The world of work is constantly changing, never more so since the pandemic arrived. But one thing remains the same: people need to talk, listen and be heard. Communication has never been so important, writes Máiréad Ni Chiarba CMIOSH.
It is a core human need and an indicator of an organisation’s success. Management and workers who can communicate with each other in a transparent, positive and meaningful manner are valuable resources to any business – especially in the midst of a crisis.
As OSH professionals, we also rely on our strong communication skills to engage, encourage and reinforce the safety message to individuals and groups. Our ability to influence our audience effectively hinges on our skills in speaking, listening, encouraging and persuading. All of this is easier to accomplish with a smile on our face.
The power of a smile
With the ever-looming prospect of our expressions being concealed by a protective mask during our day-to-day activities, the loss of the smile will be one of the greatest tragedies in how we communicate. The human face is possibly the most expressive part of our body, and can convey countless emotions.
We use it practically every minute of the day to display how we are feeling – be it happiness, sadness, approval, anger and a whole host of other reactions. It can convey trust and put someone at ease. It can alert someone when we are annoyed and to stay away. It is part of our body language and body language accounts for far more of what people hear from us than the actual words we use. It is our most significant means of conveying a message without using words.
Striking up a conversation
OSH professionals are often tasked with addressing individuals and groups in a coaching or mentoring capacity to improve or change behaviour or to influence company policy and practice. Leading a conversation on safety often requires observing workers in what they do and how they do it, engaging with the person to praise or to improve, understanding the worker’s perspective by actively listening and reinforcing the positive behaviour we want to see more of. In order for this to go well, being able to see each other’s expressions is fundamental to a successful outcome.
On a recent safety observation walk on the production floor, I watched an experienced worker who was lifting heavy boxes of packed goods off a conveyor belt and placing them onto a pallet on the floor. This involved repeated lifting and bending movements and a risk of musculoskeletal injury. I knew the task could be made less risky if the height adjustable pallet truck that had been procured for this job was used. I decided to have a safety conversation.
Someone may not be able to see our smile, but they can still hear it in our voice
As I moved closer, I could tell from his body language (sloping shoulders, weary eyes) that he was probably having a tough day. I really wanted to convey a positive and helpful message and realised with dismay that as I smiled in his direction that he could not see it. My beam of light indicating ‘I’m here to help and I want this interaction to go well’ was hidden behind my face mask.
I anxiously tried to force as much meaning into my eyes and my tone of voice to convey warmth and understanding. I am sure the part of my face that was visible must have been strained and furrowed in this attempt. I was desperately trying to communicate positively while having my strongest communication tool rendered useless. The worker also had a face mask so I could not read his expression, nor could he read mine.
The conversation, although initially strained and difficult, progressed on to a more satisfactory state as I listened to the reasons why he was not using the height adjustable pallet truck; it was undergoing maintenance. We agreed a safer way to continue the work by engaging a second worker and using another pallet truck that was at a more suitable height.
I came away from the interaction feeling happier that a safer system was in place, but also slightly drained and exhausted from the experience of attentively listening and speaking while hampered by face coverings.
The importance of a smile can never be underestimated in our day to day interactions. We all respond well to smiles. Think of a baby’s smile or a young child’s smile. The effect is instantaneous and powerful on anyone who is showered by a sunny beam. The same applies to OSH professionals who are passionate about engaging and influencing workers.
Public health advice continues to wage war on when to mask and where to mask, and during this debate we must remember how our social cues for communication are being impacted by partially covering our faces. Ultimately protecting ourselves and our loved ones is our responsibility and our duty.
The good news is that some manufacturers of face masks have realised the communication impediments caused by traditional face masks, especially for those hard of hearing or those who rely on lip reading. A face mask with a transparent mouth covering is being marketed and may suit some wearers.
If this doesn’t appeal, something even more basic and effective which we all have control over is our tone of voice. Did you know that smiling when speaking can change your tone to a more warm and sunny pitch? Someone may not be able to see our smile, but they can still hear it in our voice. And that is important. A genuine heartwarming smile that comes from within travels through our vocal cords and makes our message more positive and productive.
We will need to draw on every opportunity to continue to practice communicating well with each other as the pandemic continues. OSH professionals with the awareness to recognise the potential communication barriers of masking up will have to be more diligent than ever that what they say comes across in a meaningful and encouraging manner – and importantly continues to reinforce and promote the safety message.
Máiréad Ni Chiarba CMIOSH is an experienced OSH professional with a specialist interest in safety culture and safe behaviours