The new pandemic – burnout in the caring professions

(I first wrote this in June 2020. How much more relevant is it now.)

Do any of these apply to you?

  • Feeling more and more tired, physically and mentally, but sleep just doesn’t help?
  • A feeling of pointlessness to everything that you do, even the things you used to find meaning in?
  • An increasing sense of being cut off from yourself and other people?
  • Being less and less effective at doing what you’ve always done at home or at work?
  • Sudden feelings of rage or hopelessness?
  • A profound weariness of spirit affecting how you relate to your work, your family and the world around you?

If all of these do you may well be in danger of, or already suffering from, burnout. And if you’re in the caring professions you are more likely to be suffering or in danger of suffering from burnout, right now. That’s because those in health and care have always been more prone to burnout. Covid has made this a whole lot worse.

What is burnout?

It was psychologist Frederick Freudenburger who first referred to burnout as we currently use the term, in 1974. At first it was considered to be something that just happened in the caring professions, but that was soon found not to be the case. The World Health Organisation defines burnout as:

“A syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

The WHO goes on to say burnout is characterized by three dimensions:

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
  • reduced professional efficacy.

It’s more than being tired

The trouble with these definitions is they don’t tell the whole story. When you burnout, it isn’t just a matter of physical and mental exhaustion. Burnout isn’t the same as simply being tired, or being stressed, or working too long, or having an overly-demanding job and an unappreciative boss, though all these things can contribute. It’s not the same as depression, though depression may be involved, and it isn’t even necessarily to do with work. It isn’t Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, though if it’s ignored it can result in CFS/ME, and it isn’t simply a midlife crisis.

End of the road

The most accurate description of burnout I’ve come across is from Dr Dina Glouberman in the States who describes it as:

“the state of mind, body and spirit reached by those of us who have come to the end of a particular road but haven’t acknowledged this” (‘The Joy of Burnout,’ Dr Dina Glouberman, 2003)

I like this description because it includes not just physical or psychological causes and effects, but also the impact on the spirit or the soul. To those who have not burned out this may seem absurd. But if you have burned out you will recognise the profound weariness with life and living which goes beyond the normal everyday stresses.

What does burnout feel like?

I have suffered from burnout so I know how it feels, for me at least. When you are burned out, you have nothing left to give. Every bit of you feels used up, broken, empty. Very often it happens when you have suffered significant shock or trauma in some part of your life, and have simply not had, or not allowed yourself, the time it takes to recover. Sometimes, I genuinely believe, there are situations so extreme burnout is inevitable and even necessary – situations when the normal rules simply do not apply. It’s at these times when the vulnerabilities in your own self-esteem – the unhelpful self-talk or your unhealthy motives for working so much – can become a problem. For example, there are some of us who believe we don’t need to rest like others, or that we only have value if we’re caring for someone else, or have little self-compassion, so we ignore the signals our body gives that things are just not right. And if you keep on ignoring this it can take a long time to recover.

Why is it a problem now?

Burnout in the caring professions

The prevalence of burnout in healthcare and caring professions has been the focus of many studies over recent years; however, the pandemic has created the conditions for burnout to become not just more common, but almost an inevitably.

While we have been celebrating the NHS in all its glory, the internet is full of pictures of exhausted NHS workers, faces bruised from masks, describing their exhaustion and their desperate need for a rest.

Some in the NHS are choosing to live away from their own families in order to safeguard them, sacrificing their family life for their vocation. Workers in the care sectors are suffering similar problems, some choosing to live away from their families in order to care for the residents, or putting themselves and their residents in danger by working without correct PPE. All of this to deliver the life-saving and -enhancing care their residents and clients need.

Emotional labour and the emotion work of care

In particular, we have been reliant on our health and care providers to provide the last bits of comfort to those who are ill or dying away from their families, in isolation. Anyone who has sat at the bedside of a dying relative knows the emotional toll it takes. Our health and care workers have been doing that for us, on a daily basis, as well as watching patients, clients and residents they care about deteriorate due to the illness, or because they do not have the regular dose of love from their families that keeps them going. All this puts an enormous burden on them which goes beyond the merely physical.

