Work-related stress – remote and isolated work

Guidance on this page can help employers manage the risks of work-related stress for employees working remotely or in isolation.

Psychosocial hazards

Psychosocial hazards are factors in the design or management of work that increase the risk of work-related stress and can lead to psychological or physical harm. Examples of psychosocial hazards might include poor supervisor support or high job demands.

Employees are likely to be exposed to a combination of psychosocial hazards. Some hazards might always be present at work, while others only occasionally. There is a greater risk of work-related stress when psychosocial hazards combine and act together, so employers should not consider hazards in isolation.

Psychosocial hazards do not necessarily reveal the causes of work-related stress. Causes are likely to be specific to the employee, work or workplace. Senior management should identify which psychosocial hazards negatively affect employees' health and well-being and take appropriate action to control the impact of those hazards.

Understanding remote and isolated work

Remote work is work at locations where access to resources and communications is difficult and travel times may be lengthy. Isolated work is where there are no or few other people around and access to help from others, especially in an emergency, may be difficult.

An employee can be considered to be working alone or in isolation even if other people are close by, whether for a short period of time or weeks on end. Therefore, staff working in larger institutions and cities can also be working alone or in isolation.

Remote and isolated work can be characterised by situations that include:

  • workplace isolation, for example, working on a farm or in a geographically isolated location
    • travelling long distances or for long periods
      • when travelling for work, for example, in a hotel, at an airport or even at a different site or office
        • as a contractor at a location of another employer
          • working alone physically, for example, unpacking in a warehouse
            • working away from others, for example, a long-haul ship
              • out-of-hours work such as shift work
                • working unsupervised, for example, in public transport
                  • working from home

                    Examples of remote and isolated work might include:

                    • farming
                      • real estate agents
                        • a community nurse conducting visits at night
                          • school principal or doctor in a rural area
                            • night shift operators in petrol stations or convenience stores
                              • offshore mining
                                • fly-in, fly-out (FIFO) employees
                                  • computer-based work, for example, office employees, working from home

                                    Working from home

                                    Working from home, sometimes called telework, telecommuting or e-work, is a way of working that has become increasingly available and sometimes necessary, mostly in industries involving computer or phone-based work. Working from home presents a range of hazards and risks, including situations where an employee is working from an unstaffed satellite office, mobile office, virtual office or 'hotelling', which is working in rented or shared office space.

                                    Employers have a duty, so far as reasonably practicable, to provide a working environment for their employees that is safe and without risks to health. This duty includes controlling new risks when an employee works from a location other than their usual workplace, such as their home.

                                    Health and safety benefits of working from home can include:

                                    • reduced commuting stress
                                      • flexible work practices that allow for work-life-family balance
                                        • potential for more efficiency and productivity
                                          • uninterrupted time for work that involves concentration or quiet

                                            Some hazards associated with working from home might overlap with hazards for remote and isolated work. Overlapping hazards might include, for example, the physical work environment, personal safety and security of the employee at the workplace location and ways to communicate or stay in touch.

                                            Hazards that can be more specific to working from home include:

                                            • home office environment, including adequate lighting, ventilation, temperature control, excessive noise or distractions and walkways with hazards such as electrical cords
                                              • domestic and family violence
                                                • workstation set-up, which may not be consistent with ergonomic principles
                                                  • the way work is organised and performed
                                                    • communication and relationships between employees, supervisors, and the workplace
                                                      • mental, emotional and social aspects of work
                                                        • caring for children or others

                                                          Consulting employees who work from home is important for identifying and preventing potential hazards. Consultation is particularly important for workload and relationship hazards such as:

                                                          • expectations about after-hours availability, frequent overtime or to be on-call
                                                            • high workloads or performance pressures
                                                              • management styles that have not adjusted to non-traditional working arrangements
                                                                • exclusion from social relations, informal networking and the workplace community
                                                                  • challenges for managing professional profile or image
                                                                    • missed opportunities for mental stimulation or for discussing ideas with colleagues
                                                                      • potential for feeling isolated or lonely, depending on circumstances
                                                                        • resentment among employees who are office-based without access to working-at-home arrangements
                                                                          • disadvantages for career advancement or a sense of job insecurity as a result of perceived 'absence' from the physical workplace
                                                                            • being 'out of sight, out of mind', meaning employees may be inadvertently left out of important communications and meetings

                                                                              A lack of social contact for employees who work from home, particularly over an extended period, can lead to anxiety, lack of motivation, reduced engagement and loss of involvement in decision-making within the organisation.

