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For want of a nail

How can organisations and health and safety professionals meet workers’ requirements and expectations in line with ISO 45001? 

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As management guru Frederick Herzberg pointed out in the 1960s, we have some very simple needs in work. But sometimes organisations get the basics wrong. At a large manufacturing site, we heard that last year employees had repeatedly reported that the heating in their work areas had broken down.

A year later it is still not working. At that site and in a call centre, workers told us that information was not passed on or it was deliberately withheld. This included details of where they would be operating the next day, new work instructions (leading to penalties as a result of workers’ unwitting non-conformance) or updates about organisational changes (including the possibility of the site closing). Another account came from a worker whose employer had declined requests for a temporary change to his hours to allow him to care for his elderly, terminally ill parents. 

Without such basic foundations (one might say simple humanity) in place, workers can feel physically or psychologically unsafe. One said: “I used to think they’d take care of us through thick and thin, but I don’t quite feel that way now.” They may believe that the organisation and managers are unjust, untrustworthy and ignore their side of the employment contract. In these conditions, most workers will lack the energy or motivation to do anything more than the bare minimum to get through the day.

 

To make ISO 45001 work, health and safety professionals must step outside traditional boundaries and take a holistic view of the organisation, managers and the workers

 

The manufacturing company’s claims that ‘health and safety come first’ was challenged by a worker who said they lacked sufficient light in which to work safely because time and money was not being spent on changing broken bulbs. This perceived insincerity will only erode trust further.

At worst, when workers’ needs are persistently frustrated, they may (according to the job demands-resources model) burn out: they will lack the emotional, mental and physical resources to cope with demands arising inside or outside work. They could leave or actively undermine managers or safety initiatives. Having said that, the call centre workers revealed that, despite their general dissatisfaction, they still made extra contributions such as attending health and safety committees because they were opportunities for meeting their needs, including gaining information.

To get the ISO 45001 ball rolling, we need to assess whether working conditions, plant and equipment are functional and meet basic standards of decency and compliance. Do managers pass on critical information in a useful format and ensure workers understand their goals, are able to achieve them and know how they are performing? These are the positive aspects of transactional management, a concept developed by James McGregor Burns in 1978 and expanded upon by Bernard Bass in the mid-1980s.

Assessing general management capabilities is not normally the province of health and safety practitioners. To make ISO 45001 work, health and safety professionals must step outside traditional boundaries and take a holistic view of the organisation, managers and the workers.

What do workers want and need beyond these basic foundations? To gain some insights, try reflecting on your own motivations. What attracted you to or keeps you in a career in health and safety? Perhaps it is the opportunity to make a positive difference, the chance to work constructively with a range of people and opportunities to learn and apply new knowledge. There may be different elements of your work that you particularly enjoy, such as coaching or tackling complex problems. Of course, some aspects of our work may be uncomfortable, frustrating or upsetting. We are individuals, so we will be enthused or dispirited by different features of our work and that may change as we gain experience.

A manager could tease this out with questions such as: When do you feel most enthusiastic at work? What gets in the way of having a great day at work? Describe what a good day in work looks like for you. They could even ask a miracle question, as recently proposed by the director of Securus Health and Safety, Michael Emery: if I could wave a magic wand and work was now ideal, what would you be seeing, hearing or doing?

This manager could also ask how you now see your or your team’s role, how it supports wider organisational goals and how we could best use your talents to achieve desired objectives.

These questions are aligned with the approach that Burns called transformational leadership and gives the manager insights into whether and how workers’ higher psychological needs are being met. As well as absence of negatives, these include having a sense of purpose, autonomy (or control), feeling connected to others, having a sense of challenge or stimulation and competence, which all support us in achieving a sense of self-worth and can help to protect mental health. Meeting these needs will enhance our wellbeing.

The HSE’s stress management standards provide a starting point for these conversations: what demands do you face and how well equipped are you to manage them? How much control do you have over your work?

Even if workers do not expect or want work to meet higher psychological needs, it can be helpful to explore work-life balance to understand whether the tasks and duties are frustrating their efforts to meet these needs outside the workplace. To do this effectively, managers must understand their workers’ hobbies and family commitments, for example. However, without first putting in place the basic foundations and a trusting relationship, it is unlikely we would enthusiastically engage in these discussions.

Armed with these insights, managers and workers can collaborate to tweak roles or create opportunities to better serve individual and organisational needs.

If an employee does fall ill due to work-related stress, the return-to-work process could be a positive experience that investigates and addresses the causes, for example reducing workloads or other demands and also looks at how we might meet their needs and bolster their resources and resilience.

Therefore, ISO 45001 may lead to questions about how managers are selected and trained and the extent to which they have the time, flexibility and confidence to treat workers as individuals.

A command-and-control approach to health and safety does little to serve employees’ higher psychological needs. At the manufacturing site, workers railed against health and safety bureaucracy that seemed to serve little purpose other than ‘covering the back’ of the organisation, and implied a lack of trust in the capabilities of the workers.

This may help to explain our intuitive understanding that the more we impose controls, the less engaged workers are with us and these constraints, leading to even more layers of monitoring and enforcement and a downward spiral. A recent academic study concluded that ‘simply overlaying official safety processes on top of poor workplace relationships is unlikely to be successful’.

Instead, equipping managers to understand and respond to individual needs is the foundation of a virtuous circle in which workers are more able and motivated to perform at their best. The health and safety profession could help to lead that transformation.

 

 

Dr Nick Bell is founder of Nick Bell Risk Consultancy

Dr Nick Bell is founder of Nick Bell Risk Consultancy

Franziska Homann is a consultant and PhD researcher at Cardiff Met University.

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