Mental health and wellbeing

Lone worker Special: Lone but not alone

Reduced contact with remote and lone workers makes supporting their wellbeing and spotting early symptoms of mental health problems harder. 

Image credit: © © iStock/OgnjenO

Being in good, fulfilling work, including financial stability, having access to social networking and the development of high self-esteem are the basic elements of positive wellbeing. All three are vital for people’s physical health and mental wellbeing but can be seriously eroded if organisations do not combat the “out of sight, out of mind” approach many take towards lone workers.

Lone workers have the same needs as any others: to feel fully supported by their managers, have the right tools for the job, be trained and competent to deal with work problems and have mechanisms to obtain advice when they meet the limit of their knowledge. Above all, they need to feel that they are important members of a wider team that celebrates collective success through meaningful and frequent dialogue with peers and managers.


Who does what?      


Role in managing return to work

Occupational safety and health professional 

Advising on preventative measures. Assisting with investigations. Advising on the safety aspects of the return to work plan.

Occupational health nurse

Ensuring that the return-to-work plan is in place. Recording a capability study when required. Helping to promote awareness to reduce organisational stigmatisation of mental ill-health conditions.

General practitioner

Providing a prognosis and advice on capability.

Mental health case worker (NHS)

Providing support and direct advice to the individual on coping strategies.

Line manager

Managing the workload according to the return-to-work plan.

Human resources professional

Ensuring that the worker’s rights are respected. Arranging awareness training. Promoting awareness to reduce organisational stigmatisation of mental ill-health conditions.

Feeling a valued part of a team and empathising with colleagues are vital contributors to wellbeing. The absence of lone workers from the workplace means that organisations may need to modify their management to achieve these aims.

Most recognise that communication with a lone worker can be more difficult. In the workplace colleagues can be grabbed for an impromptu chat about a work issue or to further develop friendship by discussing important events in their personal lives. This elevates the importance of the more irregular and less frequent time that lone workers spend in the office with their line managers and teams.

Opportunities can come in many guises: daily update meetings before going on the road, project working groups, vehicle and tool maintenance periods, stocktaking, toolbox talks, award presentations and leaving occasions. A schedule of social gatherings outside work hours is easy to let slide when a team is co-located but should be prioritised when some or all work mostly alone.

Video call software is now inexpensive and widely available for mobile telephones. It is better than relying on text or email because it allows callers to read each others’ facial expressions. Written communication without verbal inflection and voiced emphasis can sometimes be misinterpreted with unintentional and mentally harmful consequences.

However, for daily communications between team members, messaging apps such as WhatsApp provide an easy substitute for quick social exchanges between remote team members.

IOSH-funded research into lone working by the University of East Anglia and Kingston University was published in 2017. Called Out of Sight, Out of Mind?, this includes a toolkit to help safety and health practitioners and line managers understand their roles and responsibilities.

Remotely concerned

If any worker feels they are under undue pressure and are unable to cope, it can lead to anxiety or depression. This may be exacerbated by problems at home.

The system for drawing management’s attention to the situation must be open and transparent and stigmatisation must be discouraged.

Organisations must look for creative ways to ensure that the lone worker has the chance to raise personal issues. Failure to do so can cause workers to become distracted or go off sick. Either means a loss of productivity. UK Health and Safety Executive statistics state that 12.5 million days were lost due to mental ill-health in 2016-17. This amounted to 40% of all work-related ill-health and 49% of all working days lost to health problems.

Few organisations have investigation procedures for mental ill-health, possibly due to confusion about the medical confidentiality

Recent IOSH research on return to work after common mental disorders (bit.ly/2gBkdLK) indicated that workers may go off sick citing physical complaints, for example a painful back, to hide mental ill-health. This raises a question about the accuracy of local sickness absence records.

A founding principle of safety and health is to be actively preventive to avoid ill-health and injury. Organisations must consider what this means for lone worker mental health and wellbeing.

Duncan-Spencer-head-of-information-and-intelligence-at-IOSHThis includes a review of working methods to identify possible problems in advance and then striving to eradicate them. The organisation must consider how lone workers can recognise early symptoms or factors eroding their sense of wellbeing. It must offer techniques or exercises to help the worker to analyse issues, find personal solutions and build their resilience to similar situations in the future.

This is not the same as engaging support from assistance programme helplines or giving employees access to mental health first aiders (MHFAs). Both interventions are important but they are recovery controls rather than preventive methods to build resilience.

Research is still under way as to whether the provision of MHFAs, who are trained to recognise symptoms of common disorders such as anxiety and depression and to act as a first point of call for employees in distress, provide a tangible benefit to organisations. MHFAs aim to support the person’s acceptance that they have a problem and guide them towards treatment. Lone workers will not offer as many opportunities to observe signs of common mental health problems, so managers and colleagues should be encouraged to watch for these in each other.

When lone workers feel they need help they should be encouraged to visit the office to see a trained colleague confidentially.

Managers must be trained in how to deal fairly and effectively with a lone worker or other employee who says they have developed mental ill-health, whether work related or not. There is confusion and some concern about the managerial actions to be taken. What does fair managerial intervention look like? Will a proposed action help the person to recover, or could it be detrimental to their condition?

The IOSH research in returning to work after common mental disorders stated the need to define the role of line managers and practitioners. The table (above) outlines the roles of the various professionals in managing a worker’s recovery.

Soft return

Research shows that most employees with mental ill-health benefit from returning to work. Doing so provides structure, helps to rebuild confidence and self-esteem and promote recovery.

The difficulty for lone workers is that the diminished communication that comes with their roles could hamper their recovery. The organisation should make sure their pattern is adjusted to allow supportive conversations with managers and assessment of how they are coping and benefiting from the return-to-work plan. The sound implementation of the plan is vital to ensuring that working conditions have favourably changed, to encourage recovery and to support the lone worker effectively. Failure to do so may even provide grounds for litigation from the employee.

A final point is that most organisations have well-defined investigation processes in place for physical injury and near-miss incidents involving lone workers and others. Few have investigation procedures for mental ill-health events, possibly due to confusion about medical confidentiality. Nonetheless this is an area for further development. Investigation facilitates organisational learning so that controls and systems can be improved. It signals to lone workers that their wellbeing is taken seriously.

Older employees, millennials and the new generation Z are all starting to demand better working conditions and arrangements from their employers as they are becoming less inclined to put up with unfulfilling roles that affect their wellbeing. The effort needed to get this right is worth it. It helps to ensure happy, fulfilled, productive employees: a win-win. Enlightened organisations are realising it improves efficiency and effectiveness, reduces staff turnover and thereby increases profitability. More importantly, it is the right thing to do.



Duncan Spencer is head of advice and practice, IOSH. 

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