                                                                              To help employees realise the benefits of working at home, employers should:

                                                                              • provide clear policies and procedures for employee access to working at home
                                                                                • provide written plans or agreements about how work is arranged and for remaining socially connected
                                                                                  • adjust management styles accordingly

                                                                                    Despite the potential benefits, working from home may not suit all employees, depending on their home environment, type of work and preferred ways of working. For example, some employees with young children or those experiencing domestic or family violence may prefer coming into the office. It is important that employees have a say in whether and how often they work from home, how their work is arranged and that they retain the option to work at the office or workplace if possible.

                                                                                    Practical suggestions for supporting employees to remain engaged while working at home include:

                                                                                    • regularly checking in to make sure employees feel supported and are coping with working at home, for example, by setting up regular or daily phone or video conference meetings
                                                                                      • creating opportunities for team communications, for example, by using online tools or apps to establish team-wide chat groups
                                                                                        • being available, accessible and willing to listen when employees need to contact the office
                                                                                          • providing employees with appropriate control and flexibility over how they do their work
                                                                                            • providing practical tools to support positive mental health, such as access to an employee assistance program
                                                                                              • encouraging employees to stay physically active, eat well and regularly go outside
                                                                                                • making sure employees effectively disengage from their work and log off at the end of the day
                                                                                                  • ensuring realistic workloads so employees do not feel obligated to work overtime and can disengage from their work at home

                                                                                                    Working from home because of infectious diseases or pandemics

                                                                                                    The WorkSafe website provides specific information on hazards to employees who are working at home in response to the spread of infectious diseases.

                                                                                                    Understanding the risks of working alone, remotely or in isolation

                                                                                                    People who work alone, remotely or in isolation face different levels of risk compared with other employees. These employees might be unable to access immediate assistance from team members, other people or emergency services due to the location, time and type of work they are doing.

                                                                                                    Exposure to violence and poor access to emergency services are two key hazards. Psychologically, concerns over safety and welfare, social isolation, threats and attacks from clients and the public are linked to work-related stress.

                                                                                                    Some other risks associated with working alone or in isolation can include:

                                                                                                    • forms of occupational violence and aggression, such as road rage, customer, client or patient abuse, robberies, incidents with vehicles or machinery
                                                                                                      • slips, trips and falls
                                                                                                        • employee health concerns that put them at greater risk when alone
                                                                                                          • social isolation
                                                                                                            • inadequate equipment or space for setting up an ergonomically appropriate workspace of office

                                                                                                              When completing a risk assessment, employers should think about some of the other risk factors specific to the workplace that could affect employees when they are working alone or in isolation. Risk factors to consider could include:

                                                                                                              • the workplace environment, taking into account where the work is being performed and the weather
                                                                                                                • testing and measuring factors such as noise, dust, hazardous substances and manual handling processes
                                                                                                                  • analysing records such as the injury register, incident report and near misses
                                                                                                                    • the layout and design of the workplace
                                                                                                                      • access to safe and suitable accommodation if travel and stopovers are required
                                                                                                                        • communication systems used or needed
                                                                                                                          • training and supervision provided to manage risks
                                                                                                                            • fatigue management
                                                                                                                              • physical security of the location
                                                                                                                                • physical fitness and the employee's physical ability to carry out duties
                                                                                                                                  • psychological fitness and the employee's mental ability to carry out duties
                                                                                                                                    • regularity of contact with other people when working at home, for example, whether employees live alone

                                                                                                                                      Risk controls for working alone, remotely or in isolation

                                                                                                                                      Risk controls for working alone, remotely or in isolation should focus on consulting with employees to understand their experiences and hazards in the context of their work and working environment. Risk control measures should address both physical and psychosocial hazards since these go hand in hand. Actual or perceived physical hazards might contribute to feeling unsafe and work-related stress.

                                                                                                                                      Consulting employees

                                                                                                                                      Employers have a duty, so far as reasonably practicable, to consult with their employees and elected health and safety representatives (HSRs) about risks to health and safety.

