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Ways to promote remote workers’ safety and wellbeing

Line managers who supervise remote or distributed workers should work closely with occupational safety and health (OSH) practitioners to control the risks they face, a new study recommends.

Nearly half of all workers in Western Europe (129.5 million) spend at least some time working away from a main office or location, a number that seems to be increasing.

With limited regular face-to-face contact, problems accessing safety and health resources, and having more than one place of work – where risks might be harder to predict and control – managing the health and safety of distributed workers presents significant challenges.

Findings, advice, case studies and practical resources published today by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), which sponsored this work by researchers from the University of East Anglia (UEA), Kingston University London and Affinity Health at Work, show the vital roles managers have in helping assure their remote workers’ safety.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind explored existing research, leadership styles and models, elements of management and communication, and direct contact with safety and health practitioners.

The researchers found no evidence for the idea that OSH good practice can be ‘cascaded’ effectively to distributed workers, and line managers’ attitudes and behaviour towards safety and health tended to have more influence over the remote workers they managed than direct contact and ‘role modelling’ by OSH practitioners.

Its conclusions indicate that line managers should initiate and develop closer one-to-one relationships with the remote workers they manage as well as OSH practitioners to ensure their safety, health and wellbeing is well looked after.

Professor Karina Nielsen, Professor Kevin Daniels and Rachel Nayani at UEA conducted the research with Emma Donaldson-Feilder and Dr Rachel Lewis from Affinity Health at Work and Kingston University London, where the report and toolkit was launched by the team.

Professor Daniels, Professor of Organizational Behaviour at Norwich Business School,

University of East Anglia says: “Remote or distributed working is now a well-established pattern of working. What is surprising, is that before this research, very little was understood about how effectively to manage the health, safety and wellbeing of remote workers.

“This research is the first large scale and comprehensive programme that has looked at the issue. In the research, we have been able to bring together knowledge from some of the leading organisations on the health and safety of remote workers with field studies of remote workers and their managers. The research marks a massive step forward for managing the health and safety of remote workers.”

At the outset, the research team asked three main questions:

  • Are current OSH leadership frameworks applicable in the context of distributed working?
  • What other frameworks or models may be applicable to, or optimal for, the OSH leadership of distributed workers?
  • Can OSH practitioners apply appropriate frameworks in distributed working contexts to ensure effective OSH leadership from line managers?

Nearly 1,000 individuals were surveyed across 19 organisations and 41 occupational safety and health practitioners were interviewed about OSH leadership behaviours and enablers of (and barriers to) good OSH practice for distributed workers across a range of different occupations and industrial sectors where there is high incidence of distributed work.

The consortium then identified skills and competencies underpinning effective leadership behaviours facilitating good safety and health practices among distributed workers.

Kate Field, Head of Information and Intelligence at IOSH, says: “This research into leadership and management of occupational safety and health as it affects distributed or remote workers sheds new light on areas that have been under-researched.

“Issues relating to psychosocial risks including stress, dissatisfaction and poor work-life balance have been investigated in the past, but research on distributed workers facing major physical hazards or ergonomic hazards such as computer-based work is less frequent. What is even more important in this research is an examination of the role of the line manager, as well health and safety professional.

“The findings show that simply ‘cascading’ OSH information to remote workers is not effective. Strong relationships with line managers well informed about OSH is more likely to have a positive impact (even more than contact with the health and safety professional).

“The team has produced a ‘leadership style’ questionnaire for line managers to use to explore the extent to which they show management and leadership behaviour required to support good OSH in distributed workers.

“There is also a range of other informative and user-friendly tools including a checklist of hazards and risks, information about barriers and facilitators, case studies and top tips, and an OSH practitioner self-reflection framework.”

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