Supporting the mental health of lone workers – why the human brain can see disconnection as inherently dangerous.

When we’re thinking about supporting the mental health of lone workers, it’s important to put the subject into some psychological context so that we properly understand what we’re trying to achieve and why this helps.

One of the big factors to consider in this is the human need for connection. This need is visceral, primitive and hard-wired into our brains.

Understanding the basic layers of this gives us a foundation to work from when we are considering mental health. Before we throw solutions at any problem, we need to understand the mechanisms that contribute to it.

Because the human need for connection is visceral, primitive and hard-wired into our brains, we can respond in a strong and negative way to a perception of disconnection.


Being away from the tribe is dangerous

At the most basic level, for animals that predominantly live in social groups (and that includes human beings), physical isolation brings danger. It leaves the individual exposed to predators without the protection of the flock or herd or tribe. Examples are the flock of birds or school of fish where safety comes from being part of a larger group maximizing your individual odds of surviving a predator attack.


Abandonment by “caregivers” can mean death for mammals

 Another layer to this relates to the fact that humans are mammals. Young mammals are vulnerable and rely on others for quite some time. For them, abandonment by the protecting family or social group means death. They will react strongly to any perception of abandonment as this is literally a survival issue. As we grow older, we become more independent and self-sufficient. Our employer can be symbolic of this caregiver role. I spent many years working within the police service and was struck by how often a traumatic incident was not the horror or danger faced but the perception of betrayal or abandonment by the “police family” afterwards.

When we feel unsure about our abilities or anxious about our environment, we also return to being more sensitive to disconnection. We need to know that our basic needs can be met and that “the tribe” will come and protect us if required.


We all need to belong to a social group

The third layer to our need for connection is related to our social identity*. Aside from being a social animal, mammal – what kind of social group do we belong to? Who are we?

Social identity theory underpins the value and protection of a group that we identify with. We are more likely to accept support from “people like us” and to feel safe in their company (even if that is virtual).

Being outside that social group brings danger. We can see the power of this primitive fear in issues such as stigma, ostracizing and bullying.

This feeling of being outside the group can be triggered when we don’t feel visible or valued as a person or we don’t feel we have a voice or any influence. Good communication is vital.

One of the strongest social groups we belong to is our work group. Work is a major influence in our lives – if we discount sleep, we often spend more time at work than at home. It has the ability therefore to impact on our mental health in a positive or adverse way.

So why does all this matter? At the end of the day, we all have to be independent and occasionally live and work alone. Human beings need to feel safe and part of a community in order to thrive rather than survive. The operative word is “Feel”. It’s all about perception.

But what are the factors that enable people to thrive as lone workers rather than just survive?

In a later article, I’ll talk about these factors, the helpful ways we can promote the perception of connection and highlight some of the ways we may inadvertently exacerbate disconnection.

I’ll also highlight some of the signs of emotional distress and then explain how we can build on all this knowledge with a simple process that combines some of the principles of connection with informal wellbeing support.

*An interesting and accessible book of social identity is

Jetten, J., Haslam, C., & Haslam, S. A. (Eds.). (2012). The social cure: Identity, health and well-being. Hove, East Sussex: Psychology Press.

Dr Liz Royle, KRTS International Ltd

KRTS will be exhibiting at this year’s Lone Worker Safety Live to attend the event as a delegate then please register for one of the limited places here –LWSL – registration