Beyond safety differently

Safety differently and initiatives to promote wellbeing could complement each other. They appear to be based on similar principles and, with a clear understanding of these, practitioners may be able to create more successful interventions.

Photo credit: Nick Bell
A shadow board which shows how employees can access the tools and materials they need as and when they need them (although there is still scope for improvements).

Safety differently is based on the idea that workers constantly use their experience and judgement to manage the realities of work, such as design glitches and poor organisation. Sidney Dekker, founder of this approach, is critical of initiatives based on zero-harm which might inadvertently increase risk by tightly controlling behaviour and preventing people using their discretion and knowledge to deal with small problems that can escalate into something more catastrophic. 

Managing health and safety, Dekker suggests, relies on understanding and providing the resources that workers need to do their work. In other words, concentrate on making things go right rather than obsess about failure. If we understand what gets in the way of people having a good day in work, we can ensure that they have access to the right tools and materials when and where they need them. People can work more efficiently, are less likely to encounter problems and have the resources to deal with any glitches that still arise. Safety differently could be seen as a heightened form of worker involvement but takes the safety profession beyond its traditional role of preventing harm into something more like performance coaching.

Despite Dekker’s criticism of behavioural safety, behavioural approaches are at least based on a clear psychological principle: animals behave in particular ways due to anticipation of particular outcomes. Applying this principle to health and safety, we can change or reinforce behaviour if people come to anticipate that a desired action reliably leads to a valued outcome or avoids something undesirable happening. Monitoring, goal setting, feedback and rewards (such as praise) all have parts to play. Over time, behaviours become habitual, such as instinctively putting on a seat belt when we enter a car.

In the past couple of years, there has been a marked increase in health and safety articles, conference talks and awards around issues of mental health and wellbeing. There have been similar developments in the fields of human resources and occupational psychology. It is probably no accident that the health and safety profession has taken up the wellbeing baton alongside the development of safety differently: they appear to be founded on similar theories and values. Much as a clear psychological principle gives clarity and direction to behavioural safety (whatever you think of that principle), if practitioners understand what makes wellbeing or safety differently tick, they can create more effective initiatives.

The job demands-resources model (J D-R) is a useful starting point. This proposes that workers invest resources to deal with demands in work. With insufficient resources they can eventually suffer ill health, whereas with adequate resources they can become engaged in work (feel positive and motivated) and experience higher levels of wellbeing.

By resources, J D-R entails more than tools and materials. Workers need emotional, mental, social and physical resources. If workers have good relationships in work, they are more likely to have positive feelings about their team and the workplace and can invest that emotional resource in work performance, say by being more caring when dealing with customers. The worker’s team could also be a resource: a pool of knowledge and practical help that the worker can dip into. Similarly, if a worker enjoys their tasks (finding them stimulating or rewarding) they will be more focused and attentive as they develop and apply mental resources. The UK Health and Safety Executive’s stress management standards are a good introduction to some of these ideas.

Safety differently implicitly relies on worker wellbeing. Workers need to pay attention to their work and surrounding environment so that they can notice that conditions are not as expected. They also have to care that there’s an emerging problem and work out how to deal with it. To get the safety differently ball rolling, we need to have discussions with workers to understand work and the workplace from their perspective. If workers are wrapped up with worries, grievances, fatigue and boredom they will have limited energy or motivation to invest that energy in work. If we want to promote and get the best out of different approaches to safety, we therefore also need to focus on worker wellbeing.

As the J D-R model suggests, wellbeing relies on more than cycle-to-work schemes or a bowl of fruit (although these could have parts to play). Instead, wellbeing revolves around helping workers to meet a range of needs. As US business management guru Frederick Herzberg pointed out in the 1950s and 1960s, we have basic needs for a sense of security, fairness and reasonable working conditions. Some of these can be met by complying with health and safety and employment legislation. However, they rely on managers having rudimentary skills such as making and explaining decisions so workers understand expectations and do not feel like they are being treated unfairly or unreasonably.

Herzberg and subsequent authors and theories have discussed what workers need beyond these basic foundations. There is Albert Bandura and his social-cognitive theory, Deci and Ryan’s self-determination theory, Carol Ryff’s model of psychological wellbeing, Martin Seligman and the positive psychology movement and so on. They tell a similar story. Humans want to feel a sense of relatedness (connection to others), to feel that they have purpose and meaning, to feel in control (or to have “autonomy”), to be challenged and absorbed in tasks, to feel competent and that they are developing, and to be valued and have high self-esteem. Meeting these needs, and thereby enhancing wellbeing, again goes beyond the traditional role of preventing harm.

Different people and groups place different value on different needs. For example, Seligman points out that autonomy is not universally desired because it introduces personal responsibility. Some people may not mind, or may find satisfaction in, the flow of repetitive work, which someone else considers tedious. Even if people do not expect work to help to meet these deeper needs, they could be upset if it unreasonably interferes with their ability to meet these needs outside work.

Wellbeing relies on leaders who have the skills, knowledge, flexibility and motivation to recognise and respond to individual needs and, by extension, not seek to treat everyone the same (regardless of how superficially “fair” this may seem).

Safety differently can directly help workers to meet some of their higher psychological needs. If, for example, we have adult-to-adult conversations with workers to boost performance, they might feel absorbed in their work, more capable and valued, resulting in greater self-esteem. Workers may develop a greater sense of control over their work and workplace (which we could describe as “ownership”).

It seems logical that new approaches to managing safety and a focus on wellbeing have evolved at the same time. Both responses centre on recognising and responding to the needs and capabilities of individuals. They rely on leaders with the skills and motivation to adopt a more empowering role and let go of traditional views of management (including beliefs that managers must be in control and have all the answers). Finally, they go beyond simply preventing harm to achieving the best results for individuals and the organisation.


Dr Nick Bell is founder of Nick Bell Risk Consultancy

Dr Nick Bell is founder of Nick Bell Risk Consultancy

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