Mental health advocate Heather Beach says employers need to be aware about the impact of social isolation on workers who continue to work remotely after lockdown is eased.
As we emerge from lockdown, data reveals that 45% of employees want more flexibility when it comes to where and when they work. Having worked from home for more than three months, workers are demanding more flexibility and the opportunity to work from home more often.
But as the amount of lone workers in the UK increases dramatically, experts are warning that unless the transition is managed properly by employers, many could suffer mental health issues due to continued isolation from colleagues.
Heather Beach, director of The Healthy Work Company, offers advice on what employers can do to support the mental health of staff at this time of change.
Heather has worked in the Health and Safety profession for 25 years. A passionate advocate for mental health awareness she delivers workshops to clients including ITV, NewScientist and Mace on the subject and its effect on lone workers.
She says: “I don’t think the term Lone Worker actually means much outside of health and safety. 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, London Luton Airport and Balfour Beatty.
Heather cites a lack of awareness about what it actually means to work alone. She says: “As we emerge from lockdown, many people will still be working from home and while this offers many benefits, the risks also need to be weighed up. Many people are already suffering the effects of lockdown on their mental health. They need support, not further isolation.”
For those that work from home 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 post man or talking to the person opposite you, 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. And while Zoom conferences and the like have been a valuable resource, these begin to dwindle as many return to the office.”
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 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 says.
Referencing the Health and Safety Executive’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 be greater for a lone worker,” she says.
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 effects 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, but the amount of people now working from home has skyrocketed.
Heather says: “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. 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.”
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.”
Heather is 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. Then she jokes: “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.”