Mental well-being is the foundation of a healthy life, which can be manifested in a number of ways, including the ability to cope with stress, productivity at work and participation in society in general. The importance of mental health cannot be undermined if an individual or organization is to thrive. Mental health well-being in the workplace has increasingly become a consideration for employers when it comes to ensuring long-term engagement and productivity among their workforce.
The emergence of COVID-19 has undeniably brought the issue of mental well-being to the forefront with the added pressures and challenges on the workforce resulting from economic insecurity, lockdowns and the sudden shift towards remote working. The latter phenomenon has led to the blurring of lines between work and home so much so that there has been a sharp increase in the levels of stress and pressure experienced by a considerable number of people working from home.
Since the outbreak and pandemic-imposed remote working, there have been a number of surveys and reports that point towards a decline in mental health among people working from home, due to, among others, fatigue or stress of working long hours and the inability to switch off from computer screens.
While there are positive benefits for employers to ensure the well-being of their workforce, not least for the productivity and long-term engagement as mentioned above, these mental health issues can also turn into challenges and legal liabilities for employers if they are not managed properly. These challenges may land employers with potential claims for personal injury as a result of working long hours.
Under Thai law, employers have a legal duty to arrange and maintain safe and hygienic working conditions and environment for their employees, and to support and promote the work operations of their employees in order to protect their health, safety and welfare. This obligation remains true under the remote working mode. Failure on the employer’s side to comply with this obligation may expose the employer to claims of work-related injuries as a result of the conditions sustained while working from home including work-related stress, sickness and injury, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and office syndrome.
It should be noted that in Thailand, there is a Workmen Compensation Fund (“Fund“) set up under the Workmen Compensation Act to provide medical-related assistance and expenses to employees who suffer from work-related injury/sickness directly — subject to certain conditions (e.g., the work-related injury/sickness must not result from employees intentionally causing harm to themselves or allowing others to harm them). Benefits include, among others, compensation of 70% of the employee’s monthly wage during the period they are unable to work. The Social Security Office, which is responsible for managing the Fund, has just recently set up and publicly announced that employees who suffer from office syndrome are eligible to receive benefits from the Fund as well as free medical treatment at the selected list of hospitals and clinics under the Fund.
We have recently seen reports across jurisdictions of governments and companies starting to take steps to tackle stress caused by working from home during the pandemic in what is known as “the right to disconnect”. The right to disconnect gives employees the right to switch off from work outside of normal work hours. Ireland pushed through the new Code of Practice on the Right to Disconnect that took effect early last month and the UK government has moved to include “the right to disconnect” in an upcoming employment bill expected to be published this year. Looking back at 2016, the French government included the right to disconnect into its labour law which allows employees not to take calls or read emails related to work during their time off. The move in this direction is beginning to be seen more and more by various governments around the world. Companies have also taken their own steps to help staff disconnect during non-working hours, from Zoom-free Friday afternoons to the “Saturday rule” — which means that employees cannot work from 9 pm Friday to 9 am Sunday except in certain circumstances.
With regard to Thailand, the right to disconnect may still be a long way off in terms of regulations. However, under Thai law, employers cannot force employees to work outside normal working hours/days without the employees’ prior consent each time. Employees are also entitled to overtime pay/holiday pay when they agree to perform work outside normal working hours/days. It is therefore important for employers to be aware of such legal requirements while implementing the working from home policy.
In light of the above, employers may want to ensure that work is performed efficiently during the normal working hours rather than asking employees to work long hours. This should also provide employees with the “right to disconnect” and should help relieve some health risks for employees working from home, particularly their mental health. Employers may want to also have their own clear health and safety policy updated to reflect remote working. Some practices worth considering are:
- Conduct risk assessment and seek expert occupational health advice to determine appropriate equipment for employees who work from home;
- Regular communication to identify early signs of stress as well as assuring employees of resources available or approach to assist the welfare of employees;
- Have tools in place to promote mental well-being as well as provide assistance to employees in managing stress when needed;
- Encourage a clear separation between work and personal life by emphasizing that employees should not be online 24/7.
Striking the right balance between work life and personal life is always a challenge and not easy to implement in practice. However, with steps being taken in this direction around the world and as the growing trend of agile working and remote working become the new norm, employers would do well to plan ahead and review policies and practices to adapt themselves to the new future of work.