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Lone working: has Covid-19 changed the rules?

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The huge growth in lone and home working driven by the pandemic means greater numbers of staff could be facing a higher risk of aggression from the public and work-related stress due to isolation from colleagues.


Over the past two decades there has been a gradual increase in the number of lone workers in the UK.

With a change in the kind of work we carry out, the services we offer and technology allowing us to work remotely and more flexibly, more employers have recognised the benefits of using lone workers within their organisations and many employees in return have reaped the rewards of greater flexibility and autonomy during their working day.

The pandemic brought an an exponential increase in lone working. Photograph: iStock

But as lone working has grown, there has been a need to raise the awareness of the impact of lone working on employee safety, security and wellbeing. We know that lone working can increase the likelihood of violence and aggression and to some extent it can have a similar impact on sexual harassment, some types of accidents and work-related stress.

Most organisations that have remote workers in roles traditionally recognised as being lone working are very aware of the risks and have put in place appropriate controls to protect their staff and their business.

So, activities carried out by housing officers, social workers, health professionals, security guards and utilities workers, etc, have been addressed by many. Risk assessments have been carried out, policies and procedures have been drafted and communicated, training has been provided to equip workers with an awareness of the potential risks, skills and strategies to be able to manage unexpected and difficult situations.

Many organisations now utilise lone worker technology that has advanced and improved immensely in recent years, to ensure they can keep in touch with, trace and monitor the welfare of their remote workers, while at the same time providing workers with the ability to raise the alarm and summon help if required.

The pandemic

And then along came Covid-19, with the UK government telling people to stay at home, work at home where they can, and essential workers being asked to carry out new tasks in unfamiliar working environments.

With these fundamental changes came an exponential increase in lone working. Many people are being initiated into the lone working model through working at home or finding themselves carrying out activities alone (both at base and in the community), where before they worked alongside another member of their team.

Many people have been thrown into lone working situations with risks that they have not the experience to deal with. Photograph: iStock

There are literally tens of thousands of people who have been thrown into lone working situations with different and increased risks without the advantage of experience or proactive planning and preparation.

According to statistics from the ONS, in April 2020, 46.6 per cent of people in employment did some work at home, and 86 per cent of those did so as a direct result of Covid-19 (bit.ly/2URjl9F).

The increase in home working has for some been a blessing, but for others it has increased isolation and stress levels and may even have impacted on levels of domestic abuse.

In a study carried out by the Institute of Employment Studies on homeworker wellbeing, 33 per cent of people frequently felt isolated and 64 per cent of respondents reported loss of sleep due to worry.

The domestic abuse telephone helpline run by Refuge reported an increase of 66 per cent in its calls and a staggering 950 per cent rise in visits to its website in May 2020, two months into lockdown 1.0.

Where workers are interacting with the public, there is the challenge of protecting them from infection and in some cases from abuse and aggression associated with enforcing social distancing rules, wearing of face coverings etc.

Enforcing new behaviours, combined with a general increase in stress levels in the public, has led to increased reports of aggressive behaviour to employers and representative bodies since March 2020.

HSE's new guidance asks employers to consider the negative impact that lone working can have on work-related stress levels and mental health.

Many organisations are considering what the future of their operations might look like in the longer term and questioning their risk controls as new risks emerge and control measures that they have relied upon previously are no longer adequate or appropriate. They are recognising the need to review and possibly update assessments, policies and procedures.

Health and Safety Executive guidance

In a timely move, the HSE released revised guidance on protecting lone workers. Although this was written before Covid-19, much of its advice is relevant to the pandemic.

While HSE has not changed the fundamental definition of lone working as ‘someone who works by themselves without close or direct supervision’, it does now expand that definition to include those who:

  • Work at home
  • Work alone at a fixed base
  • Work separately from others (but on the same premises)
  • Work away from a fixed base.

The guidance appreciates the way that we employ people is changing and acknowledges the gig economy (independent contractors, freelancers and self-employed workers), volunteers and our ageing workforce as workers who may need specific considerations.

As expected, the guidance reminds employers of the requirement to assess and control risks associated with lone working. In addition to general health and safety risks, the HSE also focuses on (and asks organisations to consider) work-related violence and the negative impact that lone working can have on work-related stress levels and mental health.

Employers are asked to ‘take account of normal work and foreseeable emergencies’ and when assessing risk to consider factors such as:

  • The lone worker (their experience, training and any medical conditions, etc)
  • The people they may come into contact with (previous history, potential for aggression, etc)
  • The work being carried out (the environment and equipment used)
  • How the task may trigger an incident (enforcing rules, handling cash, etc).

In relation to lone workers who are remote, the HSE guidance explores the options for monitoring and keeping in touch, with an emphasis on effective communication. For both home and remote workers, practices should include emergency protocols so that you can provide effective support to reduce the impact of any incident that may occur.

