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After the Covid-19 crisis, many companies have seen an accelerated transition from occasional telework to structural telework (2 to 3 days of telework per week), or sometimes even to full-time telework (5 days of telework per week).
Various scientific studies show that there are many advantages to telework (independence, flexibility, better reconciliation of private and professional life, no commuting stress), which become particularly evident if workers can combine this telework with office work. With full-time telework, those advantages are often less significant, and there are also quite a few disadvantages (cf. T. Vantilborgh et al., Telework in times of COVID-19: challenges and recommendations, VUB, 2020). The most important risks in terms of the well-being of workers that arise with telework are related to:
- The psychosocial risks (isolation, stress related to objectives, demotivation...);
- musculoskeletal disorders (back pain, tendinitis, excessive time spent sitting, etc.);
- the boundary between professional and private life, which is becoming more vague (difficulty in letting go of work).
What is the regulatory framework for telework?
There are different types of telework:
- Structural telework, governed by Collective Labour Agreement no. 85, which was signed by the social partners on 9 November 2005 in the National Labour Council. For more information: Domestic work - private sector workers who are teleworkers.
- Occasional telework, regulated by the Act of 5 March 2017 on workable and agile work (art. 22-28). For more information: Occasional telework.
In the context of the covid-19 crisis, the social partners in the National Labour Council concluded Collective Labour Agreement no. 149, which applied to companies that did not yet have a telework scheme based on structural or occasional telework on 1 January 2021. The collective labour agreement did not apply to agreements on telework that had already been concluded within the companies with due regard for social dialogue and was primarily intended to create a framework within which such agreements could be concluded. Collective labour agreement no. 149 has since expired (31 March 2022).
A coordinated telework policy can take the form of:
- a collective labour agreement concluded at company level;
- an adaptation of the work regulations;
- individual agreements;
- a communicated telework policy drafted in compliance with the rules of the social dialogue within the companies.
In the public sector, the government itself determines the rules applicable to telework at each level: for example, in the case of the federal government, the royal decree of 22 November 2006 on telework and satellite work in the federal administrative civil service applies. For more information: see website FPS policy and support .
Does the legislation on well-being at work apply to teleworkers?
Yes. Teleworkers are workers working under the authority of the employer, even if they work at a location other than the company: it follows that the Act of 4 August 1996 on the well-being of workers in the performance of their work (PDF, 512.19 KB) and the Code on well-being at work (PDF, 5.8 MB) apply to them. The possibility to adopt special measures by royal decree, to take into account the specific situation of homeworkers, which is provided for in Article 4, §1, third paragraph of the Well-being at work Act, has never been used, so the legislation on well-being at work remains fully applicable.
The Well-being at work Act defines the workplace as "any place where work is done, regardless whether it is inside or outside an establishment and regardless whether this is in an enclosed or open space" (art. 3, §1, 15° Well-being at work Act). This concept is rather broad. The place of residence where the teleworker carries out his work is therefore covered.
However, some parts of the Code use a different definition of "workplace"; as a result, some provisions do not apply to teleworkers. This is notably the case for the basic workplace requirements (Book III, Title 1 of the Code), such as minimum surface area, lighting, ventilation, electrical installations, social facilities, etc., which are therefore not applicable in the home of the teleworker. However, it is part of the employer's general duty of care to make workers aware of the importance of good ventilation, good lighting, good room temperature and the safe use of electricity (cables, plugs, etc.) in their home when teleworking.
In addition, there are also many provisions in the Code which are obviously of no relevance to teleworkers because they are not related to the nature of the work carried out at home, such as the provisions on working at heights, exposure to chemical, biological, ... agents, etc.
Apart from the cases mentioned above, the legislation on well-being at work therefore applies in full. This implies that the employer remains ultimately responsible for the safety and health of the teleworker (art. 5 Well-being at work Act), and thus for the actual circumstances in which the teleworker carries out his work.