To explain the importance of that I’m going to refer a concept that was developed in the 1980’s – that of emotional labour, or emotion work. Remember, in those far-off days when we were able to, go overseas on holiday? When you’re on the plane, or booking into the hotel, or visiting a restaurant, think about what kind of emotional response you expected to get from the air stewards, waiting staff and receptionists. Friendly, caring, helpful, calm, cheerful and confident perhaps? What about if the staff had had a bad day, or you were being awkward, or they were going through a divorce. Would you still expect them to present a positive face? I’d imagine yes, because that’s what they’re paid for. And that’s what emotional labour describes:

‘The attempt to change or manage …emotions in order to present those feelings that are deemed suitable to the situation, or suppress those deemed inappropriate’

‘Leadership as Emotional Labour: Management and the Managed Heart’, Dr Marian Iszatt-White

Which jobs involve emotional labour?

Jobs that involve:

  • Face to face or voice to voice contact with the public
  • The need to create a certain emotional state in the customer or client – ie helping them to feel cared for, valued, happy
  • The employer , through training and supervision, exercising control over the emotional activities

are jobs that involve higher levels of emotional labour. As you can see, the caring professions meet those criteria.

Physical labour tires the body, which then needs time to recover, heal and strengthen. Emotional labour can lead to ‘compassion fatigue’ where individuals simply do not have any more emotional energy to give to anything or anyone. It’s this that leads to the reducing effectiveness at work and home, and to a sense of hopelessness and lack of joy. And it’s this that ultimately breaks the spirit if not addressed soon enough.

How to avoid burnout

I burned out because I did not recognise or pay attention to the signals my body and mind were giving me that something was wrong. I carried on rather than stopping and taking care of myself. If, when your body and heart is saying stop, you still expect to do all the things you did before – working at the same rate, exercising at the same rate, travelling in the same way, doing all the same things – without acknowledging the emotional and physical toll being taken on you, you’re more in danger of burning out. So, my top tips to avoid burnout are:

  • Build your own emotional and physical resilience and your own well-being. Like training for a marathon, there are things that you can do to improve your emotional fitness.
  • Be aware of what burnout is, and the signs and symptoms – reading this blog will help with that. Also go to our website to find out more. This means recognising your own personal stress signals, and addressing them as soon as possible.
  • Pay attention to the signals your body is giving you – the list at the beginning of the blog is a helpful checklist.
  • Take it and your health seriously. Understand that you can’t care for others if you’re not well. If you don’t, it can lead to significant physical and mental health issues.

The Joy of Burnout

Be aware that burnout is not all bad, and this is important. It can also be a gateway to a new way of life, with increased awareness and joy. After the ‘dark night of the soul’ comes a new morning. This is the message from Dina Glouberman, who has written about the transformational opportunities that burnout presents. If you feel that you may be burning out or in danger of it, go to This book gives a whole new perspective on the hope that can come through burn out.

For more information about the different stages of the process of burnout as outlined by Freudenburg, and to find out about Beehive’s Emotional Resilience training, and Suicide Awareness training, please go to our website You’ll also find details of our well-being programme ‘b.WELL with Beehive’.

What’s your experience of burnout? How have you dealt with it? Please feel free to comment and share, I’d love to know.

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:


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.


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 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 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

For more information about the b.SAFE D2iP Safety Leadership Programme contact Mark Sykes on or go to

Suicide watch – why mental health matters both to business and safety

You may expect the answer to the question, ‘what’s the biggest killer of men under 5o’, to be an accident or cancer. But the shocking answer is – themselves. Suicide is the leading cause of death for men under 50, and particularly between 40 and 44 yrs. It’s also the leading cause of death for all genders between 24 and 30, but the male statistic is particularly poignant. And the reason?

“One reason that men are more likely to complete suicide may be because they are less likely than women to ask for help or talk about depressive or suicidal feelings.3 ”  Recent statistics show that only 27% of people who died by suicide between 2005 and 2015 had been in contact with mental health services in the year before they died.4

It’s a sobering thought and perhaps particularly worth reflecting on for male-dominated industries where the culture may be especially, for the want of a better word, ‘macho’. In the same way that any discussion of safety needs to include psychological safety, the health in HSE needs to include mental health too.

Mental Health Awareness Week

It’s Mental Health Awareness Week and all media is bursting with valuable information about the importance of good mental health to quality of life and well-being. But good mental health is also an important part of organisational safeguarding of employees . The good news for organisations is it’s good for business. The New Economics Foundation (NEF) identifies two elements to well-being. These are ‘feeling good and functioning well’. It’s not rocket science that if your staff feel good and function well they’re going to be more productive.