Covid challenges

Even though we are in exceptional times, our responsibilities (legally and morally) towards our workers remain unchanged. One of the more prominent challenges in the current climate is around keeping in touch with and providing supervision and wellbeing support to those working at home. Especially when supervisors and managers are in the same situation.

Many home workers will miss the social interaction and colleague support they get in the physical workplace, feeling isolated and disconnected from their team – with those who normally rely on other members of their team for advice and guidance potentially struggling the most.

If a role is particularly stressful or a worker has pre-existing medical or mental health conditions it is even more vital that managers find ways to provide contact and appropriate support.

Consider:

Regular times to catch up from a professional point of view, both as a group and on a one-to-one basis

Managers themselves may need help because communicating effectively and being approachable over a virtual platform does not always come naturally.

Recreating team meetings in a virtual world can be useful to allow people to discuss project planning, challenges and successes. But there may be concerns that workers do not wish to voice in front of others, so make sure there are opportunities for lone workers to talk candidly with their supervisors or managers. Managers themselves may need help, as communicating effectively and being approachable over a virtual platform does not always come naturally.

Clearly setting out work expectations and boundaries can help people to feel more comfortable in this new working environment

Can people be flexible with their hours? What support is available from managers (and when)? How is work prioritised?

Less formal gatherings to allow colleagues to catch up over a virtual coffee

However, this should not be mandatory, some people may find the format alien and there may be an unspoken pressure to join and be jolly, creating even more pressure! If people are avoiding the social gatherings it may indicate a potential problem with their wellbeing or they may just be very busy with domestic issues.

Whether colleagues should ‘buddy up’ with one or two other people from their team

This can foster closer support relationships. Where regulations and circumstances allow, encourage buddies to meet up and maybe go for a regular walk or coffee.

Opportunities for training

You should ensure that training in any new technology and processes being used is accessible. Don’t forget that any new systems can feel alien to start with and workers may need training to feel confident and use the system to its best effect.

Advice and guidance on health, wellbeing and stress management techniques to assist self-awareness and personal resilience during these difficult times

You may want to consider training some of your team to become wellbeing champions or mental health first aiders.

Much of the above will also be useful to those lone workers who are working out and about in the community or face-to-face with clients or the public.

It is still important to support their mental health and wellbeing and arguably they too will be feeling isolated. In addition, where lone working is unfamiliar, the worker may not be equipped to deal with difficult situations that may arise. Issues to consider include:

  • Are they likely to enter into conflict situations which could increase the likelihood of workplace violence?
  • Do they have the skills to defuse situations and the means to call for help if necessary?
  • Are they using equipment or working with chemicals that may be a hazard?
  • Are they driving long distances that could lead to fatigue (without somewhere to stop for a rest break)?

The risks for this group of remote workers depends so much on the actual activity being carried out as well as the individual. Consequently, appropriate control measures will vary. Consider:

Engaging with remote workers to discover the challenges they are facing

Discovering where they are feeling less than confident can help define the support required.

Providing adequate and appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE)

Be aware of the impact face coverings may have on communication with clients or public and remind workers of the potential for misunderstanding and frustration alongside the need for patience and use of body language to improve communication.

Agreeing ‘stopping rules’

At what point and under what conditions would you want your remote worker to stop an activity? Having clear boundaries and equipping staff with dynamic risk assessment skills should be the fundamental starting point for lone working. Workers new to being alone, may need to be given clear permission and reminded to follow their instinct and own assessment of a situation.

Carrying on with training

The biggest challenge is that most training for lone workers is behavioural, not purely instructional. For example; training for conflict management is certainly more effective when experiential, where people can practise the skills, but there are still ways to provide the core principles and equip lone workers with some key skills. Consider interactive e-learning and virtual workshops that provide ‘in the meantime’ training.

Now may be a good time to investigate technological solutions to help provide communication and emergency support for your remote workers

It may be more difficult to keep track of ‘who is where?’ and ‘is everyone safe?’ when managers are also working remotely with flexibility in their hours. If you decide to utilise a technology-based lone worker solution, engaging with workers early on in the process can help avoid costly mistakes.

What kind of system or technology do workers feel most comfortable with? What do you need it to do? What device will not get in the way of them doing their job? Choosing a system that just doesn’t ‘fit’ for your workers doesn’t make financial sense as it will not be adopted, and it will do little to control the risks.

Conclusion

Covid-19 may mean that more of us are lone working and that some of the risks are new. The revised guidance from HSE goes some way to making the picture clearer and offers more detailed advice. But the basic principles of lone working risk management stay the same.

Lone working is definitely here to stay and most likely post Covid-19 in larger numbers, so any effort you make to manage the risks during this new way of working will stand you in good stead for when we return to some form of normality.

Nicole Vasquez is director at Worthwhile Training and the host of Lone Worker Safety Live, a conference and exhibition taking place in London on 12 October 2021.

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