Does "Agile/Home/Flexible" Working Increase Risk?

By Terry Streather | Mental Health

Apr 28

As the footsteps behind her got louder she knew it wasn’t good.

The hairs on the back of her neck stood up as she glanced over her shoulder to see him in the street lights, a few paces behind…

What was she going to do?

Her manager had left work hours ago and there was no number to call. No-one was at home to miss her when she didn’t return. And carrying this works Ipad made her an easy target.

The footsteps got closer and closer, alongside her now and then…

He nodded at her and walked on by.

You thought something bad was going to happen didn’t you? Go on, be honest. Sorry to disappoint. And like many, probably even this young lady, you may think that just because something bad didn’t happen that everything is ok.

Well it’s not.

The TUC  reported that more people than ever work from home (1.5 million) and that another 4 million would given the opportunity. It seems that most organisations have considered or already moved to some form of “agile/mobile/home/flexible” way of working.

Some employers are even piloting an “outcomes” based approach rather than a “clocking in and out” type model, giving staff almost complete control over their own working hours, as long as a performance measures are met.

​And with developments in technology you can understand why.

Often though, these changes are made with a purely business focus in mind, and it is assumed that workers will benefit. For a lot of workers it's ideal, and I get that.

After all, it's a win-win isn't it?

The organisation can reduce costs on estate and overheads, and you can work at your kitchen table in your pants! Easier for childcare and no loosing hours in traffic just to sit behind a desk, so productivity will surely go up as you feel more relaxed without a boss breathing down your neck! Bliss...

But a word of warning…it’s not for everyone, and it has to be properly managed.And this is where the traditionally separate silo's of Personal Safety and Mental Wellbeing collide.

Because aside from the obvious Personal Safety issues around lone working and monitoring, the wellbeing aspects of being alone need to be considered.

Employers have a duty to ensure that the working environment is safe and healthy.

Does that responsibility go away just because there is no office, or traditional "workplace"?

Short answer- not on your nelly...

Now I’m not suggesting that employers need to come round your house and mend that gutter that’s hanging off over your front door, or pay for a full rewire of the house you just bought that’s packed full of “original features”.

But if organisations are serious about looking after their staff, then they need to think carefully about how to assess the potential impact of changes in the workplace so that work doesn’t make staff ill. "It's just part of the job" is simply not good enough.

The 28th of April is the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) World Day for Safety and Health at Work. It’s all about raising awareness of the prevention of occupational accidents and diseases globally.They identify the following as “emerging risks”:

New and emerging occupational risks may be caused by technical innovation or by social or organizational change, such as:•New working conditions, e.g. higher workloads, work intensification from downsizing, poor conditions associated with migration for work, jobs in the informal economy•Emerging forms of employment, e.g. self-employment, outsourcing, temporary contracts

As any health and safety professional will no doubt witness, all too often health and safety is reactive rather than proactive. So we will wait until something bad happens- then do something about it. I wonder how many have considered and put measures in place to reduce the risk BEFORE these ways of working were/are brought in.

The Health and Safety executive say risk assessments:

 "should also be reviewed if any changes occur in your business that may increase the risk of violence, eg lone working, business changes in the nature of the work you do."
Myth: Everyone will flourish working from home and being their own boss.

While we know that having control over your work can be a huge tick in the wellbeing box, some people may feel isolated and un-supported.

ACAS have flagged the following potential issues:

health and safety problems (like lone working); communication and trust can deteriorate when an employee rarely sees their manager; homeworkers can become stressed and feel isolated; homeworkers can find it hard to switch off and can become fatigued/less productive; the recording of working time can be problematic; career development may suffer if away from office often.

The role of the line manager becomes ever more important, as does a little thing called trust.

If managers or team members rarely come into contact with each other how will they ever know that something isn’t right? How will we know that work has taken over a person’s whole world?

The things they used to leave at work have literally been brought home with them. The once peaceful sanctuary of the bedroom is now the workplace; the email inbox constantly calling and nagging for your attention when you should be enjoying bath time with the kids.

To wrap this all up then...

"Agile" working is a reality that will only continue to grow,  and we shouldn't just assume that everyone will be happy about it.

Great organisations put the health and welfare of their employees at the very heart of what they do.

They also understand that we are all different, and what may be great working conditions for one person, might be intolerable for another.

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About the Author

Terry is Director and Head of Training at Oakwood. He helps clients promote a proactive, rather than reactive approach to both personal safety and the positive mental health of their staff. He has over 12 years teaching experience in these areas, and advises organisations in the development of appropriate risk assessment and policy.