Protecting lone workers in the UK as employment changes

Duncan Spencer, Head of Advice and Practice at the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, outlines key challenges and opportunities in lone working.

Being in good, fulfilling work, including financial stability, access to social networking and the development of high self-esteem are all basic elements of positive wellbeing. They are vital for people’s physical health and mental wellbeing but can be seriously eroded if organisations do not combat the “out of sight, out of mind” approach many take towards protecting lone workers.

The Lone Worker Safety Expo in October 2018 also discussed the concept of the “lonely worker”. It recognises that even people who do not physically work alone may be in a lonely position at work. In some cases, this can lead to isolation and have impact on emotional and mental wellbeing.

Lone workers have the same needs as any others: to feel fully supported by their managers, have the right tools for the job, be trained and competent to deal with work problems and have mechanisms to get advice when they meet the limit of their knowledge. Above all, they must feel that they are important members of a wider team that celebrates collective success through meaningful and frequent dialogue with peers and managers. The absence of lone workers from the physical workplace means organisations may need to modify their line management to achieve these aims. Good use of technology is only part of the solution.

Research into lone working funded by the Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) was published by the University of East Anglia and Kingston University in 2017. The report, titled Out of Sight, Out of Mind?, includes a toolkit to help safety and health practitioners and line managers understand their roles and responsibilities.

Communication with a lone worker can be more difficult. In the workplace, colleagues can be grabbed for an impromptu chat about a work issue or to further develop social ties by discussing important events in their personal lives. This elevates the importance of the more irregular and less frequent time that lone workers spend in the office with their line managers and teams.

Opportunities for this come in many guises: daily update meetings before going on the road, project working groups, vehicle and tool maintenance periods, stocktaking, toolbox talks, award presentations and leaving occasions. A schedule of social gatherings outside work hours is easy to let slide when a team is co-located but should be prioritised when some or all work mostly alone.

Mobile video calls are now inexpensive and widely available. This is better than relying on text or email because it allows callers to read one another’s facial expressions. Written communication without verbal inflection and voiced emphasis can sometimes be misinterpreted with unintentional and mentally harmful consequences. However, for daily communications between team members, messaging apps such as WhatsApp provide an easy substitute for quick social exchanges between remote team members.

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If any worker feels they are under undue pressure and are unable to cope, it can lead to anxiety or depression. This may be exacerbated by problems at home. The systems in place for drawing management’s attention to the situation must be open and transparent and stigmatisation must be discouraged.

Organisations must look for creative ways to ensure that the lone worker has the chance to raise personal issues. Failure to do so can cause workers to become distracted or go off sick – either means a loss of productivity. UK Health and Safety Executive statistics state that 12.5 million days were lost due to mental ill health between 2016 and 2017, amounting to 40 per cent of all work-related ill health and 49 per cent of all working days lost to health problems. Other recent IOSH research on returning to work after common mental disorders indicated that workers may go off sick citing physical complaints, for example a painful back, to hide mental ill-health. This raises a question about the accuracy of local sickness absence records.

A founding principle of safety and health is to be actively preventive to avoid ill-health and injury. Organisations must consider what this means for lone workers’ mental health and wellbeing. We recommend reviewing working methods to identify possible problems in advance and then striving to eradicate them. The organisation must consider how lone workers can recognise early signs of damage to their sense of wellbeing. It must offer techniques or exercises to help the worker to analyse issues, find personal solutions and build their resilience to similar situations in the future – this is not the same as engaging support from assistance programme helplines or giving employees access to mental health first aiders (MHFAs).

Among the most recent research IOSH has funded is a study examining how effective mental health first aid is in workplace contexts. Many of its findings are especially pertinent to lone and remote workers. MHFAs are volunteer colleagues trained to recognise symptoms of common disorders such as anxiety and depression and be a first point of contact for employees in distress.

Our mental health first aid in the workplace feasibility study, carried out over two years by The University of Nottingham, examined the role of MHFAs in the workplace. Launched last autumn at the Institute of Directors, the research highlighted areas of concern around inadequate boundaries for employees and a lack of proof that MHFA delivers return on investment.

Interventions are important and there were positive examples of excellent practice rolling out mental health first aid training where strategies were in place to support staff, but these are recovery controls rather than preventive methods to build resilience. Lone workers will not offer as many opportunities to observe signs of common mental health problems, so managers and colleagues should be encouraged to watch for these in each other. When lone workers feel they need help they should be encouraged to visit the office to see a trained colleague confidentially.

In March 2019, IOSH and Management Today published a research-based Workplace Wellbeing white paper showing that line managers need more support to protect employees’ mental health and wellbeing at work. Our earlier study on returning to work after common mental disorders also stated the need to define the role of line managers and practitioners.

Managers can and must be trained in how to deal fairly and effectively with a lone worker or other employee who says they have developed mental ill health, whether work related or not. There is confusion and some concern about the managerial actions. What does fair managerial intervention look like? Will a proposed action help the person to recover, or could it be detrimental to their condition? However, by working collaboratively with safety and health and other professionals, managers can become more competent and champion better culture, policies, systems and practices.

Opportunities to improve

Most employees with mental ill health benefit from returning to work. Doing so provides structure, helps to rebuild confidence and self-esteem, and promotes recovery.

The difficulty for lone workers is that the diminished communication that comes with their roles could hamper their recovery. The organisation should make sure their pattern is adjusted to allow supportive conversations with managers and assessment of how they are coping and benefiting from a comprehensive return-to-work plan. The sound implementation of the plan is vital to ensuring that working conditions have favourably changed, to encourage recovery and to support the lone worker effectively. Failure to do so may even provide grounds for litigation from the employee.

While many organisations have well-defined investigation processes in place for protecting lone workers and others from physical injury and near-miss, few have investigation procedures for mental ill health events, possibly due to confusion about medical confidentiality. Nonetheless this is an area for further development. Investigation facilitates organisational learning so that controls and systems can be improved. It signals to lone workers that their wellbeing is taken seriously.

Older employees, millennials and the new generation Z are all starting to demand better working conditions and arrangements from their employers as they are becoming less inclined to put up with unfulfilling roles that affect their wellbeing. The effort needed to get this right is worth it. It helps to ensure happy, fulfilled, productive employees: a win-win. Enlightened organisations are realising it improves efficiency and effectiveness, reduces staff turnover and thereby increases profitability. More importantly, it is the right thing to do.

Duncan Spencer

Head of Advice and Practice

Institution of Occupational Safety and Health

+44 (0)116 257 3100

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