Three lessons for managing remote workers HR can learn from isolated professions

Isolation and loneliness are some of the biggest struggles remote workers face. These feelings can have a significant impact on mental health, and employees who are working remotely for the first time due to COVID-19 may be more susceptible to this risk. It can be tough for people to work in isolation when they’re used to working side-by-side with their colleagues.

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But remote working is not new; there are many professions, like astronauts, well-versed in working in isolation for long periods of time. HR can find ideas for supporting their workforce in battling remote-work loneliness and isolation by studying established remote working professions.

1. Long-haul lorry drivers – Work with a companion.

Apart from the odd wave and greeting to a stranger during pit stops, long-haul lorry drivers are quite isolated as they spend most of their time on the road, away from their families. They sleep, eat and work in their trucks, travelling long distances for weeks or months at a time. It’s no surprise that loneliness is a number one cause of mental health disorders among drivers. In the same sense, people working from home are now having to do work, chores, relaxation, and socialising all within the confines of their homes which can feel constricting.

With irregular hours, constant travelling and lack of social interaction, having a driving partner, where they travel and do the same job and take turns to drive, is found to be an effective way to combat loneliness. And when a driving partner is not possible, some decide to bring their pets along.

HR can recreate this for their remote workforce by encouraging people to ‘buddy up’ or work in pairs – where the job allows – connecting via digital communication channels. Giving employees a sense that they’re not isolated from their team while working from home and having someone that will check up on them (and vice versa) can help ease feelings of isolation. And if you have employees living alone or without pets, animal sanctuaries are offering the opportunity for animals to be included in video call meetings for some stress relief.

2. Polar explorers – When feeling negative emotions, be active.

Psychological studies in the polar regions have given us great insights on how seasonal changes impact our mental health. Isolated in harsh, barren environments, with a lack of infrastructure and human contact, and limited supplies, it’s no wonder that some polar explorers, back in the day and now, have mental health concerns.

To add to an already stressful situation, people tend to keep their emotions, especially when they’re negative, to themselves. Admiral John Ross saw this early on with his polar crew in the 1830s; so he urged his team to keep journals and made sure they stayed busy with different activities to distract them from negative thinking. Storing up negative emotions typically backfires, drastically impacting a worker’s health and output.

Learning from the challenges polar explorers have overcome, HR can emphasise to their business why remote employees need enough (and interesting) work to keep boredom at bay, and clear support channels if they are struggling. Ensuring line managers have sufficient training to look out for signs of poor mental health, so they can step in when needed, is also essential.

3. Wildlife rangers – Understand yourself and your surroundings.

Protecting wildlife is not only an extremely dangerous job, but it’s also a very lonesome and undervalued profession. Protecting endangered animals from illegal poachers ill-equipped, undertrained and away from their families, along with many other factors, makes wildlife rangers highly susceptible to stress and burnout leading to other serious mental health issues.

Psychologists are now trying to help wildlife rangers to maintain their mental health through counselling techniques with a narrative approach – talking about their experiences through stories to better understand what they’re going through. They are also educating wildlife rangers on how and why their body reacts to trauma, a common trigger for mental health disorders among rangers, allowing them to take better stock of themselves and their surroundings.

During COVID-19, employees might be experiencing high levels of stress and anxiety, not just related to working from home, but also from external factors such as worrying about vulnerable relatives, being anxious about the constant flood of negative news, etc. HR can learn from the support given to wildlife rangers by providing employees with useful information on how they can better manage their own wellbeing, as well as keeping people informed about what’s happening in the company. When people have a better understanding of what’s happening with themselves and their surroundings, they feel more in control and have a better grasp of their emotions.

Have you learnt any tips from seasoned isolated professionals? Who do you think we should take inspiration from?

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