Emotional resilience – making health and safety personal

‘All My Sons’ is a play by Arthur Miller. I never see it without thinking of a comment made by a participant on one of our reenactment workshops. He’d been involved in an incident which though serious could have been much more so. Now, before putting anyone to work, he asks himself, ‘would I put my son to work in this situation?’ Safety had become deeply personal to him.

Everyone is someone’s son or daughter

His comment wasn’t intended to exclude women, he just didn’t have a daughter. But what had been brought very clearly into focus for him was he’d been complacent, and it was only luck that stopped serious harm happening to a colleague. He was courageous enough to admit it, and recognise that everyone is someone’s son or daughter. Therefore, they were precious and he needed to take more care.

That universal idea is the central theme of the play , which is as good an analysis of the causes and devastating consequences of a protection v. production decision as any event report or case study I’ve come across. It’s also about human weakness and the need for personal qualities, like courage and resilience, under pressure.

‘Knowing’ and knowing

The ability to catastrophise is an important skill for the safety practitioner. Part of the role is anticipating what can go wrong, and mitigating risk because, as Murphy’s Law says, if things can go wrong they will. But there are two different types of knowing that things can go wrong:

  1. One is the intellectual knowledge, based on training, rationality, laws of probability, physical properties, situational conditions, and endless induction presentations, that mistakes happen and so may happen to you.
  2. The other is ‘lived experience’, the very personal, visceral knowledge you gain through actually being involved in an incident. This cuts through the psychological defence of ‘it would never happen to me’ – it has. The knowledge that the world can turn from comfortable predictability to chaos without warning is something that can’t be learned through powerpoint or toolbox talks. And it has a profound effect.

Those people to whom nothing has ever happened and who do not have the ‘lived experience’ cannot, by definition, have the second type of knowledge. That’s not a failing, it’s a fact. Sometimes the issue for those people to whom something has happened, particularly if there is any kind of post-traumatic impact, can be hypervigilance – seeing danger in everything. That can be paralysing, and as unhelpful as denial. A middle way seems best to me – vigilance but without the hyper. Recognising the risks and mitigating them while still functioning as effectively as possible.

Safety – deeply personal

I’ve been involved in a very significant incident in the workplace, where the unimaginable happened with life-changing consequences. I’ve seen and experienced personally the impact that a significant incident can have on someone’s mental and physical health.

In a previous life I was a police officer. On a shift by shift basis I dealt with others’ life changing  events, which had both accidental and intentional causes. The impact on the perpetrator could be as intense as the impact on the victim. Later, as a trainee psychotherapist I worked with people coming to terms with the effects of similar kinds of incidents and events on their lives. There’s no solution – these events are part of living. But we can still do a lot to prevent them, which begins with taking responsibility for our actions.

Case study – Mark Sykes, Beehive Director says:

“While suicide obviously effects all genders, I know personally how hard it is to be a man and talk about feelings when something bad has happened. Not having anyone to talk to about how you feel reduces your emotional resilience. I have two sons who, while being apparently happy and stable, are at a very vulnerable age when it comes to emotional well-being and risk of suicide. The statistics are frightening. It really brings it close to home.

A participant on our D2iP b.SAFE Safety Leadership programme shared that through the coaching skills that he’d learned on the programme he had almost certainly prevented someone from taking their own life. We can never be sure of course, but I know that had I had the skills, knowledge and awareness I have now in my 20s and 30s I would have made very different decisions.

Beehive’s mission is to reduce error and accidents at work by taking a different approach to safety education and safety culture. We see emotional resilience and suicide awareness as being directly related to keeping people safe at work, because improving well-being and mental health reduces error pre-cursors.”

The Beehive approach – building emotional resilience

It’s no surprise therefore that the focus of Beehive is working to develop the kind of individual and organisational mindset, skills and tools that will help to avoid such incidents, increase accountability and keep people safe. To summarise what we seek to develop:

Mindset

Awareness that Interdependency is not a safety culture, it’s the human condition. We need, are impacted on, and impact on others whether we recognise it or like it or not. Therefore, we need to shift our mindset to recognise this fact, and start learning the interpersonal and communication skills that will help us to work with the people around us. That’s the only way we can hope to minimise harm and keep ourselves and each other safe.

Skills

We need the skills that enable us to work with each other most effectively. Assertive communication, listening, compassion, constructive feedback, leadership, team building, performance management, collaborative problem solving, and building trust and relationships, are some of the most important skills for any site or organisation to function effectively. When I talk to people about this I have never heard anyone disagree. Yet, in my experience, there are few organisations putting serious money into investing in the personal mastery of these skills. But these are what will facilitate the next step change in safety, which is cultural.

Tools

Tools such as coaching and  mentoring models, action and experiential learning models, developing and sharing best practice models, collaborative problem solving and human performance approaches are essential tools. Any tool that help someone to recognise the systemic nature of human interaction, promote understanding, improve communication and build trust and resilience, supports this process. But any tool is reliant on the mindset and skills of the people using them. Take a look at my past blog https://bsafebuzz.com/2017/08/10/what-can-we-learn-about-behavioural-safety-from-americas-love-of-firearms/ to find out why.

Safeguarding – an essential part of QHSE

I’m not suggesting that all we need to keep people safe is a group hug. I am saying that part of QHSE has to be safeguarding our colleagues in more ways than the purely physical or the purely compliant. For Mark and me this stuff is not just business, it’s personal. And to make the next step change in safety this is the direction we need to go in – we need to make it personal.

New Emotional Resilience and Suicide Awareness Workshops

Beehive is now licensed by 4Mental Health to deliver their Emotional Resilience Workshop, and Suicide Awareness Workshop. These have been designed on evidence-based principles by Dr Alys Cole-King, a psychiatrist and pioneer of suicide mitigation. For more information about Dr Alys Cole-King’s contributions to suicide mitigation take a look at The Lancet. For more information about these workshops and the evidence base, please contact mark@beecld.co.uk

For more information about the b.SAFE D2iP Safety Leadership Programme contact Mark Sykes on mark@beecld.co.uk or go to https://beecld.co.uk/b-SAFE-D2iP-Safety-Leadership-Programme

Author: bsafebuzz

Sara Lodge is co-director, along with Mark Sykes, of Beehive Coaching and Leadership Development Ltd and b.SAFE Safety Culture, an organisational development consultancy specialising in behaviour change and safety culture.

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