A brave new world

A brave new world

Professor Dr Andrew Sharman, global thought leader, safety culture expert and president of the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), discusses leadership lessons from the coronavirus pandemic and highlights how you can create a culture of care in a post-pandemic world

First, I sincerely hope that this message finds you and your loved ones healthy, safe and coping as well as you possibly can as the pandemic continues.

Wherever you are, for all of us as occupational safety & health practitioners, our primary aim is to create a safe place for people to do their best work. Right now, though, we are currently facing an unprecedented challenge.

Covid-19, the coronavirus, has disrupted global networks and created new challenges within workplaces for organisations around the world. With this pandemic, we’re facing an unprecedented crisis.

Many of us are having to find new ways of working, while key workers are being put at risk every day doing their best to maintain the essential systems we rely on – such as healthcare and retail.

If you are one of thousands now forced into self-isolation to help prevent the spread of Covid-19, the experience can be quite unsettling. That’s because as social animals, we humans crave connectedness. We want to feel part of a tribe; a group. It’s one of the reasons we like going to work. To engage with others. To interact. To work collaboratively towards a culture of common values and ideals, and to realise a shared future.

Separation from our physical workplaces can be difficult and impact feelings of connectedness and our ability to contribute. But it doesn’t mean that we can’t continue to utilise our skills to help build more inclusive, productive and ultimately safer workplaces when we all return.

In fact, during this difficult time, OSH professionals, now more than ever before, are being relied on by organisations to provide sensible, reliable guidance, advice and expertise. This really is the moment where the profession comes into its own and demonstrates its value in protecting workers and saving lives.

Beyond the workplace, families, friends and local communities may also look to you for guidance and perspective. Whether at home or at work, these are all great opportunities for each of us to step up, provide support and lead through this global crisis.

Leading through crisis

The British Standard on Crisis Management (BS 11200:2014) defines a “crisis” as an “abnormal and unstable situation that threatens the organisation’s strategic objectives, reputation or viability”.

In practice, the early stages of a crisis can affect leaders in two ways: first, there can be a perceived (or real) loss of control. Second, the events of a crisis typically outpace the response by the organisation, especially as the crisis begins to unfold. During these early days, the best leaders realised these issues and stepped forward to lead from the front as best as they could.

In times of crisis the very best leaders understand that they will be judged not by their “bottom-line numbers” but by their behaviour. As organisations ground to a stop and employees were sent home on lockdown or furlough, leaders had to find novel ways of leading and managing their teams. Online meetings, frequent check-ins with individual members and virtual events became the “new normal”.

While governments around the world have referred to the importance of maintaining physical space between people, I believe that the phrase “social distance” is incorrect, as the pandemic has actually increased social connectivity for many of us, creating strong bonds of trust and interdependency. Both of these are great foundations for building high-performance teams.

We’ve also witnessed incredible acts of generosity around the world, with organisations thinking creatively on how they could help others, and with people coming together – digitally, virtually and sometimes in person – to help one another and provide support for those in need.

The informational challenge

A significant risk of the pandemic was viral misinformation. In the first 24 hours we observed 16 000 shares on Facebook advising people on how to avoid the disease: suggestions like keeping the throat moist, avoiding spicy food, eating green vegetables and taking extra vitamin C. Yet these all lacked scientific evidence and were ineffective. As the pandemic grew, so did the stories, until we had a “social infodemic”.

At the same time, because this particular coronavirus was new to science, our understanding of what it was and how to protect ourselves came through evolving knowledge – on a daily basis.

It’s vital to bear in mind that leadership is everything we do and everything we don’t do. When good data and reliable information are not available, the leader’s job becomes harder. This meant that, in practice, some leaders held back and hesitated, while others dismissed the severity of the pandemic as governmental overreaction. These behaviours added to the confusion, and most likely placed people in risky situations.

Plan, Do, Check, Act – to the stars

There is a Latin saying from more than 2 000 years ago that advises: “per aspera ad astra”, which translated means; “through adversity to the stars”. So whenever something seems to block the path forward – or, in the terms of the British Standard mentioned previously “threatens the organisation’s strategic objectives” – in reality that obstacle has a vital function. It forces the leader – and in the case of the coronavirus crisis, humanity – to generate more strength, more energy or more consciousness.

Every organisation is potentially exposed to disasters, crises and emergencies – large or small, high-tech or low-tech, localised or global. Whether operating in oil and gas, manufacturing, commercial, education, leisure or national authority, no organisation can escape.

However, with some foresight and planning the consequences of a disaster or emergency can be reduced and the essential recovery process started. When a crisis is managed effectively it can enhance corporate reputations and provide opportunities for learning, future growth and development.

Wise business leaders recognise the need for a robust management process for such events (often referred to as a Disaster & Emergency Management System, ‘DEMS’). The foundation of a DEMS is exactly the same as that of Occupational Health & Safety Management Systems, in that it is based on a Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) cycle.

The difference, however, is two-fold: the focus of a DEMS is on the viability of the organisation rather than the health and safety of its employees, and the emphasis is on damage mitigation and recovery, as opposed to incident prevention.

The importance of connection

Separation from our physical workplaces can be difficult and impact feelings of connectedness and our ability to contribute. But it doesn’t mean that we can’t continue to utilise our skills to help build more inclusive, productive and ultimately safer workplaces when we all return.

It’s important to note that the psychological trauma following such an event – from both an individual and an organisational standpoint – can result in decreased productivity, increased absenteeism and an increase in worker’s compensation claims. As organisations and teams return to work, leaders need to be mindful and look for team members who may find it harder to settle back – perhaps after having lost someone to the virus or having been affected in other ways by the disruption.

Without a doubt, everyone wants to find a way through the pandemic and create a “new normal” as quickly as possible, but this urgency presents an increased risk of workplace accidents. Leaders need to understand this, and consider how their own leadership behaviours can influence worker behaviours in order to rebuild robust organisational cultures that ensure that work is done safely and everyone goes home without harm.

To infinity – and beyond

We’re strongest when we work together, with shared goals, values and desires. In many countries around the world the pandemic has proved the necessity of teamworking and underlined the importance of human connection and care for others.

In our own model of organisational safety culture, the very best workplaces are what we call “human focused”, where safety is “fully integrated” into how the work is actually done. We’re already starting to see a shift in how organisations view safety as they move from a focus on compliance towards a culture of care. We call this a mindset shift, changing the focus from preventing accidents to creating safety – moving from a reliance on low accidents rates to looking more at the inputs to great safety.

So, what are these inputs? Well, by now it should come as no surprise – they’re all leadership behaviours.

Published by

Andrew Sharman

Professor Dr Andrew Sharman is managing partner of RMS – consultants on leadership and cultural excellence to a wide range of blue-chip corporates and non-government organisations globally. He’s a chartered member of Saiosh; immediate past president of the Institution of Occupational Safety & Health; and chairman of the board of the Institute of Leadership & Management.
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