                                                                                                                                      As an employer it is important you speak with your employees to understand their experiences of working alone, remotely or in isolated conditions. There are many ways you can talk with and begin to support your employees, including:

                                                                                                                                      • one-on-one discussions with managers and employees
                                                                                                                                        • adding working alone, remotely or in isolation as an agenda item at your regular meetings. These meetings may be 'toolbox talks', production meetings, staff meetings or any other channels your organisation uses to communicate
                                                                                                                                          • discussing hazards as part of a routine, for example, speaking to employees while casually walking around your workplace
                                                                                                                                            • through HSRs
                                                                                                                                              • through health and safety committees
                                                                                                                                                • focus groups
                                                                                                                                                  • interviews
                                                                                                                                                    • staff surveys

                                                                                                                                                      Conversation prompts

                                                                                                                                                      Here are conversation prompts to help start a conversation with employees about risk controls for working alone:

                                                                                                                                                      • How do you know when you are at risk when working alone?
                                                                                                                                                        • What do you consider are the physical and mental health risks involved with working alone?
                                                                                                                                                          • What things can the organisation do or provide you with to improve your physical and mental safety?
                                                                                                                                                            • What support networks are in place, in addition to physical safety?
                                                                                                                                                              • Who do you call when you need to reflect or debrief regarding your work or when you need assistance?
                                                                                                                                                                • How would the workplace support you if you feel unsafe?

                                                                                                                                                                  Think about any employees who work for periods with little or no contact with other people and make sure you include them in your discussions about the risks associated with working alone, remotely or in isolation.

                                                                                                                                                                  Job design

                                                                                                                                                                  It is important employers speak with employees to understand their experiences of working alone, remotely or in isolated conditions. Employee feedback is important for job design – the way work is organised and experienced – so that it is effective and tailored to the task and individual.

                                                                                                                                                                  Good job design will consider how other work-related factors contribute to workplace health and safety, with consideration for:

                                                                                                                                                                  • workload
                                                                                                                                                                    • whether job demands are too high or low
                                                                                                                                                                      • the level of control employees have over how they organise and perform their work
                                                                                                                                                                        • an appropriate degree of self-direction
                                                                                                                                                                          • input into decision making

                                                                                                                                                                            In the context of working alone, remotely or in isolation, employers should consider:

                                                                                                                                                                            • inherent dangers of the task
                                                                                                                                                                              • the physical requirements of the work, including manual handling and ergonomics, periods of rest and activity
                                                                                                                                                                                • the mental requirements of the work, including pace, noise or quiet for concentration, collaboration, physical movement or exercise and social connection
                                                                                                                                                                                  • tailoring work to the employee, tasks and environment
                                                                                                                                                                                    • sufficient variety of work and tasks
                                                                                                                                                                                      • adequate and appropriate workload
                                                                                                                                                                                        • providing employees with appropriate control and flexibility over how they do their work
                                                                                                                                                                                          • tools, equipment and supplies required
                                                                                                                                                                                            • personal protective equipment (PPE) and supplies
                                                                                                                                                                                              • access to information and other resources
                                                                                                                                                                                                • access to facilities, such as toilets, drinking water, etc
                                                                                                                                                                                                  • safety of the site or location, including adequate facilities for the welfare of employees
                                                                                                                                                                                                    • providing practical tools to support positive mental health, such as access to an employee assistance program
                                                                                                                                                                                                      • encouraging employees to stay physically active, eat well and regularly go outside
                                                                                                                                                                                                        • making sure employees are effectively disengaging from their work and logging off at the end of the day

                                                                                                                                                                                                          Management and supervision

                                                                                                                                                                                                          So far as reasonably practicable, employers must provide information, instruction, training and supervision to employees, as is necessary, to enable them to work in a way that is safe and without risks to health.

