Work health and safety transformation is an issue for insurers

This article first appeared in Insurance Day, September 2021.

Millions of people have migrated from working in traditional office settings to working from their own living rooms.

In 2019, just 12% of the UK workforce (slightly more than three million workers) ‘worked from home’ at least once a week. During the COVID-19 lockdown in the spring of 2020, this peaked at around two-thirds of the workforce, which amounted to around 20 million workers having to develop new ways of working. This shift represents the biggest and most rapid structural adjustment in Britain’s labour market since the early 1980s; an unprecedented change in our working patterns which occurred almost overnight.

At the same time, businesses and professionals have been forced to rethink how they deliver their goods and services as social distancing forces us to adopt digital solutions. The switch to home working, new patterns in work-related travel and modification of digital operating models have all come to represent a new normal. This will also give rise to a new set of everyday risks.

Adapting to these risks must form a central part of society’s post-COVID recovery. Research findings contained in a report published by Kennedys showed we are failing to either identify or mitigate these new threats.

Predicting people’s attitudes towards risk is rarely easy. During the course of 2020, some individuals decided to take the risk of going on holiday abroad, despite rapidly changing travel restrictions, quarantine requirements and the risk of infection. Others have been reluctant to leave their homes.

Accommodating attitudes

Identifying and accommodating the spectrum of attitudes we have towards risk is vital – both in helping to ensure a more resilient workforce, but also in identifying the risks to employers as a result of how their workforce responds to perceived risk.

During pandemic, we commissioned a nationally representative survey of 1,000 UK workers in order to explore how COVID-19 had affected work and travel patterns. Alongside the quantitative survey, an extended series of qualitative in-depth interviews were conducted with leaders of large corporations to understand the commercial world’s immediate response to changing business operations and customer needs, as well as exploring how corporations will develop and innovate in response to COVID-19 and what the emerging risks are as economies recover from the crisis.

Before COVID-19, flexible working had been a nice-to-have benefit, infrequently used and often poorly integrated. On 23 March 2020, almost overnight, it became the compulsory new norm for millions of people, with the UK Government announcing COVID-19 restrictions to combat the spread of COVID-19. The four devolved governments of the UK required businesses in certain categories to close and restricted the circumstances in which people in those jurisdictions could leave their houses.

For the first three months of the pandemic, offices were forced to close physically. Businesses had to adapt quickly in order to keep operating, albeit virtually. This has led many employers to consider what their workplaces should look like post-pandemic. Indeed, many commentators already consider the concept of spending five days working in the office likely to become a thing of the past.

However, whilst employers may see cost benefits in reducing office space, due consideration needs to be given to the emerging health and safety risks associated with protecting their employees who are working from home. Such health and safety issues may not yet have registered for many employers across all sectors.

Identifying and accommodating the spectrum of attitudes we have towards risk is vital – both in helping to ensure a more resilient workforce, but also in identifying the risks to employers as a result of how their workforce responds to perceived risk.

Responsibilities

Employees across the board are far more likely to think that their employer, rather than them as an individual, should be responsible for ensuring that health and safety requirements are enforced for home workers.

Around two-in-five (39%) workers think their employer should be responsible for doing more to promote health and safety for home workers; that is significantly more than the 26% who regard it as their own responsibility. To date, it seems that few employers have taken steps to assess those risks.

So far, only 38% of workers have been offered an ergonomic chair for the purpose of working from home as a result of COVID-19 and only 21% have used the chair.

We can break that finding down further to look at how those observations relate to employers across the key sectors.

In the public sector, 58% of employees believe it is their employer’s responsibility to make sure they have ergonomic office equipment at home. In the financial services sector, this figure is 56%.

Slightly more than half (51%) of those in the public sector, 48% in health services and 42% in education consider it to be their employer’s responsibility to ensure health and safety requirements are enforced for home workers.

Despite these emerging risks, one-in-five (20%) of all workers think that their employers will invest less in health and safety measures in the next 12 months due to the financial pressures of COVID-19.