Good mental health contributes to safety

But well-being and good mental health are also crucial to reducing risk and errors. As an experiment try this. Take a look at the two lists below. Do you recognise either of them? Can you see any relationship between the two?

wellbeing v error trap without headings

List One comprises the factors that impact most positively on workplace well-being, based on NEF’s 2014 literature review List Two comprises the Dirty Dozen Error Traps, a list of the preconditions that most contribute to errors and accidents taken from human factors literature. Can you see a relationship between the two lists?

High levels of well-being reduce error pre-cursors

The more there is of list one, the less there will be of list two, for example:

  • If someone is in good health, mental and physical, and has a healthy work/life balance, the error trap of fatigue is likely to be reduced.
  • If role expectations are realistic and a person has more control over their work the error traps of time pressure and resource allocation, for example, may well be reduced. And their mental health is also likely to be better
  • Certain management styles – particularly a coaching style which is both engaging and collaborative – are conducive to good teamwork, good communications, high morale and positive social norms. All of which contribute to good mental health and well being
  • Development opportunities can not just reduce complacency, but also lack of knowledge or lack of assertiveness (but only if it is the right kind of development). This can also reduce stress, and improve mental health and well being.
  • And fairness and job security make a big contribution to stress reduction, and therefore improves well-being and mental health.

But how do you improve the mental health of your workforce?

1. Improve the culture

Improving the culture of your organisation – in I I give a snapshot of what organisational culture is all about. It takes time to change, but one way of doing so is through training such as

2. Training*

Ensuring there are trained mental health first aiders in the organisation – an informal resource of colleagues rather than relying for initial contact on formal or external resources – might improve the chances of someone opening up about issues.

3. Raise awareness*

Raising people’s awareness of mental health as an issue and establishing mental health champions in the business can normalise talking about it. This week has been so important in this.

4. Change the management style in the organisation**

Certain management styles and activities are more conducive to the well-being of workers than others. Coaching in particular, because it involves good communication skills like listening and asking open questions, is particularly powerful in improving morale and well-being

5. Get more women in leadership positions!**

Women are more likely to display transformational leadership skills than men, who are more associated with a transactional leadership aproach. Nurturing female talent in areas other than HR, learning and development and HSE can help to change the culture in organisations and on site.

6. Change how we define health and safety

Take a look at these two definitions of safety:

  1. ‘The condition of being protected against physical, social, spiritual, financial, political, emotional, occupational, psychological, educational or other types or consequences of failure, damage, error, accidents, harm or any other event which could be considered non-desirable.’
  2. ‘The control of recognised hazards to achieve an acceptable level of risk.’

The first definition is a wide and all-encompassing definition of safety. It includes protection against a range of hazards and risks, not just physical, and includes the well-being factors in list one.

The second I would argue is more aligned to how health and safety is often perceived and practised – focused more on physical health, hazards and risks than on any other kind. The result can be a focus on reducing risk through compliance, regulation, process and physical defences. This has the potential to miss the wider factors that impact on accidents and errors such as improving workplace well-being and mental health of workers.

A change in attitude is needed

Of course, compliance, regulation, process and physical defences are vital and have resulted in the massive reductions in accidents seen over the last few decades. But they are not the whole story. The next step change in reducing error and accidents requires recognition that:

  • low workplace well-being and poor mental health are error preconditions and therefore require measurement and action
  • low workplace well-being is a cultural factor and improving it requires systemic change 
  • spending money on improving workplace well-being and on measures to support good mental health in the workforce makes good business sense

Share with us your experiences and please feel free to subscribe to the blog if you like what you’ve read, or pass this on to colleagues

Beehive can offer:

*MHFA Programmes

The MHFA England is the only body licensed to provide accredited mental health first aid programmes. Beehive can now offer :

  • Two day Mental Health First Aider courses which train ‘first responders’ in the organisation as a resource for employees to talk to
  • One day Mental Health Awareness workshops for all staff to raise awareness
  • Half day Mental Health Champions workshops for senior managers and HR

Through our latest associate Mark Bussell. For more details contact

**Accredited coaching programmes

  • Beehive is an ILM approved centre and offer:
  • In-house ILM-accredited Coaching and Mentoring Certificate and Diploma programmes at levels 3, 5 and 7
  • ILM-accredited ‘Coaching for Safety’ Certificate programmes at levels 3 and 5
  • Bespoke coaching and mentoring programmes
  • Our exclusive ‘Coaching for a Healthy Nuclear Safety Culture’ introductory workshop through NSAN, which can be delivered in-house.

