O brave new world

O brave new world

Professor Andrew Sharman reflects on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and navigates a way forward for OSH professionals who wish to lead their organisations towards significant and sustainable safety improvement.

What a year 2020 was! The pandemic thrust us into an unprecedented crisis, disrupting global networks and creating new challenges within workplaces for organisations around the world.

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. Secondly, 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 grasped the magnitude of the problem 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 leadership is everything we do and everything we don’t do.

OSH professionals around the world met the challenge to support their organisations, putting in place the support, controls and measures to ensure their organisations could continue to function while keeping everyone safe.

Around the world OSH professionals were regularly having conversations with senior leaders that probably wouldn’t have been anticipated, pre-pandemic. But as the pandemic has become part of life for many of us, I urge us to ensure we don’t let OSH slip backwards on the agenda. We must create a “brave new world”; a new normal where the health and safety of people remains the most important feature for us all.

My Covid experience has involved reading books – a LOT of books. One of these was Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. It is an amazing story from the 1930s that drew parallels, for me, with where the world is now. The title derives from a scene in William Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, where Miranda declares:

O wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in it.

To me, it seems that 2020 has forced humankind to look again at our world and to make some tough decisions – especially around control measures in order to save lives and keep people safe, while acknowledging the economic impact and consequences that may occur.

By and large, globally, the decision has been to save lives and put the health of our people first. Perhaps the “brave new world” in your organisation is one where you will continue to do this – truly putting the health and safety of your people above everything else.

Per aspera ad astra

This Latin saying – which dates back more than 2 000 years – means “through adversity to the stars”. 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.

The pandemic has certainly forced us all to do things differently: whether that be more remote working, increased digital transformation of our businesses, or the humanity and authenticity that has increased as we see our leaders juggling the same challenges we have (from crazy pets or home-schooling kids or laundry mountains growing in the background).

Somehow, now, we are all a little more human. The pandemic has forced organisations to take seriously and rethink their approach to worker health and well-being, recognising the centrality of this to their own success.

Changing perspectives

Covid-19 is shifting views on workplace health and safety at both the organisational and the employee level. Perhaps, for the first time, organisations are seeing a real tangible connection between their ability to manage safety and their long-term business viability.

The pandemic has also shed light on “essential” workers – those working on the frontlines in our health care, retail, food and beverage, and transportation sectors.

“Essential workers” (such as those in the medical profession, first responders – such as police and firefighters, postal service workers, those in food and agriculture, etc.) have certainly held things together for us right around the world, and we owe them a debt of gratitude.

Their efforts have provided us with wonderful insight into the human resources side of the pandemic. Their willingness to work at all hours, constantly being on call, and even placing themselves at risk for others helps us realise that everyone remains, above all else, human. And it reinforces that behind all of the programmes, initiatives, policies and metrics we normally focus on, health and safety is really about people.

It’s also been a humbling experience for leaders around the globe. In many respects, they’ve been forced to become “more human” to their employees, revealing their own vulnerabilities and personal challenges, opening up their lives on video conferences and demonstrating they’re dealing with many of the same struggles as everyone else – concerns for their family’s safety, trying to work from home whilst tending to children unable to go to school, and caring for older relatives.

Covid-19 has become a remarkable opportunity to “level the playing field” and has shown us that no matter what title you hold or where you work, the virus doesn’t discriminate. This reinforces a truism about occupational health and safety – that anyone can be injured or become ill at work – and those injuries and illness have real impacts on people inside and outside the workplace.

Consequently, this new perspective will hopefully open up better communication channels in organisations around the world, encourage greater empathy and understanding at work, and reinforce the need for broader participation and engagement of all workers, at all organisational levels, in creating the safe and healthy workplaces we all want and deserve.

It’s time for OSH professionals to step up

With most sectors facing considerable economic challenges, now is a perfect opportunity for health and safety professionals to step up and demonstrate their ability to offer real, tangible value to the business.

It’s also time for organisations to extend current table-top discussions beyond Covid-19, instead broadening their perspective on what needs to be done to protect their workforce and reincorporate those very real health and safety risks that were on their agendas before the pandemic struck.

Consider this: the International Labour Organization reports that poor workplace safety and health costs around 4% of global GDP. This is staggering. And there’s growing concern that with the increased pressure to perform, workers fortunate enough to have a job in this economy may feel compelled to cut corners and engage in risky behaviour to get the job done, or managers might feel empowered to skip required training or forgo inspection or maintenance tasks to keep costs down, both of which can increase the chances of on-the-job injuries or worse.