                                                                                                                                                                                                          The management and supervision of employees can help prevent and manage work-related stress. In the case of employees working alone, remotely or in isolation, employers should:

                                                                                                                                                                                                          • ensure managers are competent supervisors
                                                                                                                                                                                                            • adapt management styles to non-traditional working arrangements
                                                                                                                                                                                                              • ensure managers and supervisors are accessible and available
                                                                                                                                                                                                                • develop relationships that foster mutual trust for open communication
                                                                                                                                                                                                                  • consult with employees when developing performance-monitoring systems or procedures to review and monitor employees
                                                                                                                                                                                                                    • develop team-based targets which help build effective teams and allow measurement of team performance against organisational goals which show contribution by the team and individuals
                                                                                                                                                                                                                      • use performance reviews as an opportunity for employees to have input into the way they do their work, rather than focusing only on performance
                                                                                                                                                                                                                        • when assigning work, negotiate objective and reasonable standards to increase employees' ownership and control over their work and ensure work is allocated evenly
                                                                                                                                                                                                                          • avoid asking employees to regularly stay after hours without prior discussion and agreement

                                                                                                                                                                                                                            Communication and keeping in touch

                                                                                                                                                                                                                            Employers have a duty, so far as reasonably practicable, to monitor the health of employees and conditions at any workplace under the employer's control. Keeping in touch with employees is important when they are physically separated from the workplace and should include:

                                                                                                                                                                                                                            • developing a communication plan so managers and employees know when and how to contact each other
                                                                                                                                                                                                                              • consider a nominated 'back-up' contact in the event the primary manager or supervisor is unavailable, for example, in a meeting or on leave or sick
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                • regularly check in to make sure employees are safe and feel supported, for example, by setting up regular phone or video conference meetings
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  • creating opportunities for team communications, for example, by using online tools or apps to establish team-wide chat groups
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    • being available, accessible and willing to listen when employees need to contact the employer
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      • opportunity for or planned contact in person with managers, supervisors and team members or for collaboration
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        • opportunity for informal networking and socialising
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          • keeping employees informed and connected
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            • involvement in decision making

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Safety and security

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              So far as reasonably practicable, employers have a duty to maintain each workplace under their management and control in a condition that is safe and without risks to health. Some hazards and risks might be associated with the perceived and actual personal safety and security of the workplace or location where work takes place.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Safety and security hazards might be particularly relevant to employees who are mobile or perform their work at locations other than employer-controlled workplaces, for example, tradespeople working at residential properties, employees who work alone in satellite offices with client or customer exposure or farmers working alone.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              To address these hazards, employers should consider:

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              • a buddy system, if possible, particularly when there is a risk of violence
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                • designing workplace layouts to include physical barriers, monitored closed circuit television (CCTV) and enhanced visibility
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  • automatic warning devices that raise the alarm in an emergency and are activated by absence of activity from the employee
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    • personal duress devices that are monitored
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      • escorts to vehicles if working alone after hours
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        • satellite tracking systems or devices, with employee consultation about the purpose of the tracking and limits for privacy purposes
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          • check-in procedures such as texts or phone calls before and after travelling or meeting customers and clients
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            • emergency procedures
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              • security guards or patrols
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                • employees working alone have adequate first aid training and an adequate first aid kit
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  • regular workplace inspections and necessary rectifications occur

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Policies and procedures

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Employers have a duty under the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (OHS Act) to consult with employees, so far as reasonably practicable, about measures to control risks to health or safety. An employer who is required to consult with employees must:

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    • share information about the matter with employees
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      • give employees a reasonable opportunity to express their views about the matter
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        • take into account the views of employees and their HSRs

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          A policy for working alone, remotely or in isolation could be a stand-alone document. Alternatively, information on working alone, remotely or in isolation could be part of a general occupational health and safety policy. What is important is that everyone knows where to find the policy. Individually tailored written plans can also be helpful for specific employees, types of work and working arrangements. It is important to regularly revise any written plans, policies and procedures to ensure they remain current and continue to meet everyone's needs.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Further information on risk controls

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Further information on risk controls for working alone, remotely or in isolation is available on the WorkSafe website.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Work-related stress and your legal duties

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          The Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (OHS Act) requires employers to provide and maintain a working environment that is safe and without risks to health, so far as is reasonably practicable. This responsibility includes providing and maintaining safe systems of work and an obligation to consult with employees and HSRs on matters that directly affect or are likely to affect their health or safety, including hazards and risks associated with work-related stress.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Employees also have duties under the OHS Act to take reasonable care for their own health and safety, the health and safety of people in the workplace and to co-operate with their employer.