OSH is not always top of the boardroom agenda. We explore how you can influence business leaders’ commercial decisions to get them on board with positive health and safety from the outset.
Many health and safety professionals would agree they are often the poorer cousin when it comes to influencing senior business leaders. OSH can take a back seat to those of other seemingly more tangible business units such as operations, marketing or finance. But there’s plenty of evidence to show that a positive health and safety culture is just as good for business as a high-profile advertising campaign or new piece of software. So how can professionals persuade decision-makers that investing in health and safety is best for the bottom line?
A study by the International Social Security Association, which interviewed employees from 337 companies across 19 countries, found that for every euro invested in OSH, they would see a return of €2.20 (£1.90) (EcoOnline, 2020). A safe working environment contributes not only to better mental and physical wellbeing, but higher productivity and fewer days lost due to sickness and injury, less absenteeism and presenteeism, and lower staff turnover.
Aside from the obvious financial implications, there are much more nuanced impacts of poor OSH, as Angela Gray, senior OSH specialist at IOSH explains. ‘Boards have an obligation to make sure they’re acting on behalf of the shareholders to invest money that drives profitability. But, over the past 10 years, there has been a greater level of expectation on them not just to get the return on investment, but to do it in the right way.
‘There’s a reputational risk if members don’t take a holistic view that gives back to the wider community, and a huge part of that is their employees. Employees are much savvier these days about what good looks like in the workplace, with more focus on mental health and wellbeing. They want to work for an employer that has the same values as them.’
This focus on having a social licence to operate – as outlined in IOSH’s Catch the Wave sustainability campaign – shows OSH professionals’ role is much more than that of a health and safety policeman, says Angela. ‘It’s much more about how they support, advise and motivate leadership to do the right thing with the right impacts. OSH professionals are more valued for their intrinsic skills and knowledge that can be applied to multiple parts of the business, from creating a positive working environment to sourcing the right equipment that’s safe for your workers to operate.’
Bridging the gap
Kevin Robins CMIOSH, chief operating officer at Havio, an OSH consultancy for construction and the built environment, agrees that collaboration is vital if they are to convince decision-makers of the importance of investing in health and safety. ‘The C-suite will always have a commercial perspective, and we’re coming at it from a compliance and health and safety angle,’ he says. ‘It’s our job to bridge that knowledge gap by understanding the health and safety issues in the business and providing real solutions, and, importantly, linking those with the financial benefits.’
This involves working with all levels of the organisation to make everyone feel part of the process. ‘If you create a collaborative environment with the people at the coalface where the real-life problems occur, that’s where you’ll find the solutions. In OSH you have to be a good listener, but you also have to ask the right questions.’
The next step, Kevin explains, is to present the findings to the board in a way that they understand and identify with. ‘You have to adapt your response and delivery to your audience. What works on-site doesn’t work in the boardroom. So do a root-cause analysis and then provide real data and statistics off the back of that to explain that you’ll see absenteeism go down, behaviours improve, people become happier going to work, and then you get higher productivity and positive interactions.’
Speaking the right language
A step-by-step guide to successfully influencing business leaders
- Have clear objectives Figure out the problem you are trying to solve and be clear about your proposed intervention.
- Know your business Understand the strategic priorities of the business and link your proposals to them and the wider organisation. Health and safety needs to be integrated.
- Choose your moment Timing is everything. Approach your target when there is appetite and budget for them to be able to react positively.
- Communicate clearly Be articulate and present a solid argument in a calm and reasonable way. Presentations should be succinct, on-message and backed with evidence.
- Collaborate Build trusted relationships with the leadership team. This means being able to have open and honest conversations and working closely with leaders to provide advice and support.
- Use the right words Be adaptable and flexible in what you say and how you say it to fit the needs and wants of the person you are speaking to.
- Think commercially Learn how to write a solid business case that includes a cost/benefit analysis outlining the direct and indirect costs of health and safety challenges – and how you will solve them.
