Last reviewed 2 October 2020

Laura King considers the new challenges for lone workers brought about by Covid-19, and how organisations can support their staff.

The impact of Covid-19 has been unprecedented and widespread. However, as the dust starts to settle and organisations are considering what future working arrangements might look like, they continue to face new challenges. Lone working under the coronavirus is no exception.

A lone worker is defined by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) as anyone who “works by themselves without close or direct supervision”. This includes those working with members of the public (eg retail workers), those who work separately from others (eg security guards), homeworkers, as well as those required to be out and about (eg delivery drivers).

As with everyone, changes in usual practice will be needed to protect lone workers from infection. However, there are additional considerations when looking at the risks specific to those working alone.

Two obvious considerations are the increased numbers of homeworkers and the reported aggression faced by service staff trying to apply the new coronavirus rules. Often, many of the risks they face are no different to those of supervised colleagues; the issues are due to the fact they are not directly supported. In the case of an office worker now working from home, reduced support could lead to stress. For those working alongside the public, a lack of people nearby makes them more vulnerable.

In March 2020, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) refreshed its guidance on protecting lone workers. The revision contains three new main areas of information, all of which can apply to problems stemming from the pandemic.

  1. How to protect lone workers from the risk of work-related violence.

  2. More information on keeping in touch with lone workers.

  3. Advice on the impact of lone working on mental health and wellbeing.

Managing infection rates for lone workers

By now, most employers will be familiar with the theory behind reducing the risk of infection and will have already put measures in place to protect staff. As part of this, organisations should check how these rules might impact lone workers. For example, not all measures might be practical at all sites. If employees are being asked to implement impractical adaptations, this can frustrate efforts, so increasing risks.

Remember too, that lone workers will not have colleagues reminding them of the new required behaviours. Here, additional training on how to prevent infection might be a welcomed intervention, as would regular reminders in scheduled meetings and calls.

Lone working policies and procedures

Now would be a good time to review lone working policies and procedures to ensure they are fit for purpose. See your topic on Lone Working for advice on how to manage lone workers within the organisation.

Put simply, organisations should have the following.

  • A policy that addresses what arrangements are in place to protect lone workers and the responsibilities of the employer and employees.

  • A risk assessment identifying hazards, who might be harmed and how, and appropriate control measures.

  • Reviews scheduled that should take into account any changes to lone working, evidence of how effective measures are, and any feedback or reported incidents.

How has Covid-19 increased risks for lone workers?

An increase in work-related violence

While for the most part, people have responded to the pandemic with kindness and understanding, abuse relating to Covid-19 continues to be reported. While people are adapting to new social norms, such as temperature checks or use of face coverings, there is a heightened potential for aggressive behaviour towards those trying to enforce the rules.

For example, the ACS (Association of Convenience Stores) has reported an increase in verbal abuse and anti-social behaviour seen by its members. In late July, trade union Unite said that bus drivers were facing increased passenger abuse when asking people to wear a face mask when boarding their services.

Some ways to mitigate against this could be as follows.

  • Provide training in personal safety, effective communication and conflict resolution for members of staff expected to manage compliance with the new rules.

  • Think of teams that will be working together, such as security guards and receptionists. Identify opportunities for collaboration, and where better ties could be established.

  • Do not tolerate inappropriate behaviour from staff or members of the public.

  • Consider whether there are any physical measures that could be adopted, eg better signage, alarms or screens.

  • Encourage workers to report any incidents, and find out if there are any barriers to reporting.

  • Consult with others about best practice.

  • Support staff who have been subjected to any abusive behaviour.

See the feature Managing violence and aggression during the Covid-19 pandemic for practical advice on mitigating this risk.

An increase in domestic violence

Sadly, as well as an increased risk of violence from members of the public, some people are also threatened with violence in the home. In the months since lockdown began, Refuge’s National Domestic Abuse Helpline website saw an 800% increase in visits compared with pre-lockdown statistics. In June, Refuge’s telephone helpline, which ordinarily logs around 270 calls every day, saw an increase of 77%.

Employers have a duty of care to employees and a legal responsibility to provide a safe and effective work environment, including for homeworkers. Preventing domestic abuse is a critical element of this.

In July 2018, Public Health England and Business in the Community published a toolkit on how to support workers who are subject to domestic abuse. The three main steps outlined are as follows.

  1. Acknowledge — Understand the issues and duties as an employer and put in place a supportive workplace culture.

  2. Respond — make sure that there is a policy in place that outlines how you should respond to disclosure and support the employee.

  3. Refer — provide access to organisaitons that can provide additional support.

See also the feature Domestic abuse — why it’s a workplace health issue for practical advice on what employers can do.

An increase in stress

Homeworking has largely proved to be popular. However, whereas working from home might be ideal for some, there is a big difference between choosing to work from home and having no option. The transition might be especially hard for employees who rely on experienced colleagues for guidance, or for those who miss workplace interactions.

Where homeworking is contributing to higher stress levels, employers need to be mindful of how they manage the mental wellbeing of staff. In particular, managers should review how they keep in touch with homeworkers, for example by:

  • having regular meetings

  • setting up informal group chats

  • making sure staff are given necessary training.

Your reference content on Homeworking provides more information on how to manage those working from home and includes a Line Managers Guide. See also the feature Homeworking: is the novelty wearing off?

Conclusion

The challenges and changes resulting from the coronavirus pandemic mean organisations should review their lone working policies and procedures.