Alone but not forgotten

As part of our 60th anniversary celebrations we have recently digitised our archive and published it online. Looking back through the documents and pictures it’s striking to note how much the world of work has changed, switching from an industrial to a service-focus landscape.

For many people in 2017 work no longer requires them to go to a fixed place at a fixed time every day.  Advances in technology mean that many jobs can be done from any location with a connection to the internet, at any time of day, and service sector jobs require staff to be available on a schedule that meets customer expectations. This offers much greater flexibility for many workers, but it also means that an increasing number of people now work alone on a regular basis.

Lone working is not a new concept in terms of health and safety. There are many sources of guidance and good practice material available, and there are also monitoring tools and emergency response solutions to help employers to manage safety risks for lone workers.

However, historically, the workplace has also been a social hub, providing an opportunity for interaction and engagement. This has facilitated development and solutions to problems through coaching and the sharing of ideas and experience. It has also offered an opportunity for peer support on both a personal and professional level, and even an opportunity to just chat, laugh, share, learn and discuss the issues of the day with friends and peers. Human beings are inherently social and this sort of interaction is hugely important to our mental and physical wellbeing.

But lone workers are missing out on opportunities for informal interaction with peers and colleagues in the traditional way, and employers will need to consider alternatives if they are to ensure the wellbeing of an increasingly mobile workforce in an increasingly flexible working environment.

Technology offers opportunities for a new type of social interaction.  Many organisations are using systems such as WhatsApp and Yammer to form virtual work groups for remote workers. This sort of social networking can provide opportunities for sharing, interaction and peer support, and video and web-based conferencing allow office-based and remote staff to engage more formally for meetings and structured discussion and for technical instruction and expert advice. Virtual and augmented reality systems are also now becoming increasingly affordable, and provide opportunities for technical training and access to specialist advice and support for remote workers.

However, the changes that we are seeing in the workplace have come about as a gradual evolution rather than a sudden revolution, and in many cases lone worker risk assessments have yet to take account of these.

In order to ensure the ongoing wellbeing of an increasingly distributed and informal workforce, employers will need to develop a strategy for both structured and informal interaction in order to create a virtual community for workers. This will reduce the potential for remote-based workers to become isolated and promote engagement, effectiveness and wellbeing for the whole team. There is also a requirement to ensure that health and wellbeing initiatives are accessible and available to remote-based workers as well as those based in office locations.

We need to accept that the workplace is changing to become a virtual rather than a physical structure for many people, and we will need to evolve our approach to health, safety and wellbeing accordingly. This will be challenging, but it’s also a great opportunity for some fresh thinking in our sector.

Do your lone worker risk assessments consider health and wellbeing as well as safety issues?  Maybe it’s time to review and adjust your approach in order to maximise the opportunities presented by a more flexible approach to work.