Lone Working and Mental Health

Feb 13, 2020 • FeaturesManagementFSN ThinkTankhealth and safety

One of the unfortunate aspects of modern times is the increasing rise in mental health challenges as our society becomes more and more pressurised. Field service engineers and technicians, who are often lone workers are particularly vulnerable to such pressures and we need to be doing more to monitor and assist in this area. This was the consensus at the latest FSN ThinkTank held in London, UK at the end of 2019. Mark Glover, who attended the session reflects on the day’s conversations… 

Recently, a societal shift towards mental health has identified the workplace as a potential trigger point. Employers now recognise the importance of their workers’ wellbeing. In the UK alone, staff absence from mental health issues accounts for 70 million workdays lost, costing employers approximately £2.4 billion per year.  

In the service sector, workers who operate alone are more susceptible to having their mental health affected, given the remote nature of their environment. As a manager, it can be difficult to keep tabs on an engineer therefore creating the right touch points to ensure a dialogue is taking place can be vital when it comes to monitoring the mental health of your technicians. Too often, field engineers are just sent out and forgotten about.  

The technicalities of health and safety for lone workers are slightly different to the traditional version of what we see as safety. Incidents, such as slips and trips and cuts in the office, are approached with a traditional risk-assessment, however lone workers should approach their tasks, which are generally more fluid, with a dynamic risk-assessment; the process of mentally observing, assessing and analysing an environment to identify and remove risk. This allows individuals to identify a hazard on the spot and make quick decisions regarding their own safety.   

It’s an approach that requires a certain amount of trust on the part of employers who must be certain that these checks are taking place in their absence. However, this must be balanced by allowing the engineers a level of autonomy, something they value enormously. Looking over their shoulder from afar and monitoring their performance will only push a worker away. Everything comes back to time for an engineer; it is probably the most precious commodity and the challenge is to blend safety into their routines while not affecting their productivity. Mark Wilding, Director of Global Aftermarket Operations, Hexagon Marketing Intelligence spoke to this point very eloquently saying: “If you don’t know your workforce you don’t know their mental health, you don’t know their mental capacity. If you’re not close enough to them, you’re not looking after those elements. Ultimately their mind isn’t on the game and they make mistakes.  And I think we overlook this area quite a lot.” 

"How do you understand the state of mind of a guy that you haven’t seen for months because he’s been out in the field..."

It is indeed an often overlooked, yet absolutely crucial part of understanding the wellbeing of our field workers, especially if they are often isolated in a lone working role. Everyone within the ThinkTank session was in agreement that this should be an area of greater focus and also that there were still some societal taboos that needed to be overcome. 

I know that there’s this still much of stigma associated with mental health, but I think it’s more prevalent than any time now we’re in a litigious environment where you make a mistake and there’s quite significant corporate penalties now as opposed to before.  But the fact is if we still don’t pay it enough attention and remote workers is hard.   

How do you understand the state of mind of a guy that you haven’t seen for months because he’s been out in the field for that long? All too often in field service, companies don’t have the right team, team leader and management ratio structures. If they don’t have the right touch points the how can they be close enough to be keeping tabs with their individual team members? How can they be close enough to understand what they’re going through 

It’s really tough and those are the things, I think, we tend to forget about. Sadly, it often feels that it is the case that they’re just the job, a field engineer. We sort of just send them out and forget about them and we shouldn’t be doing that.” 

From a management perspective, creating a more sensible management framework that develops capabilities and structures can contribute to a more productive and efficient working environment.   

If you are really are serious as top management around safety, you should start working on relieving pressure on people by putting in place better tools, mechanisms, processes and structures so they can be performed without sacrificing safety.