By Mark Glover
Heather Beach discusses the impact lone working can have on mental health and looks at the social isolation many lone workers may face.
Do we need to re-think the definition of lone-working? Heather Beach thinks so. “I don’t think the term actually means much outside of health and safety.” the founder and director of The Healthy Work Company tells me. “I think managers don’t even think about the fact that some of the people they’ve got working for them need treating differently or need better attention.”
The Healthy Work Company is a mental health and stress management training consultancy, working with organisations including Eurostar, ITV and Balfour Beatty, and in October Heather is delivering a workshop at the Lone Worker Safety Expo on the impact of mental health on lone workers, when I ask her why this employee sector could be more vulnerable to stress, she cites a lack of awareness about what it actually means to work alone. “We haven’t quite made the connection that so many of us are lone workers, or remote workers, or home workers these days,” she says.
For those that work from home – or as I’m doing now, from the local coffee shop – the social isolation can, according to many, be a potential risk factor for employers. Heather, who is currently studying an MSc in positive psychology, says an employee’s lack of social connections can have a real impact on their mental health. “One of the risks which is coming up really loud and clear at the moment, is the lack of social connection. It’s about also seeing the mail man or talking to the person who does your coffee and a lot of that is actually dealt with by being at work in an office. You go in, you have a chat, you talk about your weekend and you’ve dealt with that connection. If you’re at home you don’t have that.”
Social isolation is something Heather herself experienced when she founded the Healthy Work Company in early 2017, a firm that goes into companies delivering mental health first-aid. Having previously worked as Brand Director for United Business Media’s (UBM) Safety and Health portfolio (The Safety and Health Expo, Safety and Health Practitioner Magazine and Barbour EHS) her workplace environment changed drastically; UBM’s sparkling, smart-office space in central London was replaced with the kitchen table at her home in Thames Ditton.
“It’s something I felt when I started working but not for the first nine months or so because I was working so hard, but when I started to pull-back a bit I felt completely lost and down because I just wasn’t having anyone to talk to all day to back me up and latch on to,” she recalls.
Referencing the HSE’s stress-risk assessment approach, she wonders if remote workers are more vulnerable than those who are office-based. “If you look at all the stress-factors, then it’s almost certain that most of these, to some extent, are going to greater for a lone worker than they are for people working in an office.”
The HSE’s stress-risk assessment outlines a series of questions that, in theory, can identify the warning signs of employees under stress. While it is a regulatory requirement to carry out and act on this risk-assessment, it is not legally enforced; however, the Equality Act 2010, utilised frequently in the HR sphere, means that in some cases, an employee suffering with a mental health condition could be considered to have a disability if it affects their normal day-to-day activity and lasts over a long-term period.
The lack of concrete regulation and legislation shows the mental health agenda is still in its infancy; similarly, the trend of employees being able to work remotely is also at an early stage. Not surprisingly knowledge gaps in both areas exist but combining the effect of the former on the latter brings further questions, particularly for employers.
Heather explains: “I think managers don’t even think about the fact that some of the people they’ve got working for them actually need to be treated differently or need better attention. We haven’t quite made the connection that so many of us are lone workers or remote workers these days.
“We’ve only really just started to think about stress at work as part of a health and safety responsibility. So, [for employers] to take it that step further and assess the increased stress risks for of their lone workers; it must be difficult.”
That said and encouragingly, health and safety is resonating more in the boardroom and becoming integrated with a firm’s business strategy. Directors are able to see tangible numbers such as lost-time and accident statistics that can visibly affect a company’s bottom line; as well as the impact of the new sentencing guidelines and also the effect on a company’s brand if they are found in breach of the regulations. Yet, measuring the business-case impact of an employer’s mental health programme is less obvious, as Heather explains. “The difference may not be in sickness absence, because when you first bring in a mental health policy, you might actually increase your sickness absence because more staff will feel it acceptable to take time off due to stress. You might also see an increase in your Employee Assistance Programme.
“So you’re seeing more negative indicators in these early stages. But does it [the mental health policy] make people feel like they’re valued, like they belong, that they are engaged with their managers, then anecdotally and through case studies you can say that is does.”
In this regard, Heather feels collaboration is key to an organisation’s engagement and also key to the wider health and safety agenda. “In my view, health and safety will struggle without collaboration,” she tells me passionately. “It has to be part of the board’s thinking and lone working, as an example, is just another aspect that the board should be looking at,” she says passionately.
Heather is obvious passionate about her work and determined to genuinely make a difference to people and their lives. “For me there is no better enquiry for what it takes for human beings to thrive in life,” she says. “If studying positive psychology and delivering general mental health awareness courses, I feel like that I have to be a bit of a human experiment.”
There’s a slight playfulness to this last statement yet Heather’s commitment to what she does is refreshing but also important.