Hold on to pandemic insights

Image: Gerd Altmann, Pixabay

It seems possible to hope now that the worst effects of the Coronavirus pandemic are past in many countries. The virus will continue to spread through populations and there will be peaks of infection as new variants appear, but in those states with advanced vaccination programmes hospitalisation rates should be contained.

In these parts of the world businesses are cautiously reopening premises and welcoming employees back – for some of the working week at least – from furlough or extended homeworking.

The One Percent Safer book that launched our movement was written during the first of the pandemic “lockdowns” in Spring 2020 and it is not surprising that the pandemic and what we could learn from it about health and safety management preoccupied some of the contributors.

Tristan Casey, lecturer at Griffith University’s Safety Science Innovation Lab in eastern Australia talks about the uncertainty that was already a characteristic of business in a world affected by technological advances, globalisation and climate change but was supercharged by the pandemic. Uncertainty, he says, is “more likely than not to be a defining feature of our future.”

As Tristan observes, safety management usually involves limiting uncertainty, but trying to do so in a time of heightened risk like the present can pose hefty restrictions on employees, suppliers and contractors and sometimes introducing draconian rules to protect employees’ health. Where possible, he says, it is best to try to build the capacity to deal with uncertainty, riding the waves and being adaptable in our responses.

It’s a prescription not just for COVID-19 response, but for managing any business discipline in a volatile and unpredictable world.

Judith Hackitt, former Chair of the UK safety regulator, notes that during the pandemic colleagues and friends started ending emails and other messages with the exhortation: “stay safe”.

“If we want the world of work to be safer we need to continue to show that level of caring and go even further,” argues Judith, suggesting that enquiring about others’ health as more than a polite aside should become a habit, as should listening closely to their answers. “If we all look out for and look after the people we work with, we will create a caring and safe culture,” she concludes.

It’s a point echoed by motivational speaker Jason Anker in his contribution. No one is too important in an organisation to ask colleagues how they are, says Jason. “Ask workers how they are doing, sincerely, and take an interest in their replies,” he says. “Whilst the notion of ‘social distancing’ was meant to keep us apart physically, it has actually given us the chance to start communicating more.”

Phil James, CEO of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health also emphasises the prompt coronavirus has provided to remember we are not isolated individuals but connected to each other, “sometimes in puzzling, invisible ways”. Phil argues that the connections should prompt leaders to “approach leadership relationally, not rationally”, accepting that they are not always in charge, engaging in honest conversations, “spending the extra five minutes to find out what’s on someone’s mind – and sharing what’s on yours.”

The power of engagement in meaningful conversations with colleagues was a theme of the community session at our One Percent Safer: Live & Direct virtual summit in April 2021, where safety practitioners such as Delwynne Cuttilan, Head of Compliance at the UK’s Transport Research Laboratory talked about prioritising mental health by asking one or two colleagues “How are you?” every day and making time for real conversations. Delwynne said the personal touch had a real impact: “I’ve seen ripples going out through the organisation. Some of the team leads I’ve spoken to are asking their teams ‘how are you today?’”

In the drive to catch up with lost productivity that is likely to come with reopening it is important to try and hold on to the insights into ways to be better colleagues and leaders that the enforced slowdown gave us time to gain. One Percent Safer has 137 such perspectives from leading thinkers and safety practitioners and is a must-read for anyone committed to safety and health management excellence.

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