Distance Worker Mental Health Challenges

We don't have any problem understanding that someone has a broken limb when we see them with their arm in plaster and a sling, but it takes us a while to understand that someone has mental health problems, since there are usually few obvious signs.
Written by Oliver Marks, Contributor on

We don't have any problem understanding that someone has a broken limb when we see them with their arm in plaster and a sling, but it takes us a while to understand that someone has mental health problems, since there are usually few obvious signs.

Mental health issues typically only make the news when there is a disaster, such as the various incidents of mass murder within the US Postal Service by employees, and we typically laugh off issues as 'going postal' or people being 'loco in the cabeza', but the reality is much more complicated and subtle.

Human Resources are responsible for employee health but line managers know all to well how the enthusiastic new hire they employed can have major personality changes over time, positive or negative. One of the common political fault lines within companies is between the responsibilities of IT information governance and Human Resources Departments. IT typically 'Just Say No' in their war on sensitive company information escaping from within the storage and communications infrastructure they run, while Human Resources see the various line of business units they work with complaining about the lack of flexibility of collaboration and inquire about loosening up information access restrictions.

Both sides of this debate have opposing values: IT security are doing the job they are employed for and usually get no credit for loosening their controls of information, but stand to be punished if there is a security lapse. Human Resources are tasked with increasing efficiency and chafe at the restrictions of enterprise software which slows staff effectiveness. This problem is only likely to get worse, with Morgan Stanley forecasting more consumers accessing the internet by mobile devices than PCs within five years in an ever more interconnected online world.

Exponentially increasing numbers of employees are walking around with personal smart phones packed with computing power and 3g+ internet connectivity,  while instances of informal 'shadow IT' collaboration environments and departmental 'collaboration silos' fragment business teams into vertical local environments behind user names and passwords.

Ten years ago the elearning business was hitting its stride after moving on from the promise of 'knowledge management'. What really ignited that marketplace was US sexual harrassment training. Although having a 'Learning Management System' (LMS) to curate the library of employee accessible knowledge - in some cases required learning as part of job terms - was seen as valuable, like collaboration there was no cookie cutter return on investment.

In 1999 the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission legislated 'Enforcement Guidance on Vicarious Employer Liability for Unlawful Harassment by Supervisors'. Similar legislation, such as California Assembly Bill 1825, made Sexual Harassment Prevention Training Mandatory for California Employers. This made LMS functionality that tracked all employees training to confirm they were aware of their responsibilities in not sexually harassing each other a much easier sell.

From a corporate perspective, if a crazed employee sexually attacked another in an elevator the company was off the legal hook because the attacker had taken and understood sexual harassment training. The legal responsibility was shifted to the individual.

The reality is that the source of most of the conflict around the security of company data is not around information technology, but human temperament.  Human Resources professionals know all to well they are typically dealing with worst case scenarios with employee behavior - the vast majority understand boundaries and appropriate behavior, whether in person or online. It's the exceptions that give the sleepless nights, and they can be hard to spot until events have unfolded.

This makes governance and compliance, both for internal efficiency purposes and to comply with legislative requirements, all the more complex as the collaboration network effects of broadband enable greater accesses personally and through corporate channels.  Providing clear rules of business engagement, ownership and responsibilities for information origination and propagation by employees is becoming increasingly urgent as technology enables ubiquitous real time communication.

The connected employee has unprecedented power and range in ability to communicate and transfer information, globally and to the entire globe.  Mental illness is not well understood but the effects of illogical actions are... From mentalhealthamerica.com:

In the workplace, mental health problems manifest in a number of ways: here are some employee behaviors that may be signs of a mental health problem:

•    Working slowly •    Missing deadlines •    Calling in sick frequently •    Increasing absenteeism •    Expressing irritability and anger •    Difficulty concentrating and making decisions •    Appearing numb or emotionless •    Withdrawing from work activity •    Overworking •    Forgetting directives, procedures and requests •    Having difficulty with work transitions or changes in routines

It's hard enough to supervise and manage staff in an on site location: monitoring well-being remotely through online connections is even harder.

Providing effective staff oversight and monitoring at distance and scale while protecting sensitive information is a major challenge - obviously we want people to be happy and healthy, but we also have to make provision to anticipate the results of life's pressures on employee well being to protect the sanctity of company data.

If you or someone you know is in crisis now, seek help immediately. In the USA, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to reach a 24 hour crisis center or dial 911 for immediate assistance.

image from Shorpy.com of an operation in 1900

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