Looking After Lone Worker Physical and Emotional Health

Stressed

Nicole Vazquez from Worthwhile Training has been supporting organisations to manage lone workers for over 20 years.

In this article she explores some of the challenges of managing both the physical and emotional wellbeing of lone workers.

There is an old saying “Out of sight, out of mind” and in my experience this can be true when it comes to lone workers.

Imagine the situation, you are a manager of a busy maintenance team, which includes 8 colleagues that work in a call centre and 24 technicians that are out and about. Staffing cuts and problems with the IT system mean that your call centre team are under pressure and need a lot of support from you.

The technicians who lone work away from base rarely pop in to say “hi” as they travel across the UK and work from home. They are also affected by the cuts, but are experienced and they are still meeting their targets. You are amazed that they manage this as the targets are getting more demanding; but hey if they are doing the job and not giving you any hassle then happy days! If all is well with your lone working team why bother them?

Stressed womanHowever consider…

  • Are you really aware of how they work on a day-to-day basis?
  • How do you know if they are following procedures and safe practices?
  • Could they be cutting corners to meet targets?
  • Could their practices be creating the potential for greater or new risk?
  • Might they be fed up with how much pressure they are under?
  • Perhaps they are feeling anxious about their safety?
  • Maybe they take their fears and stress levels home with them?
  • Perhaps the work is affecting their physical and mental wellbeing?

 


It might be that none of the above is true, but can you be sure?

You should have in place risk assessments for the key tasks that your lone workers carry out and procedures for them to follow to stay safe. However, if due to changes in the level of pressure or higher workloads jobs may not be carried out as expected. This may alter the potential for incidents to occur and bring unknown risks that won’t have right controls in place.

For example: you may have a procedure that sets out adequate breaks for your lone workers that drive long distances, but due to time pressures and work load the lone worker may not take the breaks. This could have an impact on the potential for fatigue related incidents both when driving and when carrying out other tasks.

The lack of breaks (and maybe even food) can lead to general physical health and wellbeing problems and if the lone worker feels they have no other alternative this can lead to stress levels increasing.

The risks of verbal and physical assault have been recognised as a significant risk to mobile lone workers who meet the public or customers. Alongside traditional health and safety issues these should be part of your normal risk management systems. More recently concern has been raised over other physical health and mental wellbeing issues that may also be more prominent in lone workers.

According to research carried out for the British Occupational Health Research Foundation (BOHRF) 64% of remote lone workers report psychological distress. The research led by Dr Joanne Crawford of the Institute of Occupational Medicine pointed to lone workers being a ‘hotspot’ for stress. It showed complex links between work pressures, decision making authority and isolation from other workers. The same group of isolated workers also suffer higher levels of general health problems including chronic fatigue and neck and back problems.

Anecdotally I speak to many lone workers who feel isolated and have concerns over the lack of support–these same people also state they like the autonomy of being able to plan their own day without interference!


 

So how can you support your remote lone workers?

There are practical steps you can take and the BOHRF recommend the following evidence-based actions to help reduce stress specifically for remote lone workers who spend a long time out on the road:

Planning

Ensure that working days are planned to minimise miles and time driven. Work with the team to learn about how this works best for them. Balance the needs of the business with the needs of the individual worker.

Breaks

Block breaks into everyone’s diaries and only ask for realistic targets to be met. Remember they don’t get the natural down time spent at the water cooler or making coffee with colleagues during their day.

Decision-making

Ensure decision-making levels of authority are clear. If you trust them to do the job alone then you need to make sure they know that they are trusted to make decisions when necessary, especially where they have an impact on their safety or physical or mental well-being.

Health

Encourage physical fitness to help reduce chronic fatigue. Can you offer funds towards a gym membership, create virtual teams with fitness or activity goals or organise active group social activities?

Managers

Foster a supportive management style, particularly when managers contact remote workers, to build trust. If the only time you ever contact your remote workers is when there is a problem then it is likely that they will keep their distance from you! Occasionally make contact just to see how things are. Take the time to listen if they need to offload or just tell you about their day.

Communicate

Encourage contact with colleagues; face-to-face contact at meetings and training sessions, and by mobile phone. Make sure they feel part of the team, invite them along to meetings even if you are sure they can’t make it – never forget to invite them!

Training and Meetings

Regular meetings and refresher training which discusses the challenges for both lone workers and their managers emphasises the importance of following procedures. Offering workers a chance to discuss their concerns with peers and managers is vital. It does not have to be formal, but it does need to be regular and not overlooked when workload is heavy. Make these meetings a priority and the lone workers will feel valued.


So instead of out of sight out of mind, adopt the motto “Absence makes the heart grow fonder”. Make the time to think about your remote lone workers.

In my experience, it is all about engagement and communication from the very start and continued even when time is precious. Managers need to find ways to make sure that remote lone workers feel (and are) part of the team–remember they are precious too.