But here’s the good news: the National Safety Council (NSC) in the USA suggests that the Return on Investment (ROI) on occupational health and safety is between $4 to $6 for every dollar spent. This creates an opportunity for health and safety practitioners to convince sceptical leaders that now is the time for health and safety investment.

To engage your senior leaders, consider calculating the average cost of a single injury at your company (include both direct and indirect costs) and then work out how much in sales your organisation would need to cover this cost. When senior executives understand that poor safety is eating into their margins, they’re certain to be interested in how to change that outcome.

Measure what matters

During the Covid-19 pandemic, most governments have relied on case rates and fatality rates to gauge their success at battling the virus. But would other “leading” metrics, such as measuring our testing capacity or the availability of ventilators or personal protective equipment provide a better indicator of how well our communities are able to control the spread of the virus and reduce the risk of illness? It’s certainly brought into sharper focus the idea of how we measure safety success, and how we respond to failure.

Yet one of the reasons many organisations often resist shifting from lagging indicators is that they’re generally easier to measure and simpler to understand. There’s no doubt that lagging indicators are easy to measure, perhaps because what they measure is easier to see: a broken arm, a chemical burn, a twisted ankle. Yet if we want to really drive a step-change in safety culture and safety performance, we need to instead shift our focus toward the inputs that create safety – and only leading indicators will help measure these inputs.

Leading indicators will be different for each organisation based on their needs, goals, and cultural maturity. These indicators should be selected around what the organisations want to see more of. For instance, an organisation that wants to improve engagement may choose to select indicators to measure specific behaviours that demonstrate an engaged workforce – more meetings started with a safety moment, more leadership safety walks, more employee-led tailgate meetings or inspection activities.

Consider the behaviours you want to see more of and then select good leading indicators, which are proactive, preventive and predictive, to help measure those desired behaviours and help them thrive.

It’s your behaviour, too!

All health and safety practitioners should be mindful of their own contributions toward the development of compliance cultures. Indeed, earlier health and safety approaches were dominated by audits, inspections, checklists, and sanctions. In recent years, however, there’s been a noticeable shift toward putting people back at the heart of health and safety – a very good thing indeed!

Now, health and safety practitioners would do well to further “humanise” their approach – increasing their interest in how work gets done, discussing safety risks and ideas openly with workers, and focusing on engaging, encouraging, enabling and empowering employees at all levels around a broader health and safety agenda.

Without a doubt, one of the biggest risks from the coronavirus pandemic has been the accompanying infodemic that has been running in parallel. Over many months we’ve suffered a deluge of data and information that organisations have been trying to navigate and makes sense of, and it’s not been easy!

Moreover, open misinformation by actors with specific agendas is making it harder for leaders to encourage the behaviours that will help reduce the risk of infection and keep people safe. As a result, directions and guidance seems to have twisted and turned, and it’s been hard for folks to know just what they should be doing.

But the pandemic hasn’t changed the nature of human behaviour nor the tactics that leaders should rely on to promote safer behaviours that will reduce risk, both inside and outside the workplace. Leaders should focus on role-modelling and reinforcing a small number of simple behaviours to start with, such as wearing masks, social distancing and washing hands regularly, to set the tone from the top and provide the reassurance every employee needs.

Commitment and communication

Now is the time for developing risk literacy in the workplace and re-doubling our commitments to be our “brother’s keeper” – essentially everyone looking out for each other. And organisational leaders have a critical role to play in this respect. Leaders should focus on being authentically curious – frequently asking meaningful questions about safety and health to their teams to help workers keep their minds on risks and the task at hand, despite all the distractions that exist in our current environment.

Ensuring real clarity of communication is key – not just in health and safety, but by providing a larger, more transparent picture of the organisation and its outlook to keep people focused and motivated toward a collective goal.

We know that great leaders are great listeners, but in order to listen well, you need to ask great questions first!
You could ask:
“If you could do one thing to improve safety, what would you do?”
“What did we do that kept folks safe here today?”
“What’s the thing most likely to cause serious harm around here?”

These questions really ask people to reflect deeply on what they do, and how it can impact their health and safety, and you’ll be amazed how much more information you’ll receive with slight shifts in asking questions. Create your own questions too, and remember to use “open” questions – those which start with either who, what, where, how, or why.

As the conversations grow, we all move forward into a brave new world: through adversity to the stars!

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; President of the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health; and chairman of the board of the Institute of Leadership and Management.
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