For more details contact or go to

It’s time for a ‘soft’ SQEP*

* ‘Suitably Qualified and Experienced Person’

A couple of years ago I gave a presentation to the North Wales IOSH branch on behavioural safety and safety culture. There were 70 people – their biggest turnout in four years.

As part of the presentation I showed the following slide and said, ‘OK, these were the answers, so what was the question?’


The response was immediate – ‘the attributes of a good manager’, which is true. The actual question was ‘What makes a good supervisor/site manager?’ and I asked it of fitters, supervisors and site managers as part of research I undertook with Bangor University and Alstom Power Services (see my blog ‘We need a new approach to safety education’). Further discussion showed that there was wide recognition that these attributes in supervisors and managers helped to reduce error and error pre-cursors and supported other behavioural safety elements such as open reporting, questioning attitude, stop the line and human performance. So far, so good.

However, when I asked, ‘So how many of you and your organisations actually recruit or train for these attributes in your engineers, supervisors, QHSE managers or site managers?’, the answer was – none. That’s quite an incongruence – while it is widely recognised that these attributes play a significant role in creating a safe working environment, this recognition was not reflected in recruitment or training practices.

Communicating culture

In 2011 The Work Foundation published a report entitled ‘Good Work and Our Times’ in which it emphasised the role of first-line management in communicating culture in an organisation. Supervisors and managers are the people who create the day to day experience of the employees working for your organisation, who set the behavioural examples, who create the climate in which safety is carried out, who have the awesome responsibility of setting people to work in dangerous environments. They are the people who put into practice the organisation’s culture on the front line.

Yet how many of them understand that this is a  crucial part of their role? And how many of them are suitably qualified and experienced to do this, equipped with the knowledge of human behaviour and motivation, team behaviours, communication skills and with the emotional resilience, to fulfil this role?

b.SAFE D2iP ‘Dependency to Interdependency’ Safety Leadership Programme

Beehive’s flagship leadership programme – the b.SAFE D2iP Safety Leadership Programme

Beehive designed  a behavioural safety programme – the b.SAFE D2iP ‘Dependency to Interdependency’ Safety Leadership Programme – based on the research results for Alstom Power Services which resulted in significant changes to behaviours in first line supervision and management. Those changes had a significant effect on results, but the effects were further reaching. Once the behaviours became embedded it became apparent that the agency fitters used did not have the behaviours that Alstom now required. The drive and initiative of QHSE manager Mick Edwards, who was at the forefront of the behaviour change project, led to us working with the agencies rpoviding the fitters-introducing the behavioural model, explaining the need for a different approach to recruitment, and giving guidance on how to interview for behaviours. In short, introducing a whole new perspective on what being SQEP – suitably qualified and experienced for a role – meant.

The D2iP is now our flagship programme and we’ve delivered it in the power and rail sectors to excellent results.

Better recruitment cheaper than training

It is far cheaper to recruit people with the right attitudes and behaviours than it is to change the behaviours and attitudes of people already in role. This extends to recruiting people who are open to learning and change. But first these attributes and behaviours have to be taken seriously by the organisation in relation to risk and safety. They have to become part of the organisation’s criteria for recruitment, and those recruiting have to understand why and how to interview for behaviours and attitudes, as well as technical or operational qualifications and experience. Which leads to the question – is it time for ‘soft’ SQEP?

The secret danger that safety leaders miss

So much time and energy in HSE is devoted to reducing physical risks in the workplace. But there is a secret danger that no one talks about, that has way more influence on safety behaviours. It’s called social risk, and it has way more influence on how you and your colleagues think, behave, and feel than you are aware of. The antidote to reducing the secret danger of social risk is good safety leadership, in particular creating psychological safety.

So much time and energy in HSE is devoted to reducing physical risks in the workplace. But there is a secret danger that no one talks about, that has way more influence on safety behaviours. It’s called social risk, and it has way more influence on how you and your colleagues think, behave, and feel than you are aware of. The antidote to reducing the secret danger of social risk is good safety leadership, in particular creating psychological safety.