- Consider culture Every organisation is different, with varying levels of safety maturity. Different influencing tactics will work depending on how proactive businesses are.
• Many of the skills required to be an effective OSH influencer, such as stakeholder management and building effective relationships, form part of IOSH’s competency framework.
Find out more at iosh.com/my-iosh/competency-framework
Show business acumen
This tactic of using statistical evidence and research – known as rational persuasion – was found to be the most effective among OSH professionals. Dr Cassie Madigan, a senior lecturer in occupational health and safety science at the University of Queensland, conducted surveys and interviews with safety and non-safety professionals in Australia and the UK to find out the best way to influence leaders.
She says: ‘Influencing is such an important skill for health and safety professionals – it’s 99% of our job. Most decisions that impact health and safety are made by other people in the organisation. But we can use our interpersonal skills and systems approach to safety to create conditions where we can influence decision-making and change the shape of risk.
‘Rational persuasion was the most effective. Having the ability to write a good business case, including a cost/benefit analysis, is vital, so you must understand what is important to the organisation. Safety is just one driver of several, including financial, political, legal or reputational, and you need to address all of those.’
Know your audience
The second most effective tactic highlighted in Cassie’s research was ‘inspirational appeal’, where professionals try to engage the person’s values and beliefs. She explains: ‘That means we have to think about whom we’re trying to influence, get into their shoes and find out what assumptions they are making.’
Stuart Haysman, of Haysman Consulting, agrees that knowing and understanding your audience is key to getting them on board. ‘If you only get to present to the board for five minutes once a month, you need to understand what’s driving them as individuals. What are their roles and what are they interested in? You have to understand that in a senior management team group, each person has a different goal – so your approach should change depending on whom you’re talking to.
‘Then give them something memorable that helps to convince them of your case. If you’re talking to a finance director, use real figures and so on. Also, plan your timing carefully: if the company is making a loss, are they going to want to spend £20,000 on a mental health campaign?’
So what doesn’t work? Reading business leaders the riot act on legislation. ‘Don’t just use the law as a stick, because it just turns people off,’ says Angela. ‘They know about compliance and the danger of prosecutions. Instead you should be reflecting it back to them in a positive light and talk about the benefits of good OSH to the business.’
Cassie’s research backs this up. ‘The “legitimating tactic” – referring to rules, policies and legislation to influence decision-makers – was found to be the least effective. Compliance only gets you so far. What you want is commitment. If you’re telling someone to do something, it takes away their autonomy and people don’t like that.
‘OSH professionals can sometimes focus too much on the negative, when we should understand there can be an upside to risk. ISO 31000 [on risk management] includes the consideration of opportunity risks, so we need to balance grasping those opportunities and managing those risks.’
By doing away with the traditional view of health and safety as a barrier to innovation and profit, professionals can create an open dialogue with those who hold the purse strings and give OSH a permanent seat at the boardroom table.
‘Make it clear that we’re not here to bash you down,’ says Kevin. ‘You can break down barriers by asking the right questions and being responsive to your audience to really understand what motivates them. That’s credit in the bank.’
Case Study: Influence in action
Kevin Robins was working as health, safety, quality and environment director at a building contractor growing at an exponential rate.
‘The workforce grew from around 80 site workers to 200 to satisfy new projects. There had to be an effective roll-out of new safety processes, awareness campaigns, trends analysis and more proactive monitoring to ensure new standards were implemented and upheld.’
‘To solidify support from the senior leadership team [SLT] I put forward my plan as a business case, which included benefits that could be realised. I reinforced the idea by inviting another member of the SLT to a site to show how their presence and being seen to walk and talk the initiative would captivate the workforce – it did.’
The business introduced a:
- New near-miss reporting plan
- More collaborative site and management team-working dynamic to allow everyone to freely challenge each other in a supportive environment.
By the end of the next full year the accident frequency rate halved.
EcoOnline. (2020) Economic benefits of health and safety management. (accessed 31 October 2022).
EU-OSHA. (2022) Good OSH is good for business. (accessed 1 November 2022).
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