Why poor remote working practices could make staff more sick

UK organisations lose over £100m every year because of work-related stress, depression and anxiety, a figure which could soar in the coming decade if poorly managed nomadic working practices continue, a mental health organisation has warned.

“Nomadic, remote and flexible working practices are the norm today,” said Paul Finch, CEO of A People Business.

Unfortunately, if poorly managed, it can accentuate mental and physical health problems for a number of reasons. Infrequent or impersonal contact with your team and managers can make it harder to talk about issues and also weakens the informal support network that working environments frequently provide. Despite videoconferencing and similar technology, sometimes there’s no substitute for a good chat over a cup of tea.”

According to research from the NHS confederation, half (48%) of the UK would not feel comfortable talking to their bosses about mental health issues, despite 65% of the population reporting that they are close to someone who has experienced mental illness. In fact, Fit for Work reported that organisations that make employee engagement and healthy living a major focus do better financially.

“Coughs and colds account for 25% of sick days in the UK. Stress, anxiety and depression account for 11%,” continued Finch. “Few people are shy about calling their boss to report a cold, so it’s time we talked more about mental health issues. But at the same time, organisation leaders need to make sure that they foster a company culture that encourages open discussion and support, whatever the issue.”

Remote working is often considered as a ‘reasonable adjustment’ for staff suffering from stress and depression, or for staff who are unwell.  However, this will only work if remote workers remain part of the team and are well managed.

Absence Management expert Adrian Lewis of Activ Absence explains:

“Working from home can be very isolating, so it’s important that Managers set clear guidelines for what is expected work-wise and reward and praise remote workers like you would other members of the team, even if it is only a regular email.


“Make sure your technology helps establish who is working when, it is important other staff don’t assume remote workers are available 24/7 – and make sure that they are treated like team members, invited to company functions and included in newsletters.  Remote workers should also have the ability to access the company handbook, plan and book annual leave and have regular meetings – even if they are only over Skype.”

Finch recommends that management and leadership staff look at evolving their processes for nomadic workers to include:

  •  Office Time: Ensuring remote and nomadic workers have at least one day in the office each month and helping them to make the most of this, establishing a support network including mentors or buddies
  •  Online Support: Looking at digital support mechanisms, such as micro-mentoring apps like Rungway or Yammer
  •  Context: Speaking to colleagues without a frame of reference can be extremely challenging, so remote workers must be included in company communications, staff parties, off-site meetings and events to help them communicate

Following Paul’s experiences in the workplace as he worked remotely during his own battle with stage three bowel cancer, he created Red Trouser Day, an annual fundraising day on October 19th dedicated to building a support community, raising awareness and dispelling taboos around bowel cancer.

Working closely with A People Business, The Worshipful Company of Information Technologists and the Royal Marsden Hospital, Paul and the Red Trouser Day team have already raised over £30,000 to help fund research into the prevention and treatment of bowel cancer.  However, all remote workers will benefit from better management.  Paul says:

“Working remotely can be isolating and challenging at the best of times,” concluded Finch. “But when staff are ill or have personal issues, the impact of not having a support network can be devastating. When I suffered from bowel cancer two years ago, I was already working flexibly, and found the lack of support network terribly isolating. It’s one of the reasons why the charity I created – Red Trouser Day – has a bar to entry as low as simply wearing red trousers or participating in events around the office. While it can be a relatively big job for employers to provide a sense of common experience and connection, it always pays dividends in the long run – personally and professionally.” 

Author: Editorial Team

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