Duncan Spencer (pictured) is Head of Information and Intelligence at the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) and at this year’s Lone Worker Expo, will be manning a ‘Ask the Expert’ table taking queries on mental health and wellbeing in the workplace. Mark Glover finds out more. 

With over twenty years’ experience in health and safety, Duncan Spencer has seen many changes in the profession, not least the attitude to mental health in the workplace. At this year’s Lone Worker Expo, Duncan will be fielding questions on the subject and in particular the wellbeing of lone workers.

“One of the best ways of being able to manage people’s wellbeing and mental health is for them to feel involved and included and communicated with,” he explains. “Of course, in the lone working sphere that presents some significant challenges.”

Duncan spent twelve years in a senior position for risk management consultancy Human Applications, which led to a Safety Manager position at Waitrose, and eventually a strategic role overseeing the governance of health and safety across the whole of the John Lewis Partnership. He first crossed paths with Nicole Vasquez, Director of Worthwhile Training and organiser of this year’s Lone Worker Expo, when the pair supported the Suzy Lamplugh Trust conferences. It was the charity that, according to Duncan, placed lone working at the fore of health and safety profession where previously it had been overlooked. “The Trust, all those years ago, really put lone working on the map,” he says. “Until then, I don’t think practitioners had really thought it through to the degree they should have done.”

He continues: “However, recent major changes in the workplace such as home shopping and the provision of other services to the home, the gig economy and even remote working on large sites is elevating the importance of lone working once again.”

Encouragingly, Duncan thinks the current trend in the profession for larger organisational change and influence means that topics, including lone working, are being viewed more strategically. “People are reflecting on the fact that actually, from a health and safety practitioner’s perspective, it is not so much technical knowledge that matters anymore, it’s about whether you can make things happen in your organisation. I think this is starting to refresh perspective on well-trodden paths such as lone working,” he says.

Our conversation turns to the issue of mental health, a subject Duncan is passionate about, stripping it back to the advances made in society, in particular the impact of technology. “We live in a very hectic age. We have streams of soundbites and constant interruptions from media devices,” he suggests. “The main thing we had to worry about 150 years ago was our next meal: it’s certainly not the case for most of us in the modern day.”

He explores the theme: “We are in a situation where we are constantly asked to benchmark ourselves and our lifestyles. We strive to buy things which bring responsibility to maintain, manage and preserve. We constantly compare ourselves to other people to fit the media-generated image of the perfect house and the perfect wife or husband. It’s a complex social picture, it’s a complex working picture, it’s a complex personal picture. It places people under increasing pressure to conform to ideals.”

Duncan is heartened, though, by more and more companies welcoming the mental health agenda through the boardroom doors, partly he admits, as it carries with it a strong business case that company directors can ill afford to ignore, specifically the effect on staff retention and productivity.

“It’s expensive to replace people and retrain them; it adversely affects productivity,” he explains. “All of these ideas mean that many are starting to look beyond cost-cutting and more about improving productivity and retaining skill.”

Given his experience in the health and safety profession, I’m interested in his response to my question about inspiration: what makes him get up in the morning? His reply is refreshing: “The philosophy of my profession is, of course, not wanting harm to come to people at work; for them to be able to go home physically and mentally well,” he says. “Of course, this is the case for me, but it can feel a little bit trite.

“What inspires me is a desire to positively influence my profession; to stimulate and welcome debate. To ask the question ‘What are we here for and are we doing it in the best way?’ Being in a position at IOSH to do this is a privilege.”

Come October, you’d be wise to make a beeline for Duncan’s ‘Ask the Expert’ table, expect standing room only and come armed with some good questions but expect excellent answers.

Duncan will be speaking at the Lone Worker Expo on 2 October which takes place in central London. You can register for the event here.