In the near future of work, to what extent do we see employers being liable for ensuring employee health and well-being?
The world is still in the throes of the pandemic, but some parts which have been fortunate to experience a relatively lower incidence of infections and mortality have been resuming economic activity. This includes asking employees to return to offices and work as before, even for roles which could be handled remotely and were being done fairly efficiently. I am acutely aware of the privilege embedded in asking this question—there is a huge population which doesn’t have a choice but to resume work as it used to be in order to survive—but in such a situation, what is the extent to which an employer can be responsible if an employee gets infected, falls seriously ill, or God forbid, dies? And regardless of being privileged enough to be working from home, the larger issue of the power which an employer wields continues to remain in play. Everyone is grateful to have a job intact, even if that means taking a pay cut, even if that means clocking in at the office every morning.
Of course, there are no straight answers. The situation is similar to the case of an employee burning out or facing mental health issues because of stress-related factors, much of which could well be contributed by the workplace but the extent of which can never really be ascertained. This isn’t a workplace accident which can be attributed to defective machinery or faulty systems, thus making it easier to pinpoint the culprit; such cases are a small minority compared to the softer ways in which workplaces affect the health and well-being of employees. Well-documented safety practices to ensure worker safety on the shopfloor have been around for decades, and recent years have seen an advancement in talking about employee well-being and mental health, but there is the need to push the envelope further to prepare better for the future. This isn’t simply about employees but as much about organisations and economies being able to work resiliently and efficiently.