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Remotely interested

When it comes to health and wellbeing, employers should seriously consider their responsibilities for remote workers, whether that be home workers or expat employees in far flung places. Dr Mark Simpson, Medical Director of AXA ICAS, explains.

A greater number of employees, across many disciplines, are finding themselves spending long periods away from the traditional office environment. They may be working alone at home, or perhaps they have been posted abroad. Research from the British Occupational Health Research Foundation indicates that almost two-thirds of remote and isolated workers report psychological stress as well as increased levels of general health symptoms – in particular, neck, shoulder and lower back pain. Employers have a responsibility to ensure that all staff are supported whether working in or out of the office and they should think carefully about safeguarding the health and wellbeing of their remote workers.

There are many different areas for employers to consider when staff are based away from their organisation’s workplace. This includes their legal responsibility – there is a raft of health and safety legislation, including the Health and Safety at Work etc Act and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations, that requires employers to take steps to assess both physical and psychological risks to staff before they are allowed to work remotely on their own. Whether located in or out of the office, employers will want to keep their people engaged and productive. By offering regular health assessments, employers can be satisfied that staff members are fit to safely undertake their tasks. If required, employers can also consider adjustments that need to be made to workers’ jobs to ensure they can perform effectively with minimal risk to their health.

“Sickness rates may increase as a result of remote working as employees may feel that they are isolated and a support network is lacking”

An employee assistance programme (EAP) can be a good starting point for providing employers and employees with help in identifying solutions to work-related and personal issues. This can be a huge help to managers – especially when they make appropriate employee referrals – and in the best interests of employee and organisation alike. Different groups of employees such as home workers, expats and those working shifts will face varying challenges and employers should look at developing programmes to support each of these groups’ possible and identifiable problems. For example, home workers may benefit from display screen equipment (DSE) assessments so that they can remain effective and comfortable while working at home. Those working abroad may require help with medical plans.

Managers should also look at implementing an effective sickness absence management scheme. Sickness rates may increase as a result of remote working as employees may feel that they are isolated and a support network is lacking. Specifically, their mental health may suffer and employers who can provide support for mental health may enjoy the benefits with a healthier, well engaged remote workforce. Looking after the mental health of employees can also be considered to be an integral part of employers’ moral obligations.. Where appropriate, managers may find that employees experiencing psychological problems may respond well to an enhanced EAP offering access to specialist psychological therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy.

Line managers play a critical role in the relationship of remote workers with their employer. Maintaining regular contact and being an active, supportive supervisor is key to protecting the health and wellbeing of remote workers. Regular contact also helps employees to feel part of the team and, therefore, is good for positively managing mental wellbeing. Indeed, employees are more likely to share concerns or problems regarding work if they believe their manager is genuinely concerned about their welfare. The number of employees working remotely is likely to keep rising and, while the physical preparations needed to allow for remote working such as email access and company phones are often considered, employers also need to ensure they have taken the right steps to look after their wellbeing if they want to obtain optimal performance and productivity.

The Office of National Statistics reports that 90 percent of remote workers are managerial, professional, technical and skilled trades. Around 20 percent of the workforce work partly at  home, and this statistic is growing, with four percent working mainly at home. Increasingly employers are receiving requests from employees keen to do some home working and so the trend is definitely up and employers will need to take into consideration the changes in procedures and policies to account for this.

Mark Simpson, Medical Director

British Occupational Health Research Foundation
(BOHRF),The health and wellbeing of remote and mobile workers, 2009, Joanne O. Crawford, Laura MacCalman, IOM, Craig A. Jackson, Birmingham City University

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