The collective labour agreements state that the employer is obliged to inform the teleworker of the company's occupational health and safety policy (art. 15 CLA no. 85).
In turn, the teleworker must take care of his own health and safety to the best of his ability, in accordance with his training and the instructions of his employer (art. 6 Well-being at work Act). This includes the following tasks:
- Provide assistance to the employer and the internal service for prevention and protection at work for as long as necessary to enable them to carry out all the tasks or fulfil all the obligations imposed on them with regard to the well-being of the workers or in the performance of their work,
- provide assistance to the employer and the internal department for occupational safety and health for as long as necessary to enable the employer to ensure that the working environment and working conditions are safe and pose no risk to safety and health within their field of activity.
The employer and the teleworker must therefore work together to find a balance between the general obligations for well-being at work and the specific circumstances of telework.
Is it necessary to do a risk analysis for telework or to adapt the risk analysis in case of telework?
Yes. The regulations on well-being require that a risk analysis of the workstation be carried out.
When deciding to introduce or expand telework, it is therefore necessary to conduct a risk analysis that takes into account the specific risks associated with telework. If circumstances change, impacting psychosocial risks at work, for example as a result of telework due to the covid crisis, the risk analysis should be updated, even in companies that previously used telework regularly.
According to articles I.2-4 and I.2-5 of the Code, the employer must take into account the nature of the activities and the specific risks associated with these activities when conducting the risk analysis on the basis of which preventive measures are proposed. If telework is chosen in a company (or if telework is made compulsory by law), the employer is obliged to make a risk analysis of the specific risks associated with telework.
This risk analysis is carried out in collaboration with the prevention services, and takes into account in particular:
- the psychosocial risks (isolation of the teleworker, digital contact only, stress, demotivation, blurring of boundaries between private and professional life, etc.)
- ergonomics and health (layout of the (screen) workstation, prolonged (and even almost exclusive) screen work with consequences for the eyes, backache, sedentary lifestyle, etc.)
- occupational safety, etc.
On that basis, appropriate preventive measures can then be taken.
In addition, Article 10 of CLA no. 85 explicitly states that workers must be able to communicate in an appropriate manner with those involved in well-being at work (workers' representatives in the committee, managers, prevention advisers, confidants, etc.). Therefore, they must have easy access to this information and to the contact details of these persons, so that they can consult them, if necessary, without the intervention of the supervisor (e.g., via a message on the intranet).
This applies in the first place to screen-workstations, for which a risk analysis should be carried out at least every five years in order to assess the risks to the well-being of the workers due to screenwork, in particular any risks to vision and the problems of physical and mental strain, both at the level of each group of screen-workstations and at the level of the individual (art. VIII.2-3, §1, 1° of the Code). In the case of telework, the screen-workstation is located in the private home of the worker.
Where can I find the necessary information? See the tips and tricks for developing or improving the telework policy.
Do the prevention services have access to the home of the teleworker as part of their prevention task?
The occupational prevention and protection services must frequently and systematically visit the workplace and examine the workstations in order to fulfil their duties in the framework of the permanent risk analysis (cf. Art. II.1-6, §1, 1° of the Code). In principle, this also applies in the case of telework.
Since telework takes place in the teleworker's home, the visit of the prevention service must be announced in advance and the consent of the teleworker is required in order to respect the principle of inviolability of the home. Article 15 of Collective Labour Agreement no. 85 also expressly provides for this.
If a visit to the worker's home is not feasible, there are alternatives to enable the prevention advisor to analyze the risks of the teleworker's workstation: for example, video consultations or sending of photos can be organized to help workers set up their workplaces and workstations correctly.
What about disconnection for teleworkers?
Even more so than in office work, teleworking threatens to blur the boundaries between private and professional life, not in the least because the physical distance between the workplace and the home environment is removed. When workers perform telework, a good work-life balance and clear agreements on what is expected of the teleworker are all the more important for the well-being of workers and employers.