Social risk

To understand what I’m talking about by social risk, try this little exercise:

  • Think of a time when you saw a deviation from a safety or quality procedure, and you challenged it.
  • Now think of a time when you saw a deviation from safety or quality procedure – perhaps you were part of it – and you didn’t challenge it. What were the factors that led to you acting differently in one situation than the other?
  • Now think of the deviations that occur everyday in your workplace, that have become normal, part of ‘the way we do things round here’. Why does no one resolve the issue or challenge it?

The chances are that among the reasons you didn’t challenge was the fear that you’ll be:

  1. Laughed at, or thought stupid or ‘soft’;
  2. Seen as ‘one of them’ (management, other team, area, profession) rather than ‘one of us’;
  3. Blamed
  4. Thought to be sucking up to someone or wanting to appear better than the others;
  5. Left vulnerable and isolated;
  6. Target of bullying or harassment; and/or
  7. At risk of losing a job or position…

This kind of fear is evidence of social risk. It’s something that influences behaviour far more than physical risk but is rarely given the same attention.

Social norms

Social risk has its basis in our need to belong which is one of the strongest drivers in human existence. Basically, we want to be part of a group and to fit in, and social risk refers to anything that threatens that belonging or our status in the group. Different groups have different social ‘norms’ – unspoken rules and power structures that govern what a typical member of that group does or doesn’t think/feel/say/act. The risk in social risk comes from transgressing the ‘social norms’ of the group.

Where social risk is highest

Social norms – the unspoken rules – can be particularly strong where:

  • Individuals work in an unusual, dangerous or remote environment and/or are not under the same kind of scrutiny as normal – site workers, soldiers, police and night shifts are good examples
  • There is little or weak leadership so norms and behaviours are set by the loudest voice, not the most informed
  • There is a dominant group of people working with a small minority – for example a largely male environment with a small female minority or vice versa, or a mainly white work force with a minority of BAME workers

In these situations – in a canteen culture or when things get ‘tribal’ – the social risk of being different is higher. We’re more likely to conform to what’s expected than challenge it, even if our physical safety may be compromised.

Psychological safety

When we tell people they need to have a questioning attitude, be open about mistakes, challenge, and ‘stop the line’- even to make suggestions or come up with ideas for improvement – we’re asking them to take a risk which can seem much greater in the moment than any physical risks involved.

For example – take a situation where a fire extinguisher has been used to prop open a fire door, enabling a group of people immediate access to an area that it would take them a minute to walk to otherwise. No one has ever challenged this and it has become the norm – there have been no fires so the physical risk seems minimal. The social risk for a colleague in questioning this and ensuring the fire door is shut is enormous, however. It has the potential to make them at the least very unpopular, or worse. Here, the immediate physical risk of upsetting the group can seem far greater than the distant risk of a fire. So it’s the social risk that drives the behaviour – the fire door continues to be propped open.

The additional risk – diversity

Social risk increases if the person questioning is part of a minority, where they may already have to work hard to show they fit in and are worthy of a place in the group. A woman might be afraid of being dismissed as a ‘typical woman’ or a ‘ball breaker’ if she challenges language or behaviour, or someone with a religious requirement might be afraid of being seen as awkward or unsuitable for the job of they ask for their needs to be met. Yet their contributions might be much more valuable BECAUSE of their difference. They could provide a new perspective that could save a life.

Safety leadership

If you’re a safety leader it’s not just about keeping people physically safe. You need to reduce the social risks by creating psychological safety, even for people who are different to you or your colleagues so everyone feels comfortable in giving their best.

Social risks can lead to catastrophic events. After the financial crash of 2008, Sir David Walker reported on the causes in 2009 in The Walker Report. In this he outlines how psychological phenomena such as groupthink – a term coined after The Challenger Crash – led to the catastrophic decision making that resulted in the crash. Groupthink can occur where the social risks of disagreement become too great. Groupthink also contributed to the Challenger event. The social risks of being the one to stop the rocket flying were too great.

PPE – psychologically protected environment?

People need to feel psychologically safe if we really want them to challenge, question, share mistakes, and stop the line – if we want to get the best from people full stop. Perhaps, therefore, we need to think of a different kind of PPE. Not personal protective equipment but a psychologically protected environment.

