Jun 11, 2020 | by Helen Fitzhugh

Working in isolated and confined conditions long-term: the potential risks and how to avoid them

Before the COVID-19 crisis began, working from home had risen steadily in the UK. Still, in 2019 less than a third of the UK workforce had worked from home and only 1 in 20 did it most of the time. Enforced home-working in March 2020 brought about unprecedented change for many. 

Workers like highland farmers, rural nurses and Antarctic over-winterers have long dealt with isolated, confined or extreme conditions. Now, the vast amounts of time spent working in our own homes – and the related lack of social contact and new external danger – have turned our domestic spaces into places many would face similar conditions for the first time. 

How can extreme conditions affect people’s wellbeing and performance in the long-term?

At Norwich Business School, we wanted to find out how working in these conditions long-term might affect people’s wellbeing and performance. Crucially, we also wanted to know if there was anything organisations and managers could do now to reduce problems down the line. 

By carrying out a rapid review of existing research across a range of isolated and confined working conditions and occupations, we were able to bring together some early insights. 

Key findings

  • The potential risks of working in isolated, confined, or extreme conditions include wellbeing issues such as:
    • tiredness
    • boredom
    • anxiety
    • depression
    • sleeplessness
    • elevated alcohol and drug use.
  • Performance may also suffer due lower motivation and reduced ability to think clearly. 
  • Poor outcomes are not inevitable for everyone. People are known to respond very differently to extreme conditions, with some much more able to adapt and avoid negative effects than others. Although we cannot predict who will adapt well, and personality may play a part, this finding offers hope that we may be able to find ways to help people to adapt and thrive.
  • Managers in organisations with home-workers should think about three key areas:
  1. Making sure workers have high quality varied social and professional contact
  2. Ensuring that work is organised and managed in a way that suits the ‘new normal’
  3. Supporting sensible boundaries between work and home life. 

You can read about effective remote management in our previous guest blog for the Centre.

  • Upping social contact with co-workers and managers via video-conferencing may seem like just common sense. Yet, the words ’high quality’ and ‘varied’ are important. Findings from remote health workers suggest we will need differentiated types of contact, such as professional advice for specific situations, performance feedback, appropriate debriefing after difficulties, networking opportunities, training, and continuing professional development opportunities. 
  • Senior managers have a role to play in communicating clearly how the organisation is supporting its workers. Managers might reflect on whether they are managing to schedule in all the tasks of good management remotely (see separate blog). Human resources (HR) professionals need to consult on whether existing approaches to professional development, appraisal, leave and recruitment are suitable for the ‘new normal’ and convey any resulting changes with clarity to the workforce. 

If your home is also your workplace, the boundaries between home life and work life can be blurred and cause relationship and intrusion issues. Organisations can make clear statements on how they are supporting people to avoid work bleeding into home. They then need to follow these through in the way they organise workloads and communication windows. 

If you are now overwhelmed by how much there is to think about to support ICE remote workers, don’t worry. Luckily, we can learn from one of the final reviews we incorporated, which outlined how to set up successful support. The key message is: remember you don’t have to start from scratch and your own imagination! Reach out to your workers and include them in discussions over what their needs are, what they think might help and how best you can deliver. We all benefit when managers ask, listen and then support us to learn and adapt together.

Have you seen our evidence and resources on workplace wellbeing?

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