One of the three strands that we are focusing on this year at the Lone Worker Safety Expo Conference is ‘wellbeing’.  For lone workers there are specific issues around being isolated from other colleagues and the stresses and potential mental health problems that this may create.

Duncan Spencer, Head of Advice & Practice for IOSH will be discussing some of the steps people can take to support the mental health and wellbeing of their lone workers at the event and we will have an expert on hand to answer your individual questions. Here Duncan shares his thoughts on the subject.  

Managing Mental Wellbeing for Lone Workers

Employers are responsible for supporting the mental wellbeing of all their workers, regardless of whether they work alone. Nonetheless the remoteness of a ‘lonely’ worker means that employers may have to take different actions to support them in the workplace.

A common mistake in the design of many wellbeing systems is to have a bias focus on recovery controls. The use of a mental health first aider or an employee advisory programme is reactionary. In the main, an employee must be suffering harmful ill-health effects before they are needed. As such they can be argued to treat the symptom and not the causes. The challenge is to apply the spirit and intent of health & safety legislation and design and implement a system that primarily incorporates prevention.

The question for many organisations is “how do we identify needs early and provide intervention before health is compromised?

This is a real challenge and rests on the fact that mental health is a continuum. It ranges from healthy, through coping and struggling and eventually to ill-health. People can move backwards and forwards through this range with the ebbs and flows of life and work demands. What is more, studies show that work-related ill health is rarely solely attributed to work. It is common place for poor mental wellbeing to result from a combination of work and home causes. Nevertheless, an employee suffering mental harm is generally less productive and may take sickness absence.

Consequently, an increasing number of organisations regard whether the mental ill-health is caused by work or domestic origins as immaterial and support the individual anyway.

There is little that a manager can do to control an employee’s personal life, neither should they try. It is within management powers to identify stressors in the workplace and put them right. They can influence the culture of openness and support that is necessary to reduce the stigmatisation often associated with mental health. Often it can be simple. Find out what is annoying employees and put them right. Sorting out loose floor tiles, parking arrangements, software issues and other irksome issues can bring dividends. There will be a similar list for lone workers too. When organisations act to solve such matters, employees start to believe that the organisation cares about them. This is very positive for wellbeing.

So, what about the challenges which are specific to the ‘lonely worker’? The clue is in the phrase. Managers must find ways to make them less lonely. The lone worker cannot easily turn to a colleague sitting beside them and have a moan or take them into their confidence about how they are feeling. The difficulty in conversing about our feelings is exacerbated by remoteness. The typical human mind is prone to rumination, especially if no-one is there to counter any negative thoughts. As a result, feelings like loneliness, helplessness, depression and anxiety can develop more quickly in a lone worker.

What can managers of lone workers do?

To be effective in the management of wellbeing, managers need three things. Firstly, they need to be educated in the subject so that they understand the human and business need for managing it well. It is their responsibility to have conversations with enough quality to enable them to identify when someone is starting to have a tough time. Manager education must include how to identify early symptoms and how to discourage stigmatisation.

Secondly, managers need the tools to apply. They need to have conversational techniques, reporting tools and procedures to follow. These arrangements must include keeping the management chain informed of progress. Medical-in-confidence can be over-zealously applied which can significantly diminish the line manager’s ability to support the individual. The right balance must be struck. The tool bag must include ways to encourage frequent daily conversations with remote workers. Remote workers should be brought into the office to join in with events. They need to feel part of a team and build deeper and meaningful relationships with their site-based colleagues.

Thirdly, managers need to have the organisational support to implement controls and systems, including being an effective partner in any return to work arrangements. Building a supportive culture and environment fit for lone workers suffering from mental ill-health may have implications for productivity, resource allocation, expenses and more. Organisations need to balance such investment with their moral stance on wellbeing and in the knowledge that organisations where employees believe they are cared for tend to be more productive as a result.

Good employee management extends to wherever they are working. Out of sight and out of mind will not work if good wellbeing is to be fostered in the workforce. Lone workers must be supported too. To do this well is possible. Where there is a genuine desire, creativity will find a way. The controls and arrangements will be different, but lone workers have a right to the same duty and standard of care.

If you are keen to learn more, don’t forget to book your place as soon as possible. Delegate places are limited this year so make sure you don’t miss out!