Keeping a lone worker a happy worker
There is increasing focus on improving mental health in the workplace, with a growing expectation for employers to assist with the emotional and physical health of their staff.
Sometimes working alone can open up an employee to feelings of isolation from their employer and colleagues and in turn, these feelings of isolation can lead to depression, anxiety or stress. Anyone who has ever been a lone worker, freelanced, or regularly worked from home can identify with the feeling it brings and it can be easy to go from breakfast to dinner without speaking out loud to another soul, and this can be lonely. But it is not only lonely, it can be bad for our mental health.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) define work related stress, depression or anxiety as a ‘harmful reaction people have to undue pressures and demands placed on them at work’. The latest data sheet from HSE takes figures from the Labour Force Study and presents some eye-opening results on how stressed out we all are at work. In 2016/17, 526,000 workers reporting suffering from work-related stress, depression or anxiety, and in the same year, it was estimated 12.5 million working days were lost due to mental health problems. This is not the total number of people suffering with mental health issues; that would be much higher.
It is important to remember that being a lone worker doesn’t always mean being alone. A lone worker can speak to service users and clients all day long, but this isn’t the same as company. Lone workers are also more likely to be assaulted, and are more vulnerable to injuries, illness, slips, falls, and aggression.
Of course, many of these risks should have been outlined in any businesses lone worker policy or risk assessment and measures put in place to reduce risks, but what a policy or assessment can’t do is judge the emotional impact working under the risks can have. Feeling fearful of risks whilst trying to do your job can be incredibly stressful and may lead to staff calling in sick, and in extreme cases, a high staff turnover. Get to the root cause of what is stressing your employees out and do your best to fix it.
Often, it can be down to a lack of training or understanding of their role, both relatively simple things to fix. Lone workers can also suffer from the dreaded, “I’ll get in trouble if I don’t do it” mentality, which can lead to excessive workloads or staff putting themselves in dangerous situations, again major contributors to poor mental health. When we work under direct supervision, a colleague or a boss might notice that you have an unmanageable workload or that you are in a stressful situation. Left unchecked, a lone worker may not have the ability or confidence to say ‘no’ to more work or situations that don’t feel right.
Most sectors have some clients or service users who can sometimes be challenging or frustrating, but some sectors have customers who are volatile, can be objectionable, and have the potential to be dangerous. Dealing with these types of clients alone can lead to higher stress levels, which can cause depression and anxiety. The most recent Labour Force Survey also did some number crunching and broke down their results on work-related stress, by category. They found that the professional occupations category has a statistically significantly higher rate of work related stress, depression or anxiety than the rate for all occupations, with 2,010 cases per 100,000 workers, compared with 1,230 cases for all occupational groups. Looking more closely at the broad category of professional occupations they were able to assess which professions are driving the higher rate of work-related stress. Nursing and midwifery, and welfare professionals had significantly higher rates of work-related stress, depression or anxiety than the rate for all occupational groups.
There has been a huge shift in the last decade towards employees taking responsibility for the mental health of their staff. There may already be mechanisms and policies within organisations to take advantage of and it is worth checking with HR departments to see what already exists. Having frank discussions with your employees is a good place to start, even if you don’t think any issues exist. Thankfully, there are also warning signs you can look out for if lone workers are not forthcoming or comfortable enough to talk about their problems. Has anyone exhibited any signs that may be an indicator of work-related stress, such as irrational behaviour, lack of concentration or panic attacks?
The biggest warning sign is absenteeism in the workplace; are there any patters with certain individuals or groups? One way of getting an insight on the potential issue is by conducting a ‘return to work’ interview with all team members. Use these interviews to focus on possible stressors at work and discuss interventions and adaptions that can be made in the workplace. Here are four more ways you can act to lower stress or anxiety for lone workers:
Limit the time they are lone working for: Consider reworking the rota so that staff regularly spend more time in the office, catching up on paperwork, planning, or engaging in training.
Offer safety devices: Many employers choose to provide their lone workers with safety devices. It is a good way to help your employees feel protected and cared for. Peace of mind can go a long way towards reducing lone worker stress.
Be in contact: Have regular calls or skypes with your staff. The end of every day is a good start to ensure they can offload or discuss any concerns they have. Make the calls informal and light so it doesn’t feel like you are checking up on them.
Set up a counselling hotline: Some employers offer an independent counselling hotline to staff. Consider approaching HR to see if this is feasible. It is likely to reduce absence in the long run.
Alicia Mather is Director of Operations at First2HelpYou Ltd, members of the BSIA Lone Worker Section.