Impacts of Lone Working on Mental Health

I find September always seems to have a “back to school” feel about it. Perhaps it’s because I worked in education for such a long time. For some, September can have that new start feeling, whilst for others there is a real sense of dread with Winter looming. Lone working has been in my mind this week whilst undertaking a policy reviews for a charity in a voluntary capacity. It got me thinking about the potential vulnerabilities of an individual and how this could impact on their mental health in the short and long term.

Impacts of Lone Working

Lone and remote working has become more popular due to never-ending financial pressures placed on organisations. Current figures for people lone or remote working in Western Europe is thought to be 126.5 million. Some of us may prefer lone working as a choice, but for others the job will dictate. You may think, what’s the big issue with lone or remote working? However, there can be particular risks associated with working in this way.

Risks are heightened for staff working in front-facing customer service roles, for example in the NHS, undertaking social work, housing assessments, issuing parking tickets, bus drivers etc. These are situations where the chance of verbal or physical attacks are more likely. If a lone or remote worker has to manage an incident on their own with no support this puts them in danger. These risks also extend to staff lone or remote working in office or lab environments for long periods of time. In addition to the fact these environments carry their own health and safety risks.

Mental-ill health and lone working

Research from the British Occupational Health Research Foundation in 2010 found 64% of lone workers face psychological distress. This is significantly higher than workers who work alongside colleagues in a secure environment. Distress has a knock-on effect to both physical and mental health. If these negative feelings persist, depression and anxiety are more likely to take hold. 

This of course, affects performance, self-esteem, confidence and suicidal thoughts, As well as the likelihood of acting upon suicidal thoughts. With c. 6000 suicides each year it is vital that lone and remote workers are looked after. Spotting the signs can be tricky if there is reduced contact with certain members of staff.

Practical steps to protect staff

There are practical steps you can take as a workplace and as a manager. Firstly, the three key pieces of legislation in place are:

  • The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974
  • The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999
  • The Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007

Make sure everyone is aware of the practical aspects of the law, how this impacts their role and how lone/remote working can work effectively. Unison’s guide Working Alone provides information for individuals. The Health and Safety Executive has created lone working information for managers.

I always say people are the gold mine of any organisation. Draw on staff talent by supporting everyone to flourish in the workplace and you can’t go wrong.

Here are five ways to do this

  1. Get the policies right: ensure policies draw on best practice, are easy to read and easily accessible for all. Make them as practical as possible, provide training on them so everyone knows what to do, when and how.
  2. Use Risk Assessments: carry out risk assessments for staff who will be lone or remote working. Identify what the main issues may be and how to mitigate them. A checklist from Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) can be downloaded here
  3. Be Proactive: regularly review how the role is going, what is working well and what may need to be tweaked. Think about how will lone/remote workers could feel part of a team. Put systems in place as you go along, don’t wait for a negative incident or problem to occur. 
  4. Use technology to help: using safety apps such as StaySafe or personal attack alarms. Think about how they could use video conferencing to be part of team meetings etc.
  5. Signposting: make sure all workers, but especially lone or remote workers know how to access support. Whether that’s through the line managers, team members, HR, Employee Assistance Programme and/or Trade Unions. 

IOSH-funded research into lone working by the University of East Anglia and Kingston University was published in 2017 entitled Out of Sight, Out of Mind? There is an downloadable a toolkit and resources available as part of the report. 

What does your organisation do for lone and remote workers? Have you been a lone worker? If you have, let me know about best practice or what could have been done better in the comments below.

If you want to know more about the training and support from Diverse Minds click here:

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