How to reduce stress for lone workers
Stress at work can be crippling, whether you are the CEO of a construction firm or a frontline worker servicing water supplies. Think about how overwhelming it can be when you are under time pressure to deliver crucial services to people’s homes, or when a patient falls in their own home and it’s up to you to provide adequate care and keep your service users safe.
How about if you add in the additional pressures and complications of performing those tasks alone? This is the reality of work for the UK’s 8 million plus lone workers: the demands and pressures of their jobs magnified by the fact they are often performed alone.
How many people are affected by stress at work?
In the Health and Safety Executive (HSE)’s 2017/18 report, 15.4 million days were lost due to stress, depression or anxiety. That’s more than 42,000 years of work lost in 2017/18 alone. On average, people suffering from stress, depression or anxiety take more time off than for any other reason. People took an average of 7.1 days off in 2017/18 for workplace injuries, 19.8 days off for cases of ill health and 25.8 days off for stress, depression or anxiety.
HSE defines stress as ‘the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them’.
Lone workers are at a greater chance of encountering stress by the nature of their work. For example social care workers conducting home visits alone are under greater demands than they would be if they were working with colleagues. Construction workers conducting tasks alone may feel pressured to complete tasks that should be performed by multiple workers to be safe.
In the Mental Health Foundation’s 2018 study with a sample of 4619 respondents, 74% of people felt so stressed they have been overwhelmed or unable to cope. Forth with Life’s study found that work and money were the two greatest causes of stress.
With these statistics, it’s clear that stress at work is a significant problem that affects workers across all industries, whether they are part of huge multinationals, self employed, or lone workers. So what can companies and individuals do to reduce stress for lone workers?
How lone workers can reduce stress at work?
Communicate. Don’t suffer in silence. Part of your employers responsibility is to safeguard your mental wellbeing and help you should your work be causing you stress or other issues. Good employers will have systems in place for you to discuss any issues, but you have to be willing to take advantage of them. Think about what practical steps you and your employer could take to help you be the most productive, least stressed lone worker you can be.
Don’t wait until your annual review - good managers will have an open door policy for these kinds of issues and it is their job to help you if you are in need. Reporting that you are under stress at the earliest possible opportunity means that measures can be put in place to help. As with all medical concerns or workplace issues, the sooner an issue is caught the better.
Take positive steps both in and out of work. Stress is multifaceted and does not exist in a vacuum: by taking small steps both in and out of work you can make incremental improvements that can cumulatively reduce stress.
At work: take proper breaks, ask for support if you need it and take part in wellbeing activities. Avoiding burnout and taking time to rest when you can is a simple, proven way to reduce stress. Be sure to be honest with your superiors about workload and its effect on your health. If you have too much work or don’t have sufficient tools to do your work effectively or without it infringing on your home life, it’s time to have a conversation and see what can be done.
Work life balance is incredibly important, and bringing work home with you should be considered carefully. Be sure that you can draw a line between work and leisure, perhaps by having a designated working space at home and only working during specific times. No more working on the sofa in front of the TV: this is a space for relaxing and entertaining and should be treated as such.
At home, be kind to yourself. Take exercise, relax and enjoy hobbies: this advice may seem rote, but during busy periods at work where we might bring work home with us, it’s important to remember the simple things, such as ensuring you sleep and eat well and having fun on your down time. They can make all the difference.
How can employers reduce stress for their lone workers?
Lone workers shouldn’t feel alone. Invest in ways to help your lone workers cultivate a sense of community and care. Social activities, meet-ups and open forums for conversation are all great ways to help with this. A lone working safety solution such as Safepoint is great too - lone working staff can stay safe, in contact and know that someone has their back.
Conduct risk assessments that take sources and risks of stress, anxiety and depression into account. These should consider each lone working role in your organisation: each role has different sources of potential risk and stress and should be looked at accordingly. Forestry workers on the felling line are under different pressures to public facing lone workers and recognising the exact nature of stress is the first step in reducing it.
You might consider holding a work shadowing programme so that staff across your organisation can understand the stress of roles other than their own, building empathy and allowing managers to gain insight into the potential causes of stress across the organisation.
Be sure to regularly review employee stress levels by conducting surveys and questionnaires and ensuring staff have a means to report incidents and raise concerns as they relate to wellbeing and mental health anonymously and in confidence.