Three reasons why coaching skills are invaluable for nuclear leaders

Coaching skills are invaluable for nuclear leaders. They help increase accountability, improve decision making and create a respectful work environment, all vital elements of a healthy nuclear safety culture

In my previous blog I used a quotation by Karl Weick. The basic message was, in high reliability organisations, when technical systems get too big and complex it’s impossible for a single person to understand them or anticipate problems. Humans need what Weick describes as ‘rich, dense talk’ (Weick, 1987) – communication that generates enough data to help inadequate humans make sense of what’s going on. Face to face talk is richest, and coaching encourages it to be richer. This is why coaching skills are invaluable for nuclear leaders.

This has real relevance to building ‘Management commitment to safety’, the second category of the WANO ‘Traits of a Healthy Nuclear safety Culture’. I never fail to be in awe of the managers in nuclear facilities. The responsibilities are so great, the risks so profound. They need every bit of support that can be given to help them do this. I don’t just mean technical training, or safety by design, organisation or even behaviour. I also mean in developing ‘soft power’ skills like coaching.

The problem with human cognition

I started studying human psychology and communication back in the ’90s. When I became aware of how complex it was, I was astonished that humans ever manage to create any kind of shared understanding, or get anything done at all. This familiar Youtube clip shows some of the problems with human perception – how easy it is to miss things when you’re looking for something else. Our senses are not, in many ways, reliable.

‘Nuisance alarms’ and ‘sign blindness’

The need to be constantly alert – to be paying attention at all times – is contrary to the way our brain works. From an evolutionary perspective we are designed to ‘tune out’ things that are constantly there that seem to present no threat, so we can save energy and attention for the real threats. This is why we have ‘nuisance alarms’ and ‘sign blindness’ – we switch off from things we don’t need to pay attention to any more. It’s one of the biggest issues with having achieved a safe working environment – when things are safe we automatically let our guard down, and we’re fighting against our cognition when we try to keep vigilant.

Coaching and ‘Management commitment to safety’

In the face of how challenging it is to keep vigilant, and in view of the nuclear safety culture traits associated with the second WANO category, ‘Management commitment to safety:

  • Leadership accountability
  • Decision making
  • Respectful work environment

Coaching, and the mindset, skills and tools associated with it, help managers to stay vigilant by using the knowledge, experience and perceptions of the people around them, rather than having to rely entirely on their own resources.

Three ways in which coaching skills support nuclear managers:

  1. When managers use coaching models and tools they:
  • help people think through and ‘own’ a course of action. This improves confidence and accountability. It therefore improves ‘Individual commitment to safety’
  • help people think through the choices and their consequences. This helps to ensure ‘conservative bias’ – making sure the safest course of action is taken

2. When managers use open rather than closed questions they:

  • gain valuable information from the people around them, which they couldn’t get themselves. Therefore, while accountability still rests with the manager, they have better information on which to base decisions
  • understand the thought processes behind how people act. This helps to highlight gaps in knowledge or awareness, and identify training needs

3. When managers adopt the Adult – Adult coaching mindset, the work environment automatically becomes more respectful:

  • the coaching process is one which treats people with dignity. They are treated as if they are capable of thinking and as if their opinions matter
  • in addition, people feel valued because they are listened to. Trust automatically increases

Coaching skills for nuclear leaders

The results can be transformational. However,I’m not suggesting that simply changing to a coaching style of management will solve every problem a nuclear leader faces. Nor am I suggesting that open questions are the only type of questions that are useful – that would be absurd.

My point is that coaching provides a set of skills that will increase the flexibility of response of nuclear managers. Managers need to be able to move along the ‘ask/tell’ continuum of management styles to respond most flexibly to a situation, particularly when things are going wrong. Coaching skills, and the mindset and tools of coaching, provide an alternative set of tools for those people with the awe-inspiring responsibility of keeping our nuclear facilities safe.

Ref: Weick, K,  ‘Organisational Culture as a source of High Reliability’ (California Management Review, Volume XXIX, Number 2, Winter 1987

Coaching and nuclear safety workshop

We need a new approach to safety education

Good listener, communicator, empathetic, ‘psychologist’, compassionate, approachable, motivation of self and others, consistency, team builder, leadership and resilience. No, not the job description of a social worker or primary school teacher. But answers to the question ‘What makes a good supervisor/site manager?’, asked of Alstom field service engineers at their annual conference, as part of research into safety culture Beehive conducted with Bangor University.

