Those who are working alone can feel isolated from their employer and colleagues, in turn, these feelings of isolation can lead to depression, anxiety or stress. This is before we even get to workload or work type related stress. Lone working related stress is real.
Over the past few years, there has been an 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.
This article looks at some of the reasons why we are all so stressed out by work and how employers can combat stress triggers for their employees; particularly those that work alone.
Is The UK Fed Up of Work?
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. In the same year, it is estimated that 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. These numbers are just the work-related stress, depression or anxiety; an unacceptably high number of people are struggling emotionally because of their jobs. As shocking as these numbers are, employers across the UK are now taking notice, looking for causes and how they can eliminate them.
The country has just this past month observed Mental Health Awareness Week, an annual initiative intended to raise awareness of all things mental health, and for people to share stories, ideas, and good practice. This year there was a huge focus on work related stress, as well as how much responsibility employers should be taking for their staffs’ emotional wellbeing.
Nessa Chiders, an Irish politician and Member of the European Parliament, warned back in April that if policymakers continue to neglect mental health, it could result in a loss of productivity and added burden on medical services. She also outlined the main contributing factors to work-related stress;
“trigger for work-related stress can include heavy workload, long working hours, lack of control and autonomy at work, poor relationships with colleagues, poor support at work and the impact of organisational changes.”
Why Does Working Alone Present a Higher Risk?
According to a leading UK Human Resources magazine, working alone is a specific contributor towards poor mental health. Of the 1,200 workers they surveyed, nearly half (42%) said their job played a significant role in their poor mental health. Of those people, 17.8% said that working alone was the reason they had issues with mental health conditions.
Countless studies show that those who are working alone are at higher risk of feeling isolated from their employer and colleagues. Anyone who has ever been a lone worker, freelanced, or regularly worked from home can identify with the feeling of isolation it brings. 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. Humans are pack animals. We are designed to interact, communicate, and verbalise our feelings. We laugh, rant, chat, theorise, learn, and share naturally. It’s the reason why we have so many verbal and non-verbal ways of communication. So, working alone is almost unnatural for us and this can cause depression or anxiety.
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. Lone working can even cause depression, as this blog points out. 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. Both 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.
High Risk Industries
In the magazine study mentioned previously, 17% of those who reported work as a major contributory factor to their mental wellbeing said dealing with clients or customers also damaged their mental health. Which means that for those working alone directly with service users, such as district nurses, or those working alone with customers, such as petrol station attendants, they are likely to experience mental health issues.
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.
Recognising Lone Worker Stress
There has been a huge shift in the last decade towards employees taking responsibility for the mental health of their staff, and rightly so. There may already be mechanisms and policies at work that you can encourage your team to take advantage of. It is worth checking with HR 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.
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