Build an open communication culture
Your lone workers need to know how to raise concerns, who to speak to, and that their concerns will be taken seriously. Building a culture of work safety and open communication needs to start from the top down: as a HSE case study found: “It is vitally important that everybody works together - management, trade unions, HR etc. Senior management commitment is essential.”
As Heather Beach, director of the Healthy Work Company said: “I think managers don’t even think about the fact that some of the people they’ve got working for them actually need treating differently or they need better attention.” Have your managers and executive team show your lone workers that they are aware of the risks, they are listening, and that their doors are always open.
37% of adults who reported feeling stressed also felt lonely as a result of the stress they had experienced at work. Taking positive action to reduce the feeling of loneliness and isolation, especially for lone workers, is important in relieving the consequences of stress as well as preventing the chance of stress occurring. With an open communication culture, your organisation can better reduce stress for lone workers and other employees.
Provide both proactive and reactive support
For those stressed at work, things can get so difficult that they feel overwhelmed, unable to cope and the psychological effects of stress at work are potentially huge. The Mental Health Foundation report that 51% of adults who felt stressed reported feeling depressed, and 61% reported feeling anxious. Clearly, more needs to be done for these people both before and after stress factors into their working lives.
Employers need to provide both proactive support and reactive wellbeing support in order to effectively help their lone workers feel less stressed. Proactive support can include stress management training or wellness schemes, regular manager one-to-ones, and providing tools to manage stress. Proactive support means prevention, and reaching your employees before stress becomes a problem can have hugely positive effects on employee mental health.
Reactive support can include counselling and wellbeing meetings for those employees who report they are stressed, are involved in an incident, or who ask for support. Your organisation should have a system of support that accounts for the needs of your lone workers and doesn’t make it difficult for them to access support.
Consider how job design might affect lone worker stress
Perhaps the most important way employers can have a positive impact on employee stress is to consider the design of their jobs roles and reconsider aspects which can lead to or contribute to stress, depression and anxiety.
In Perkbox’s 2018 survey, they found that long working hours were the largest cause of stress, with 21% of respondents citing this as the most common cause of work-related stress. Work performance wasn’t far behind, with 14% of people citing others’ work performances and 13% saying that their own work performance was their most common source of stress.
The Mental Health Foundation found that one third of workers feel unhappy or very unhappy as a result of the amount of time they devote to work and that “as a person's weekly hours increase, so do their feelings of unhappiness.”
With this kind of data and insights you will get from doing risk assessments, meetings and surveys across your company, employers can make some practical, job design based ways to reduce stress. A reduction in working hours may not be feasible, but depending on the role, could people spend one day working from home? A 2011 study from Staples “found that employees who worked from home experienced 25 percent less stress.”
Employees also said they could eat healthier, maintain a better work-life balance, and obviously avoid commutes.
In a conversation with Monster, Alessandra Ceresa, Marketing Director of Greenrope, said, “Because much of what we do is not constrained within the hours of 9-5, I am able to go to the gym in the middle of the day, take a walk, do errands. When I take these sorts of breaks, the moment I sit back down to work, I am focused. My life is balanced because I get all of my work done and have time to actually live my life.”
Is there scope for allowing flexible hours for remote and lone workers that could help reduce instances of stress? While these methods won’t work for all roles, they are questions you should consider when tackling workplace stress.
If lone workers are finding some aspects of their jobs are increasing stress or risk, these elements should be put under scrutiny. Is there a way you can change those elements and reduce pressure while still ensuring your business needs are met. You may find that too much is expected of some roles or that you are not giving certain workers all the tools they need to succeed.
Consider whether you can work smarter, rather than harder by leveraging technology for reporting, monitoring and safeguarding staff, as well as improving workflows and optimising time spent working.
Remember that just as industry factors change over time, so do factors affecting individual jobs and lone workers. Some elements contributing to stress may be more avoidable than you think, and by regularly reviewing the design of your lone working roles, you can ensure that both your company and workers are best positioned to work safely, effectively and as stress free as possible.
The problem of stress for workers in the UK is considerable, affecting millions of workers and organisations, resulting in millions of working days lost, and contributing to continuing mental health issues which can result in absenteeism, staff turnover and potential incidents.
By sharing the responsibility between both employers and lone workers, steps can be made to reduce stress and improve mental health across your organisation. Implementing change on both an institutional and personal level can start small with wellbeing programmes and employee surveys, and can go as big as changing job design and implementing policies to create an open and supportive company culture.
Every positive action taken by both lone workers and their employers can help and is a step on the road to reducing stress and improving mental health in the workplace.