The answers were a surprise, but were consistent with the answers from fitters and technicians when they were asked the same question out on site. It wasn’t that domain knowledge, role experience or commercial awareness counted for nothing. It was that these were not what differentiated an indifferent or bad supervisor/site manager from a good one. It was the ‘soft’ skills that made the difference.

So what? you may ask. Well, pointing to a supervisor who had those skills, a site manager interviewed said, ‘If I had ten of him my life would be so much easier.’ That’s because misunderstandings, duplications, omissions, conflicts, errors – things that are often caused by poor communication and relationships – are all things that divert time and energy away from productivity. Having people who can build good relationships reduces the chances of these things.

That’s because interpersonal skills, and the stronger and more positive relationships that they build, are the oil that makes every function of an organisation run more smoothly. 

But it does matter, it matters to safety. Shunichi Tanaka, head of the Japanese Nuclear Regulation Authority commented when operatives at Fukushima were sprayed with contaminated water in 2014, “Mistakes are often linked to morale. People don’t usually make silly careless mistakes when they’re motivated and work in a positive environment.” Dr James Reason states that “A pretty good safety management system with 100% buy-in is better than a perfect system with 0% commitment’.  Morale, motivation, positive environment, buy-in – all created through ‘soft’ skills, all playing a vital role in error avoidance, even making up for imperfections in the system. A key question is, however, does safety education reflect this?

I’d suggest not, and in two ways. One is that the focus is still on ‘hard’ skills, a reflection perhaps of a prevailing attitude that health and safety is only about rules and regulations, procedure, compliance, restriction, hard measures and absence of negatives. But health and safety has a profoundly human focus and if organisations want to get beyond where rules and regulations, process and procedure will take them they need to change their perception of what constitutes safety training to include personal development and those all important ‘soft’ skills.

The other is that the training methods used in safety education can lack imagination.  An organisation’s safety culture is created in the training room as much as anywhere else. If people groan at the thought of safety training that association is likely to pervade people’s attitude to safety out on site. If we want people to be interested in safety, to see it as engaging and relevant to their role, to be proactive about it, then safety education has to be interesting, engaging, relevant, and active too. Empathy isn’t learned through PowerPoint.

We may assume that people already have the interpersonal and communication skills they need to work safely out on site, or that they will learn them on the job. A look at the prevalence of communication issues as a root cause or contributory factor in event reports suggests that this confidence is misplaced. As a participant at our recent safety culture seminar asked, ‘Which of us here has ever been taught how to have a proper conversation?’.  Safety education needs a rethink and refocus.

Beehive is running a safety culture seminar in partnership with the Brathay Trust in Ambleside, Cumbria on March 29th 2019. The event is free though places are limited. Bed, dinner and breakfast are available for the night of 28th March at Brathay on the edge of Lake Windermere. For more details or to book a place please contact Sara on or Erja Nikander on 01492 550 960 or

Safety practitioners need interpersonal skills – five tips for behavioural interviewing

Introduction – why bother with behavioural interviewing?

In a previous blog ‘Do we need a new approach to safety education’ , I outlined the types of knowledge, skills and attributes (KSA’s) we were told through focus groups made the best supervisors and site managers. They were overwhelmingly interpersonal – technical skills and experience were important but were not what made a GOOD supervisor/manager. This is being more and more recognised – IOSH also recognises the importance of what I like to call ‘soft power’ (I hate the term ‘soft skills’) as the increased interest in non-directive coaching training shows.

There are two ways that you can ensure your safety practitioners and managers have the interpersonal skills needed. One is to develop them in-house. The other is to recruit for them – often more successful. That’s where behavioural interviewing comes in.

What is behavioural interviewing?

Behavioural interviewing is also known as structured or competency-based interviewing. The questions in behavioural interviews are designed to test for the specific KSA’s associated with a job. The questions are very specific, with the answers matched against criteria that have been developed based on the job role. This helps to make things fairer for the candidate and easier for the interviewer.

Behavioural interviewing is great for establishing if a candidate has the behavioural attributes, for example interpersonal skills, rather than just the operational or technical knowledge and experience, needed for a role.

The KSA’s that can be tested in an interview depend on the job and the organisation. Some common KSA’s are:

Team work
Compliance Influencing interest in others
CommunicationFlexibility Integrity
Dealing with conflict

What follows is our five top tips for behavioural interviewing:

1)  Use behavioural questions

Behavioural interview questions measure the interviewee’s behaviours, abilities and experience in a particular field, using examples from personal experience rather than from theory or in general.