Mental health pressures

Of equal concern to a worker’s physical health are the emerging risks of mental health-related sickness absence, with some homeworkers struggling with the loss of social interaction, loneliness, lack of management support, stress and anxiety.

More than half of people (57%) who have worked from home during lockdown report having missed the social interaction of the workplace, with virtual meetings leading to more siloed and transactional relationships with colleagues. For those who work in financial services, these drawbacks have been felt even more acutely, with nearly three-quarters (72%) saying they miss the social environment; the highest of any sector.

For a significant minority, this has impacted their mental health:

  • 47% say they find it harder to switch off from work in the evenings.
  • 43% say they find it harder to get to sleep at night.
  • 40% say they feel stressed, anxious and overworked on a daily basis.

Already the secondary impacts of COVID-19 are being felt by the UK adult population, with almost one-in-five (19%) experiencing some form of depression during COVID-19, doubling from 10% a year earlier.

These findings should act as a wake-up call and demonstrate that while the world may be moving towards a more remote workplace, there is a need to ensure that the right support structures are in place for employees.

The World Health Organisation estimates that 264 million people globally suffer from depression and anxiety, at a cost of US$1 trillion to the global economy a year in lost productivity. In a COVID-19 recovery period, economies and individual businesses cannot afford to lose more of their workforce because they have not considered the potential impacts of remote working on the mental wellbeing of the workforce.

The insurance industry will continue to play a pivotal role in helping society to manage risk, providing crucial stability to the economy and to its customers both personally and professionally.

Insurance coverage issues

So far, the market has experienced a number of issues with insurance policies in respect of coverage for pandemic risks. Notably, this has included business interruption cover and travel insurance. These current examples may not represent the end of the coverage issues.

As already outlined, the majority of the UK workforce expects to continue working remotely at least some of the time post-pandemic. Such individuals may find that their home insurance policies are invalidated by this change in working patterns. On 1 August 2020 when lockdown rules were updated to encourage people to return to the office, millions of workers across the UK may have been at risk of invalidating their home insurance if they opted to continue working from home.

The situation remains fluid, particularly in light of the spread of the new and more contagious strains of the virus, and governments globally are again highlighting the potential need to tighten restrictions again in the future.

However, a changing landscape with fluctuating rules is likely to contribute to a coverage gap as consumers and business grapple with an evolving situation. Similar coverage issues could arise with motor insurance policies for those now using private vehicles for work-related purposes.

For employers and employees alike, beyond the immediate COVID-19 health risk, the pandemic could have a long-tail effect with secondary health and safety issues arising further down the line, for which they are poorly prepared and under-insured. Business income coverage has demonstrated the need for the insurance industry to adopt a more proactive role in communicating these issues to policyholders and seeking to address any potential coverage concerns in a clear and timely manner, before they turn into disputes.

During the course of the pandemic the insurance industry has paid out hundreds of millions of pounds to households and businesses. It has also accelerated digital innovation, providing customers with a quicker, more efficient service. The insurance industry will continue to play a pivotal role in helping society to manage risk, providing crucial stability to the economy and to its customers both personally and professionally.

However, when looking at the market, the insurance industry must now be prepared to accelerate its plans to respond to changes in customer expectation, alongside the growing place that technology will occupy in societies. Further, pandemics have almost certainly joined the list of other systemic risks, like terrorism and secondary perils from climate change such as flooding. Such risks will redefine public-private relationships. It cannot be assumed that the insurance industry will, alone, be able to bear the risk of future pandemics.

In helping business leaders to meet the post-COVID challenges, the insurance industry will have to review product features across a wide range of business lines to reflect the changing landscape of COVID-19 related risks.

In turn, that will allow the industry to continue with its efforts to find innovative ways to build consumer trust and work with other stakeholders (including policymakers, investors, corporates, and consumers) who have a responsibility towards identifying and responding to new threats before they occur.