In order to ensure that workers' rest periods, annual leave and other leave arrangements are respected and that the work-life balance is preserved, the employer is obliged to organize consultations about disconnection and the use of digital communication tools outside working hours. This obligation stems from Articles 15 to 17 of the Act of 26 March 2018 on strengthening economic growth and social cohesion.
This consultation must be organized on a regular basis (and in any case whenever requested by the workers' representatives in the committee) within the Committee for Prevention and Protection at Work (or failing that, with the trade union delegation or the workers themselves). Now that many companies want to integrate telework into their operations in a more sustainable way, it is the ideal moment to start or repeat this consultation.
On the basis of these consultations, the committee can give advice and formulate proposals to the employer, and the resulting agreements can be implemented in the work regulations (according to the provisions of the Law of 8 April 1965 establishing work regulations), or in a collective labour agreement.
What are the employer's obligations towards teleworkers regarding ICT equipment and a desk chair?
According to article 20, 1° of the Act of 3 July 1978 on employment contracts, the employer has the general obligation, unless otherwise agreed, to provide the worker with the necessary aids, appliances and materials to carry out the work.
Article 5, §1, f) of the Well-being at work Act states that the employer must ensure that the work is adapted to the individual in terms of the layout of the workstation and the choice of work equipment.
These principles also apply to workers who perform telework. For a teleworker, this will primarily involve the technological resources, peripheral equipment, software and communication technology that he needs to be able to carry out his work from home.
In this context, Collective Labour Agreement No. 85, which applies to structural telework in the private sector, states that the employer is responsible for providing, installing and maintaining the equipment needed for telework. The employer reimburses or pays the costs of the connections and communications related to telework. If the teleworker uses his own equipment, the employer shall bear the costs of the installation of the computer programs, their operation and maintenance as well as the depreciation of the equipment.
In addition, Book VIII of the Code on Well-being at Work lays down specific guidelines on the ergonomic load, in particular regarding seats and computer screen work:
- Art. VIII.1-3, §1 of the Code stipulates that work seats must meet the comfort and health requirements. A risk analysis must be carried out in this respect.
- A screen-workstation is the set consisting of the monitor, accessories, ancillary equipment, a telephone, ..., a chair and a worktable or work surface, as well as the immediate working environment.
- The employer should regularly (at least every 5 years) carry out a risk analysis at the level of each group of display screen-workstations and at the level of the individual, in order to evaluate the risks to which workers are exposed as a result of computer work (i.e., any risks to vision and problems of physical and mental strain). On the basis of this risk analysis, appropriate prevention measures should be taken to prevent or remedy the risks (Art. VIII.2-3 of the Code).
- Art. VIII.2-6 of the Code stipulates that the employer should take appropriate measures to ensure that the screen-workstations comply with the minimum requirements in Annex VIII.2-1 of the Code. More concretely, this annex contains a number of minimum requirements with regard to monitors, keyboards, furniture and environmental factors. For example, it is stated that a work chair "must be stable, give the user freedom of movement and provide a comfortable working position. The seat must be adjustable in height. The height and inclination of the backrest must be adjustable". As far as the keyboard is concerned, it is stated, for example, that it "must be capable of being tilted, and not form a whole with the monitor, so as to allow the user a comfortable posture that does not cause fatigue of arms or hands".
