As a health and safety manager I naturally care about our employees which aligns with our Beca value of care - and we do. If anyone gets hurt, it gets attention from our senior leaders and we try to go above and beyond to help that person; usually the injury is not work related, but regardless it affects our people and therefore us as a company.
In May I had the pleasure of listening to Dr Todd Conklin, US Human Performance Expert at the Business Leaders Health & Safety Forum, who had a more modern perspective on health and safety incidents. Where if someone does something wrong, you apply the Just Culture model so that there is a balance of accountability and, without blame to the individual alone for their behaviour, look at the organisational cause and design of the system that failed. At the same conference, Dennis Barnes, CE of Contact Energy quite rightly expressed that they also celebrate the successes of the number of months/years/a lifetime when that employee didn’t hurt themselves.
As many of us know, it's fine to apply the just culture and causal analysis to incident and system failures. Where I find myself confused is in the psychological health space.
How do you find the cause of a psychological incident when there are so many personal factors and the privacy of the individual involved?
From discussions with a number of clients, I’ve noticed an increase in the number of incidents where employees are struggling to cope psychologically. Difficult situations that people may have dealt with successfully years ago are now, in today’s busy society, having an adverse effect. The Ministry of Health NZ statistics tells us that 18% of adults in 2013/14 had a diagnosable mood and/or anxiety disorder. We are all rushing in our busy society - Dr Libby wrote a book on it! The rushing is causing our minds to run on overdrive and we are not judging our actions or the situations we are putting ourselves, or others into, as risky. More people are fatigued and because it’s a combination of so many things in individuals’ lifestyles, it’s difficult to manage from a health and safety perspective.
Is the increase in the number of incidents we are seeing because we are talking about it more?
With successful mental wellbeing campaigns led by Mike King and John Kirwan over the years, we are now seeing an increase in other campaigns. This year, New Zealand Rugby launched a website about mental health called Headfirst, DairyNZ launched their GoodYarn programme and even Prince Harry and Prince William have launched the Heads Together campaign in the UK which encourages people to speak up and get help. Of course talking about it is easier said than done as there is still so much stigma associated with psychological health. For a start the term is usually viewed negatively rather than positively.
I love how Japan, who has the highest suicide rate in the OECD and the highest overwork hours, has introduced ‘leave work early days’ where once a month, employees are encouraged to leave work at 3pm. Some companies in Singapore including our Beca office have followed suit, encouraging employees to leave work early and go home to be with family and/or friends for Eat with your Family Day. Governments are beginning to step in as we have seen in New Zealand’s recent budget announcement where $224 million is being injected into the mental health sector, and it is clearly needed.
So what should we do about these incidents? How do we investigate psychological health incidents when there is a lack of specific/individual cause (as it’s usually a result of multiple causes), while maintaining employee privacy? How do we go about controlling the risk of mental health that is becoming more prevalent in today’s busy society?
I don’t have all the answers. I know that investigating psychological health incidents are more complex than a physical injury; which most people seem to be more concerned with. It is easier to see a physical injury healing, therefore we can see if employees are going to be ok. However when it is psychological, we can’t see the healing as easily and we remain uncertain of the employees ability to cope at work in the short, medium and long term, regardless of how unfair that may seem.
How can we change that view? Health and safety is a continuous journey where you are always seeking improvements. We all need to get better at prevention. We need to get better at talking about pressure, stress, fatigue and mental health in general - positively or negatively. We need more companies to celebrate keeping their people and communities safe, physically and psychologically. What are you doing?