Last reviewed 18 December 2020

As an employer, you have a certain set of legal responsibilities for your staff. This includes ensuring their wellbeing and health and safety.

What is the duty of care?

An employer’s duty of care encompasses a number of duties. The first, and most obvious, is the main overarching duty to ensure the health, safety and welfare of all your employees, as far as is “reasonably practicable”, as laid out by the Health and Safety at Work, etc Act 1974.

This includes providing them with a safe and healthy work environment, preventing:

  • illness

  • injury

  • mental ill health.

This duty of care extends to the health, safety and welfare of non-employees as well, eg contractors, visitors, and clients.

The law also requires you to carry out a risk assessment. This will address the hazards in the workplace that may cause harm.

Another duty covers consultation. Legally, you must consult employees or their representatives on the health and safety risks they will face as part of their role, as well as the control measures you are putting into place to keep them safe.

Why is the duty of care important?

First, a safe work environment is a productive work environment. If staff are ill or injured, they will need to take time off work. If employees have concerns regarding their safety or wellbeing, their attitude towards work will be less positive. Actively promoting employee wellbeing will increase employee engagement, increase productivity and significantly improve your retention rate.

Second, an unsafe workplace will suffer major reputational damage, particularly if an incident occurs. If an employee suffers from a work-related illness or accident, you could be held responsible. It may also lead to employment tribunals and even criminal prosecution.

Duty of care is a legal duty. Failure to plan adequately for the health and safety of employees will constitute a breach of this duty and can lead to visits from the Health and Safety Executive and significant fines.

An organisation’s obligations to employees

An employer’s duty of care includes health and safety. You must ensure that suitable safety standards are created with associated safe systems of work. These should cover employees who work from home.

Within this definition is a duty for employee mental wellbeing. That means safeguarding your workers as far as is reasonably practicable from harassment and stress.

Here are some ways you can keep your staff safe, both mentally and physically:

  • provide adequate equipment required to complete tasks

  • provide health and safety training

  • protect staff from discrimination

  • have clear lines of communication

  • manage and address staff misconduct and grievances.

What is “reasonably practicable”?

An employer only has to comply with the duty of care in so far as it is reasonably practicable to do so. The test of what is reasonably practicable is not merely whether preventive measures were physically possible, or even financially possible. The accused employer must be able to show that it has weighed the degree of risk against how much it would cost the organisation — whether in time or money — to put in place adequate precautions. If it would cost a great deal to reduce the risk by only a fraction, you do not need to do so.

Examples of reasonably practicable actions include the following.

  1. An employee informs their manager they’re suffering from pain in their wrists from their keyboard. As an employer, you can then provide them with a specialist keyboard, which can help prevent repetitive strain injury.

  2. Another example would be to provide extra access points for those in your business with a disability. This will ensure they don’t struggle to exit and enter your premises and shows that you take their wellbeing seriously.