Remote or isolated work

Remote and isolated work encompasses more than just working in a home setting; it taps into the narrative of employees in remote and isolated work situations (operating either from cities or distant areas), often detached from their supervisors and peers, and devoid of necessary support.

Although the concept of working from home or working in an isolated location (such as mining sites or industrial parks) is not new, this psychosocial risk, as outlined by Safe Work Australia is more than just dealing with connectivity issues.

“It’s really important for leaders to understand some of the signs of stress and psychosocial risks. However, leaders and HR team are not mental health professionals, and it’s important to keep an important boundary,” says Steven Booker, Consulting Psychologist and guest speaker.

Unlike our previous webinars, in the third webinar, Stephen Bell, Managing Director and host engages in yet another meaningful conversation with Steven Booker to dissect two intertwined psychosocial risks to help leaders better comprehend how remote work conditions could have a negative impact on an employee’s performance, motivation, and wellbeing levels, particularly in the absence of sufficient organisational support.

Webinar time stamps

0:00 Webinar commences

Introduction by Nicole Wallace, Business Acquisition Consultant to welcome registrants, introduce the topic, and invite attendees to respond to a poll on ‘remote employee benefits’.

The webinar kick starts with a focus on the challenges remote and isolated employees face in today’s workforce. Followed by a comment from Bell where he talks about the impacts of inadequate support on the remote or isolated worker’s physical and mental wellbeing.

03:40 Agenda for the day

Booker highlights the difficulty of finding robust data to pinpoint industries and occupation types with the highest prevalence of these two psychosocial risks.

04:36 Three key points about psychosocial risks as highlighted by Booker

1. Psychosocial risks should not be thought of in isolation as certain risks, when combined, can create harm.

“The harms that may occur from remote or isolated work, you don’t always get harm from those types of work, but the harms that may occur definitely are exacerbated when that is combined with a lack of good support,” he emphasises.

2. A spotlight on the available research and statistics around the potential impacts of working fully remotely or within hybrid work models. 

Besides, “I’m not going to weigh into the political and ethical debate about whether employers should be requiring employees to come back into the office,” Booker clarifies.

3. Lastly, Booker concludes this section on a thought-provoking note that “hybrid work patterns are here to stay.” 

06:52 Definition of remote and isolated workers in relation to poor support

Bell shifts the focus to talk about remote working conditions, and nudges Booker to provide a comprehensive definition.

Simply put, remote work can be described as people working in a remote location. But it can also be people in cities, feeling isolated from their peers. For example, Booker gives sales representatives and real estate agents are prime examples of employees on the road, isolated from supervisors or coworkers, and lacking immediate support. 

In terms of poor support as a psychosocial risk, Booker tunes into people’s mindset and says, “naturally, people think it’s about poor leadership, but it is only a component of it.”

He highlights other components such as “lack of support from peers and colleagues, cultures that are competitive, critical, or uncooperative, workplaces with no rewards in place, and lack of suitable physical spaces to discuss sensitive issues.”

10:20 Fictional roleplay on how remote and isolated workers struggle due to lack of support

This scenario focuses on a young supervisor, Maria, who is in her 30s, working in complete isolation in a mining site in Cairn Hills. Maria is is frustrated, on the brink of a burnt out, and feeling unsupported by her supervisors whist managing a dispersed team on her own. 

She is seen engaging in a phone conversation with her mother who is based in Adelaide. 

15:11 Unpacking the fictional roleplay

Bell makes an astute observation that “there is a lot going on in that conversation between the mother and daughter.”

He poses a question to Booker, particularly from a mental health perspective on the potential risks that Maria could be facing as a result of her working conditions.

Booker points out the following stress factors when analysing Maria’s current situation:

  1. She is isolated from family.
  2. Experiencing high levels of job demands.
  3. Engaged in high risk work, which ups the intensity.
  4. Lack of proper leadership training.
  5. Part of a small, geographically scattered team. 

An employer has a duty to play when employees are working in isolated environments or from home, says Booker.

“An employer needs to look at their talent acquisition process, and whether the recruitment is designed to select people with initiative, resilience and judgement to function effectively in those environments.”

But at the same time prioritise “training to understand common signs and symptoms of mental health challenges, and have R U OK? conversations to help employees overcome these risks,” he adds. 

17:20 Resounding message for leaders and HR professionals

“Do not make the assumption that the people are ready to work in an isolated or remote environment. This  includes a FIFO worker, salesperson or work from home employee.”

“Don’t do it without clear instruction or direction to help them feel supported,” advises Bell to organisations that have employees working in high pressure, remote and isolated environments.

