At first glance, one might be forgiven for thinking that the book under review here is keen to take advantage of the currently fashionable language of wellbeing and its attendants. Its short-hand title, People Power, employs a degree of optimism and aspiration that might be interpreted, by some at least, as being somewhat lofty. The acknowledgement of the global pandemic in the front matter also locates the book in a precise moment in time, when people are particularly sensitive to both their contribution and their vulnerability at work.
But it would be premature to conclude that People Power is an opportunistic book, not least because the author, Karen J. Hewitt, doesn’t dive headlong into the subject matter without first considering the foundation stones needed to support the reader’s journey through it. And the foundations she lays out are familiar to even the inexperienced.
The author has pedigree in this corner where OSH, wellbeing, and engagement are intertwined. Hewitt’s first book, Employee Confidence: The New Rules of Engagement (2018), explores the idea that the empowerment of workers could ultimately lead to a workforce of leaders who take ownership of safety, health and wellbeing (OSH). Her professional efforts in the field, meanwhile, led to her being shortlisted for the SHP’s Most Influential Individual award 2021 (an award that ultimately went to Dr Mavis Nye).
True to form, People Power is less a safety and health text extending out into the broader arena of business literature than it is a dialogue between the two. And while it does draw widely from business literature – citing, for example, Pink’s Theory of Motivation, Covey’s seven habits of highly effective people, and Kotter’s eight-step change model – the author regularly brings the reader back to the book’s core message:
'Looking after our employees on a day-to-day basis is admirable but now it is time for a long-term approach. The only way to do this is for health and safety to become our entire people strategy. [It] is something that impacts everyone, and it therefore needs to be owned by everyone.'
Hewitt’s three-step structure – build, buzz, bake – feels a more pragmatic approach to wellbeing and worker engagement than one that plays down, or even overlooks, the fact that clear principles, a receptive environment, and a conducive culture are all needed for programmes to succeed.
Yes, the book suggests, there are vast reserves of untapped energy, creativity, and leadership within the global workforce, but one will not access these (or keep accessing them) without first building the structure to support it. 'If you build it, they will come', Hewitt has said elsewhere on this subject, citing Phil Alden Robinson’s 1989 film Field of Dreams.
What does it mean to 'build'? In essence, Hewitt’s model is rooted in the need to engage people, for it is their ongoing interest that will ultimately drive a successful OSH programme. 'For employers to feel empowered,' she writes, 'they need a cause.'
Thus follows the author’s step-by-step guidance on constructing the sort of architecture that makes this possible. Create a clear vision, she suggests. Make it ambitious enough to inspire people, long-term enough that it sustains interest over time, aim towards something desired rather than away from something undesired. And tap into the emotion of people.
Equally, what does it mean to 'bake'? For Hewitt, this is the phase after interest has been generated in an OSH programme, when it is essential that the initial enthusiasm is converted into behaviour change and not left to dwindle. She encourages the discovery of champions – not only in name but in mindset.
She discusses the need for OSH leadership training (and trainers) that equips workers with the requisite skills to take ownership and to feel empowered enough to speak up. She promotes the idea that OSH leadership can ultimately be the harbinger of broader collective action within an organisation: 'Once we teach people to speak up for health and safety, they are going to do the same for other important issues'.
One of the challenges of the sort of people-centred approaches that Hewitt advocates for is providing the conceptual and practical knowledge required to do it successfully. There is shared interest in this respect, with OSH practitioners, senior managers, HR professionals, communications experts, and workers themselves all part of the process.
As such, it is pleasing that the format of the book caters to the needs of these different audiences. Case studies provide useful insight throughout, while the inclusion of checklists and actions for different organisational stakeholders could prove to be an invaluable resource for some readers.
To an extent, People Power is very much a book that reflects its time; as its subtitle suggests, this really does feel like 'the era of safety and wellbeing'. In this respect, the author does a fine job of mapping out how the perceived momentousness of this historical milieu might play out in the real-life work environment.
And while the ultimate success of the book might depend on a readers’ willingness and ability to see 'people power' as something they truly understand enough to put into practice, the book should be commended for the original contribution it makes jointly to the literature on wellbeing, leadership, engagement and organisational change.
People Power: Transform your business in the era of safety and wellbeing by Karen J. Hewitt is published by Panoma Press.
This book was reviewed by IOSH magazine's book club review team
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