However, the application of these principles to the homework situation of the teleworker is not straightforward. The employer must check, based on the risk analysis, whether the workstation of the worker at home meets the above-mentioned minimum requirements (just as is the case for a screen-workstation in the company itself). However, the well-being at work legislation does not explicitly oblige the employer to purchase an additional monitor, keyboard and ergonomic desk chair for the teleworker's home workstation (this is also not the case in the collective labour agreements already mentioned):
- After all, if the worker has the necessary equipment himself, the workstation in principle meets the requirements of the legislation on well-being at work. The employer and the worker can agree on a compensation for the use of the worker's own equipment:
- the worker has a second screen, keyboard, etc., at his disposal, which means that the workstation meets the requirements of the well-being at work legislation: the employer can pay a compensation for the worker's use of his own equipment (mandatory in accordance with Collective Labour Agreement no. 85),
- the worker has his own ergonomic office chair, so that the workstation meets the requirements in terms of well-being at work: compensation is possible, but not mandatory;
- If the risk analysis at individual level shows that the workstation of the teleworker does not meet the requirements of the well-being at work legislation, the employer must ensure that it does: he cannot oblige the worker to make sure of this himself (measures concerning the well-being of workers in the performance of their work may not entail any financial burden for the workers, cf. art. I.2-14 of the Code) However, there are often several possibilities to ensure that the workstation complies with the legislation on well-being:
- For example, it is possible to place the laptop at eye level and connect an extra keyboard and mouse, or to use the keyboard of the laptop with an additional monitor (a second monitor is thus not automatically required on the grounds of the legislation on well-being at work, but may be necessary for the performance of the work itself),
- if the worker performs telework as an exception (e.g., because of COVID-19) while he normally does not telework, then it is also possible to temporarily use (part of) the office equipment (monitor, keyboard, office chair) of the work at home,
- or the employer makes the necessary equipment available to the workers, either by purchasing it himself (group purchase, ...) or by participating in the worker's purchase, or by, for example, offering the workers ergonomic office chairs that are in surplus at work or that are being replaced.
As regards environmental factors at work (such as space, lighting, heat, noise, etc.), these obviously depend on the location of the workstation. In the case of telework, this may be in the worker's private home, and in any case outside of the direct control of the employer. However, the worker does continue to work under the authority of the employer, also during telework, so indirectly the employer does have a responsibility in this respect: for instance, he must provide the workers with the necessary information about everything related to their safety and health at their workstation and about the prevention measures for this (art. 5, §1, j) and k) of the Act on Well-being at Work; art. VIII.2-4 of the Code; CLA no. 85 also explicitly mentions this), so that they can work in a healthy and safe way, including giving instructions on how to apply that information, e.g. how screens should be positioned to limit the ergonomic load, working positions, sufficient rest breaks, ...
The worker must also follow these instructions and contribute as much as possible to the implementation of the (telework) policy, in accordance with the obligation in Article 6 of the Well-being at work Act, which requires him to take care of his own health and safety, to the best of his ability, in his acts and omissions at the workplace (in the case of telework, in his own home), in accordance with his training and the instructions given by the employer.
Where can I find the necessary information? See the tips and tricks for elaborating or improving the telework policy,
The importance of contact with colleagues in telework
To optimise the well-being of teleworkers and avoid isolation of the teleworker from the rest of the enterprise's working community, it is, in principle, advisable to provide the teleworker with the opportunity to meet regularly with colleagues. Indeed, the benefits of teleworking are particularly noticeable when the worker combines teleworking with office work (2 or 3 days a week).
Article 8, §3 of CLA no. 85, gives concrete expression to these principles by stating that the employer must take appropriate measures to maintain the connectedness of teleworkers with colleagues and with the company and prevent isolation, with particular attention to vulnerable teleworkers. Full-time telework is therefore not recommended; in addition, e.g., all team members can be asked to attend weekly on a fixed day when team meetings can be scheduled.
As an alternative, it is advisable to organise at least informal contact moments, by virtual means (coffee-talks, other relaxation moments).
Tips and tricks for developing or improving a telework policy
Information and tools
The FPS Employment, Labour and Social Dialogue has developed a number of tools to help companies organize telework. For example, specific tools for risk analysis of telework are available:
The Telework section of the BeSWIC website also provides a lot of information, tools and instruments to design or improve the telework policy in your company, e.g., on ergonomics and working with display screens, psychosocial risks, etc.
The external prevention services also offer a lot of information, tools and instructions for risk analysis and for the development or improvement of the telework policy within the company.
