A new study recommends that line managers who supervise remote or distributed workers should work closely with occupational safety and health professionals to control the risks they face Thinkstock

A new study recommends that line managers who supervise remote or distributed workers should work closely with occupational safety and health professionals to control the risks they face.

New Research Reveals Ways to Overcome Safety Challenges for Remote Workers

The safety and health of millions of people who work remotely – away from their offices or workplaces – relies largely on how well line managers communicate with them.

A new study recommends that line managers who supervise remote or distributed workers should work closely with occupational safety and health professionals to control the risks they face.

“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 professionals. The study findings, as well as advice, case studies and practical resources were published July 6 by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), which sponsored the study, which was conducted by researchers from the University of East Anglia (UEA), Kingston University London and Affinity Health at Work.

Nearly half of all workers in Western Europe – more than 129 million – spend at least some time working away from a main office or location, a number that seems to be increasing for workers in the United States as well. 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 remote workers presents significant challenges, according to researchers.

“Remote or distributed working is now a well-established pattern of working,” said Kevin Daniels, professor of Organizational Behavior at Norwich Business School, University of East Anglia. “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.”

According to the researchers, the findings show the vital roles managers have in helping assure their remote workers’ safety. The researchers found no evidence for the idea that EHS good practices effectively can be “cascaded” to remote workers, and that line managers’ attitudes and behavior towards safety and health tended to have more influence over the remote workers they managed than direct contact and role modelling by EHS professionals.

Researchers concluded that line managers should initiate and develop closer one-to-one relationships with the remote workers they manage as well as EHS professionals at the company, to ensure employees’ safety, health and wellbeing are protected.

Professor Karina Nielsen, 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.

“This research is the first large-scale and comprehensive program that has looked at the issue,” Daniels added. “In the research, we have been able to bring together knowledge from some of the leading organizations 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.”

The research team asked three main questions:

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

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

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

“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,” said Kate Field, head of Information and Intelligence at IOSH. “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 as the health and safety professional.”

She noted that strong relationships with line managers well informed about occupational safety and health are more likely to have an even more positive impact than contact with the health and safety professional.

The researchers have produced a leadership-style questionnaire for line managers to use to explore the extent to which they show the management and leadership behavior required to support occupational safety and health among remote workers.

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

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