All employers have a responsibility to protect the health, safety and welfare of the people they employ.
Typically, businesses tend to focus on the physical risks that can impact the safety of their employees, such as falling down stairs or slipping on a wet floor.
The topic of mental health is commonly overlooked in the workplace with poor mental health often difficult to recognise.
Despite this, evaluating and monitoring mental health is a fundamental part of an employer’s duty of care.
In addition, many people suffering with a mental health condition fail to express the way they’re feeling as a result of fear or the absence of an appropriate channel.
Research carried out for the British Occupational Health Research Foundation (BOHRF) in 2010 found that 64% of remote lone workers face psychological distress which has a knock-on effect to their mental health. While they may be ‘out of sight’, it’s important that they don’t become ‘out of mind’.
We’ve put together a list of six strategies to help support the mental health of remote lone workers in your business.
When you’re in an office or part of a team that works in the same physical space, it’s easier to communicate with each other and understand how people are feeling. For lone workers on the road or ‘in the field’, they could go a whole day without having a meaningful conversation with another person.
For example, a technician will have a list of customers to see and a number of jobs to complete, but they will often be left alone to get on with what they need to do. Aside from greetings and a few pleasantries, it’s unlikely that they will have a full conversation.
As a manager or team leader of lone workers, it’s important to pick up the phone to talk to the people in your team, and not just when something has gone wrong. Try to check in with them every day to understand how their day is going and if they have any challenges you can help with. Similarly, they should feel confident that they can call you during their shift and you will answer, or get back to them as soon as possible if you’re busy.
Some lone workers can feel distanced and isolated from the company they work for. Having a monthly newsletter with regular updates about what’s going on within the business, staff achievements and events can help them to feel engaged and involved.
People often have a to-do list to help them organise their workload and ensure that important tasks are completed on time. Lone workers that have their day organised for them (e.g. delivery drivers) should have their day planned out to minimise driving time and miles covered as well as increase efficiency.
By working alongside lone workers to understand how long certain jobs take, you can ensure that they have an acceptable workload and don’t feel under pressure to meet unrealistic targets. Although there might be a policy that outlines the breaks that employees are entitled to, lone workers might not take them if they’re running behind or have too many jobs to complete.
A lack of breaks could lead to physical fatigue and increased stress levels which both have an effect on mental health. To combat this, breaks should be blocked into everyone’s diaries and planned in accordance with the jobs they need to complete. If they’re running behind for any reason, they should communicate this so that a solution (that doesn’t involve missing a break) can be put in place.
Regularly working alone can be a lonely and isolating experience which can have a negative impact on mental health. It’s important to make sure that lone workers feel like part of the team by encourage face-to-face contact where possible. Try to build in office time for catch-up meetings – these could happen every other month to discuss things that have been going well and what could be improved.
The knowledge and experience of lone workers provides a different perspective of the business. Getting their input when creating new policies or updating existing ones is invaluable. It also helps them to feel included and like a valued employee.
As part of the responsibility to look after staff health and wellbeing, the business might offer perks such as free lunches, games consoles on site or dress-down days. Remote lone workers won’t get the opportunity to take advantage of these benefits and will feel as though they’re missing out.
Even if you know lone workers won’t be able to come to certain events (e.g. pizza Fridays), you should invite them anyway, or insist that it’s always an open invite. Similarly, they should be given the opportunity to attend all company-wide social events like the Christmas party – you could even offer to pay for a hotel if they have to travel a long way.
Going above and beyond the minimum requirements for employees can pay dividends for businesses. Staff that are happy and healthy are likely to be more productive and take fewer absence days. In the UK, it’s estimated that 12.7% of all sickness days taken can be attributed to mental health. Offering practical ways to support the mental health of your lone workers such as free counselling means that they can access help when they need it.
Sometimes, services unrelated to mental health can have a big impact on an employee’s mental wellbeing. For example, providing lone workers with a personal safety device can help them to feel safer while carrying out their job, causing reduced levels of stress and anxiety.
Similarly, providing a gym membership (to an onsite or external gym) or setting up company sports teams will give members of staff the opportunity to improve their physical fitness. It’s widely documented that exercise releases chemicals like endorphins and serotonin which naturally make you feel good. The psychological benefits of exercise include decreased stress, increased self-esteem and better sleep.
The burden of decision-making can increase stress levels and have a negative impact on a lone worker’s mental health. The physical absence of other colleagues to seek advice from, and discuss different options with, can create a high-pressure situation.
Decision-making levels of authority within the business should be clear. Lone workers need to be empowered to make decisions if they’re trusted to complete the job alone. For example, a District Nurse needs to have the authority to administer medicine to their patients, but should not have the responsibility to change a course of treatment.
Guidelines of what a lone worker can decide themselves should be in place. If a decision is beyond their level of authority, there should be a clear process outlining who they need to contact for approval. Ideally, there would be multiple people in this position in case one of them didn’t answer.
It’s everyone’s right to feel safe at work; making it the responsibility of the employer to provide a safe working environment. For remote lone workers, their physical working environment is often out of the business’ hands, so they need to be protected in other ways.
On the most basic level, the business needs to have a set of policies in place to protect the health and safety of all their employees. It’s their responsibility to ensure that every member of staff understands and follows the processes set out in these policies.
Training is an important part of any job to ensure the person has the necessary skills to complete the task. In terms of providing a safe working environment, lone workers should be trained to complete dynamic risk assessments and be given the tools to deal with serious situations. These tools can be physical pieces of kit such as a lone worker device or strategies, including how to defuse aggression or tension control techniques.
With these systems and solutions in place, lone workers will have the reassurance that they’re safe and supported wherever they need to work. This reassurance helps them to feel protected and promotes positive mental health.