- Teleworking, something for you? (PDF, 116 KB)
- Prevention of musculoskeletal disorders for administrative staff
Tips for workers on how to telework efficiently, with a focus on well-being at work
Teleworking frequently requires an adaptation of yourself and of the work environment. Otherwise, problems will gradually arise, both physical (backache, wrist pain, etc.) and mental (due to isolation, lack of resources, stress related to achieving objectives, etc.). It is also very likely to interfere with your private and family life.
Here are some tips that may help you.
- With regard to safety, ensure that:
- The electrical installation (fuse box, state of the wires, etc.) is in order.
- The electrical equipment is in good condition: watch out for portable lamps, auxiliary heaters, and electrical extension cords that must not be overloaded.
- Your work area is cleared to prevent falls.
- Provide a separate workspace, this is the best way to keep your private life separate from your professional activity.
- In the morning, prepare as you would for work: shower, breakfast, dress...
- Plan your working day:
- Set reasonable goals
- Stick to schedules in order not to get overwhelmed and stay in regular contact with your colleagues.
- Make it clear to your roommates and family members when you are available.
- Plan time for coffee breaks and lunch.
- Plan the start and end time of telework, log off and switch off your laptop at the end of your working day.
- Plan on exercising. Sitting all day is not good.
- Adapt your working environment:
- Ventilate the room, e.g., by opening windows
- Maintain a good level of humidity (40-70%), and possibly wall humidity
- Choose a room with good sound insulation.
- Provide a room temperature of about 20° C. This is purely indicative, some will prefer a higher temperature, others a lower one.
- Provide good natural or artificial lighting, preferably lighting at 500 lux.
- Make sure that the floor of the working environment is free and in good condition, to avoid falls.
- Tidy up. Do not work in a messy environment where, for example, toys are lying around
- Adapt your workspace:
- Table: a height-adjustable desk is ideal. If you use a classic table, it should be large enough to hold all your computer equipment and deep enough to rest your arms on (unless you have a chair with armrests). Make sure you don't overload the table and clear it regularly.
- Seating: Ideally, you should use an adjustable office chair with wheels (height, backrest with lumbar support...). If you use a classic chair, make sure that it has good lumbar support and that you are sitting at the right height in relation to the table. Once you are seated, keep your arms at a 90° angle; when your elbows touch the table, you are sitting comfortably.
- Install your computer equipment correctly:
- Working with only your laptop on a table is not ideal. The screen is placed too low (this may cause pain in neck, shoulders, back...). To avoid this, the laptop can be placed on a support (box, books...) so that the top edge of the screen is at eye level.
- The use of the touchpad can cause problems for the wrists and elbows. Ideally, you should use a separate keyboard and mouse.
- If you have 2 screens, namely the small laptop screen and a separate larger screen, it is better to place the larger screen in front of you and the smaller screen (of the laptop) to the side: it is then fairly easy to configure the computer's screen in extended mode and drag the most frequently used programs to the large screen in front of you.
- The screen(s) should be placed at a proper distance from the eyes: if you are sitting correctly, extend your arm; if you are touching the screen, you are at the proper distance.
- Keep in touch to avoid social isolation:
- Use appropriate electronic communication channels: email, Skype, Teams, Zoom, social media....
- Skype, Teams or Zoom allow you to communicate, but especially to talk and see each other, which is important to maintain a social connection.
- Do not hesitate to replace the exchange of several emails with a phone call, with video if technically possible.
- With your colleagues:
- Just like in the office, don't forget to say hello to your colleagues, wish them a nice meal or ask if they had a nice day.
- Call a colleague with video if you feel isolated.
- Don't hesitate to ask colleagues for help if you need it.
- Organise online work meetings to stay in touch with your team.
- If necessary, create a small Whatsapp or Messenger group with your closest colleagues.
- With your boss and your organisation:
- Read your organisation's intranet.
- Plan regular meetings with your head of department, if necessary, in order to clearly define objectives and means. Do not hesitate to contact him or her to clarify matters if necessary.
- Use appropriate electronic communication channels: email, Skype, Teams, Zoom, social media....