Booker, as a response to this quote, introduces a term called ‘stress inoculation’. This basically urges employers to have a realistic chat with the employee prior to deployment into a remote and isolated locations as to what that would look like, and the employees to reflect on “how ready do I feel about taking on those challenges.” 

20:01  Industry and occupation types that are exposed to these risks most

Booker highlights core industries such as Oil and Gas, Mining, Healthcare, Construction, Scientific and Environmental research, and Agriculture among others to be experiencing feeling isolated from their family and peers as they are based in remote areas.

He also expands on a graph, split by industry sector, that finds Finance and Insurance, Media, Telecommunication industries etc to have high rates of working from home.

26:01 Impacts of poor support on remote workers

There is a genuine requirement on employers to assess these risks as it can have a severe impact on an employee’s wellbeing.

Some physical risks due to working in remote or isolated environments:

  1. Exposure to harsh environments.
  2. Lack of immediate care or emergency services available.
  3. Musculoskeletal symptoms from prolonged hours in vehicles or confined spaces.
  4. Abuse or assault from difficult customers.

Some psychological risks could be quite closely related to the roleplay scenario, featuring Maria who felt unsupported and lonely in their role.

“People may not always be prepared for the physical or professional isolation that they have when they first start working remotely.” 

“It could be that they are coping with their own isolation while trying to support their workers, which can exacerbate existing mental health issues,” he adds.

33:01 Importance of leadership training 

“Leaders need to be well trained to understand the impacts of remote work.”

“It’s no longer okay for an organisation to just assume that the leader will know best,” says Bell.

This is precisely why leadership training takes center fold in this discussion.

Bell spotlights iHR Australia’s newest, inhouse program, specifically designed for leaders to manage psychosocial risks in the workplace.

33:55 Recognising psychosocial risks that lead to harmful stress levels

There are two basic ways leaders become aware of psychosocial risks:

  1. Employees may openly express issues in the form of complaints or concerns about potential risks that could persist in the workplace.
  2. More often, leaders might notice exhibiting signs rather than expressing them.

The new psychosocial risks put the onus on the leaders to “not sit back and wait for complaints to turn up”, and not resort to delegating such issues to HR, clarifies Booker.

“Leaders need to understand some of the signs of stress caused by psychosocial risks, but again, leaders and HR teams are not mental health professionals and can set an appropriate boundary.”

Booker’s message to leaders is to put in the work to understand and assess what the potential signs of psychosocial risks might be in an employee’s performance, communication, and engagement, “because if you are focused on how it might affect their work, then having a conversation is a legally defensible thing,” he adds.

37:02 Interventions to support remote and isolated workers

Booker’s recommendations:

  1. Redesign roles and tasks to reduce working in isolation
  2. Implement a buddy system for high risk jobs
  3. Improvements to physical workplaces and enhanced visibility eg., installing barriers, monitored CCTV
  4. Implement regular wellness check-ins or mobile health clinics
  5. Maintain a movement record such as satellite tracking to scheduled call-ins to ensure safety such as personal security measures or duress systems 

43:15 Risk management strategies – What’s yours?

All areas of psychosocial risks need close supervision.

“Employers can’t wait for something to happen, they have to be on the front foot.”

“Not being on the front foot can expose them to litigation,” says Bell.

Bell suggests that leaders examine their organisational structure, supervision methods, and leadership communication channels.

Booker adds on to emphasise the commendable efforts made by WorkSafe NSW recently to proactively engage with employers who have faced mental health-related compensation claims.

45:01 Return on investment of these interventions

Research evidently shows that well-designed interventions improve mental health, but also significantly:

  1. decreases absenteeism, presenteeism, burnout and emotional exhaustion
  2. increases job satisfaction, team work, learning and retention
  3. increases performance when measured by manager, through customer rating, or the overall financial performance. 

Similarly, Booker enunciates that improved support for work from home employees improves productivity and performance when there is reduced isolation, enhanced communication, and adequate support from line managers and upper management. 

48:39 Questions from the audience, answered by Steven Booker, Consulting Psychologist 

  1. How to find the balance between quality control of service being delivered and support offered to staff when they are on the road in regional areas. What tips do you have to remedy this?
  2. How do we tackle people working from home who undertake carer duties?
  3. What are some practical tips to maintain wellness in a remote workforce
  4. What is considered reasonable additional hours?

54:48 Closing statements and conclusion

Where to next?

Get the conversation started about how to manage remote and isolated employees in your organisation, and ways to bolster physical and mental support by updating your policies and implementing intervention strategies through our ‘Managing Psychosocial Risks‘ program.

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