary flexibility for employees to achieve a better work-life balance, which has been increasingly appreciated. It was this growing use of telework that prompted lawmakers amend the relevant legal provisions through Decree-Law no. 83/2021, of December 6.
Under this legislation, teleworkers have the same rights and duties as other employees of the same category or with identical responsibilities, particularly as regards occupational health and safety protection and occupational accidents and diseases. But are the labor risks associated with telework the “typical” risks we already know? Most likely not, since the particular features of telework give rise to new issues relating to occupational health and safety for which there is no unequivocal solution.
The labor risks involved in telework can be divided into two major groups:
(i) Risks arising from the workspace itself;
(ii) Psychosocial risks.
Workspace risks include ergonomic risk factors due to bad posture and sitting in front of a screen for long periods; physical inactivity; excessive noise; lack of ventilation; inappropriate temperature; ophthalmological problems or eye fatigue from intensive use of computers, screens and other electronic devices or insufficient lighting; lack of rest breaks; risk of falls; falling objects, and electric current.
The topic of work accidents raises several issues:
(i) Does the concept of workplace for the purpose of classifying an accident as a work accident cover the employees’ entire home or just the area they work in?
(ii) If the employee has a total exemption from the normal work schedule, how would it be possible to determine that the accident took place during working time?
(iii) What if the accident takes place in a different location from the one established in the telework agreement between the employee and the employer (e.g., in a vacation home)?
Psychosocial risks are another major concern relating to telework. These risks stem from the relationship between working conditions, work organization and management approaches, and the social and environmental context, as well as employee skills and needs. In telework, these interactions have the potential to cause stress, anxiety, exhaustion, depression, insomnia, alienation, isolation/deterioration of interpersonal relationships, loss of motivation, and cyber harassment, among others. While one of the biggest advantages of telework is that it allows employees to reconcile their work and family life, this can actually be one of its greatest disadvantages because of the difficulty in separating working time and rest time.
Moreover, stress is a psychosocial risk often associated with intensive use of technological equipment. It has even given rise to a new term: technostress, which can cover a number of situations such as mental fatigue caused by prolonged use of electronic devices, technology dependence/obsession with technological items, or even frustration caused by technical malfunctions, advertisements and spam. Cyber or virtual harassment (involving information and communication technologies, including text messages, internet, email, chats and social networks) will become increasingly common and companies will have to adapt accordingly, revising their anti-harassment codes, if necessary, to address these forms of harassment.
These labor risks can have organizational consequences that involve costs for the companies, since telework-related stress, lack of motivation, fatigue, irritability, procrastination, isolation, or failures in communication, among others, will have a direct impact on the employees’ performance and, therefore, on the productivity and results of the company itself.
It is crucial that employers assess the labor risks associated with each workplace in coordination with the occupational health and safety services, taking into account the specific risks associated with telework. Also, employers should carry out annual tests to evaluate the physical and mental aptitude of employees for work, the repercussions of their tasks, and their working conditions, and adopt the appropriate preventive measures.
What kind of preventive measures may be adopted to avoid or minimize occupational health and safety risks associated with telework?
(i) Ensure that the workspace at the employee's home is appropriate for telework (in terms of lighting, ventilation, temperature, ergonomic and appropriately sized equipment).
(ii) Provide occupational health and safety training, focused on telework, for all employees and managers (e.g., training on how to set up a home office correctly and examples of physical exercises to do during breaks).
(iii) Implement schemes to combat isolation, such as creating effective digital communication channels, virtual coffee time, and promoting regular face-to-face contact with teams and managers.
(iv) Encourage digital disconnection measures.
In this context, the mission of the Authority for Working Conditions (Autoridade para as Condições do Trabalho) is not only to monitor compliance with the regulatory telework provisions, including those on occupational health and safety, but also to help prevent occupational risks inherent to this type of work arrangement.
However, we recommend that companies take a proactive attitude by creating solid telework policies, which may include a section on prevention measures for occupational risks arising from telework, or by preparing a telework safety and health guide in line with the one already designed for the Public Administration.