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May 13, 2015

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Lone working – self enlightenment or productivity drain?

macbook-336704_640By Dr Mark Winwood

Lone working is on the rise, with an estimated 6.8 million of us working in isolation. That’s a huge 22 per cent of the UK workforce. More people are choosing to work this way, often because of the opportunities it affords. Despite this growing trend, there is very little discussion around these opportunities and the challenges that come with working in this way. There is little advice around it, and few truly understand what it’s like unless they are themselves lone workers.

This problem in itself sets lone workers apart, and that’s even before the day to day operations. Lone working is for some and not others, and there are certain characteristics required to work for yourself such as dedication, discipline and drive. Below I look at some of the opportunities and challenges facing lone workers and how they can manage their wellbeing as a result.

Endless opportunities

Perhaps one of the biggest draws of being a lone worker is the ability to work for yourself and, as a result, work in a way that suits you best. Having the autonomy to choose what you work on helps many to be creative and stay motivated. This is empowering and creates a real sense of purpose which, in turn, supports mental wellbeing.

Another great benefit of self-employment is working hours that suit you. As an employee, you are expected to stick to company working hours and while it’s true that more businesses are introducing flexible working or flexi-time, the majority still insist on a traditional 9 to 5 approach.

Working alone allows the time and flexibility to work at your ‘peak’ hours, therefore giving you the chance to be more productive. This freedom is seen as a real benefit by many, as it allows them to fit in activities such as going to the gym and taking the time to cook fresh, healthy meals.

Staying fit and healthy has many benefits across mental and physical health, and setting your own working hours provides a great opportunity to work to your body’s needs.

Not all plain sailing

For all the opportunities which working alone brings, it also comes hand-in-hand with resulting challenges.

One problem I know many lone workers face is the issue of being ‘always on’. Working alone, and often for one’s own business, risks an irregular income, and it is not uncommon for lone workers not to take their full holiday entitlement through fear of missing an opportunity. This is in stark contrast to office-based workers who are usually prompted to take their full quota of holiday.

Putting boundaries in place is key to overcoming this issue, as not giving yourself a break can lead to burnout and/or an unhealthy lifestyle. Sticking to working hours, taking holidays and not working at weekends to “get stuff done” is a must to safeguard your wellbeing. Your health is an asset, so don’t damage it otherwise it may adversely affect your ability to work.

Feelings of professional as well as personal isolation is another issue for lone workers to overcome. It can be difficult and frustrating having no one to bounce ideas off and can have knock on effects on confidence in decision making. Struggling with decision making can lead to procrastination which, in turn, negatively impacts your productivity.

When you do experience loneliness, little actions can be taken to make you feel better. Making the most of networking opportunities can help you build your professional network, or taking the opportunity to work in a rented co-working space could give you the sounding board you need for ideas. Even calling a client instead of emailing or asking friends for a second opinion over a coffee can help you refocus and feel more integrated socially.

Lone workers have the ability to improve their mental and physical wellbeing due to the unique opportunities available to them. It does take discipline to put boundaries in place and create healthy habits, but once that’s been achieved, lone working can be incredibly empowering and rewarding.

Dr Mark Winwood NEWDr Mark Winwood is Clinical Director for Psychological Health for AXA PPP healthcare’s Health Services division. He holds associate fellowship and chartership with the British Psychological Society, he is registered with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) and is a chartered scientist. Mark joined the medical services of AXA PPP healthcare in June 2008 and was previously clinical director for AXA PPP healthcare employee support for over 10 years. Prior to joining AXA Mark worked as a senior psychologist in the NHS and has many years of clinical experience and research expertise. He is an active member of the EAPA, BPS and BACP – Workplace. He maintains a private practice as a psychologist in London.

What makes us susceptible to burnout?

In this episode  of the Safety & Health Podcast, ‘Burnout, stress and being human’, Heather Beach is joined by Stacy Thomson to discuss burnout, perfectionism and how to deal with burnout as an individual, as management and as an organisation.

We provide an insight on how to tackle burnout and why mental health is such a taboo subject, particularly in the workplace.


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