Generally questions are ‘funnelled’ from the general:

‘How do you deal with conflict at work’?

To a specific example:

‘Tell me about a time when you had to deal with a conflict with a contractor?’

To specific probing:

‘How did you deal with the stress the conflict caused? How did you manage your team through the conflict? What did you actually say to the contractor which helped/didn’t help? What would you do differently next time?’

2. Use the STAR approach when preparing for interview

The acronym in this context isn’t stop, think act review! STAR here stands for:

  1. Situation or Task
  2. Action
  3. Result

This is a helpful acronym both for interviewers – it helps you to recognise and match/mark the information provided to the success criteria, and for interviewees – if you use the structure to prepare for interviews it will help you to give answers in the right way.

  1. Situation/task – describe the situation or task, focusing on what is relevant to the question
  2. Action – explain what you did; use detail; focus on self not team; explain how and why
  3. Result – explain what happened eventually; explain what you accomplished and learned

3. Matching/marking

Before a behavioural interview the interviewers decide on the type of answers that would score points for or against the candidate. Then they can match the responses to the criteria. For example, for conflict management the behavioural indicators may be:

Positive indicatorsNegative indicators
Accepts more than one
point of view,
Listens to understand
situation and needs of
Accepts own part in the
Strives to find a workable
Understands impact of
conflict on a team,
Learns from experience,

Sees conflict as the other
person’s problem,
Imposes own view of the
Apportions blame externally,
Unaware of effect on
those around them,
Leaves issues unresolved,
Does not reflect on or
learn from situation,

4.  Beware ‘psychological bias’

Any human decision has some degree of bias – we take an instant liking to some people and disliking to others. The behavioural interview questions, the agreed criteria and mark schedules are designed to reduce the chance of this. However, there are psychological influences that will still have an effect. An interviewer might ask more questions if they have a positive impression of the interviewee, and stop asking questions if they have a negative view. Some common biases it is helpful to be aware of are:

Halo/Horn Effect – when you rate a person high or low on all performance factors because of the general impression the individual has created, (‘She seems nice, she must be good at her job’) or because of a single factor , (‘He supports Man U, he must have good judgement’)

Negative or Positive Leniency – some interviewers are consistently too hard or too easy in evaluating candidates – people are never bad enough for a low mark or never good enough for a high one – or stick to the middle line too much. Ratings that are consistently middling, too harsh or too easy can result in the whole interview process being skewed.

5.  Reduce psychological bias using the ORCE Model

Using the ORCE approach can help reduce this. ORCE stands for Observe, then Record, then Classify and then Evaluate. It’s a way of approaching the interview process which will help you to gather all the information you need. It also helps you to be fair about the person’s performance. Take each stage in turn and ask your fellow interviewers to make sure you’re on the same page.

What’s your experience of interviewing? How successful have you been?

Beehive can provide Behavioural Interviewing workshops to support companies shifting to recruiting for a wider skill set. We also provide interpersonal skills development through our b.SAFE D2iP Safety Leadership Programme. In addition, we offer a unique Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM) Level 3 and 5 certificate in Coaching for Safety.

Can anyone be a mentor? Six things a good mentor needs

mentor1991 was the year DI Jane Tennison first hit our screens in Prime Suspect, fighting sexism and crime in equal measure. It was also the year I joined the West Yorkshire Police on the leadership fasttrack and got my first formal mentor, a previous graduate entrant.

My first – and last – mentoring meeting was just long enough for him to tell me that as he didn’t think women had a place either on the force or the fast-track he wouldn’t be wasting his time on me.

The force’s rationale was sound – this was exactly the kind of situation that cries out for mentoring; a significant and challenging step into the unknown. But it was also why the effect on my confidence and motivation was particularly devastating. A previous graduate entrant may have the ‘context-specific expertise and knowledge’ that the European Mentoring and Coaching Council* identifies as being necessary for effective mentoring, but it takes more than that to be a mentor.

My experience in the police came to mind recently when I read an Institute of Leadership and Management report into mentoring, one finding of which was that while 76% of managers saw themselves as acting as mentors, only 24% of the millennials they ‘mentored’ agreed.**

In addition, according to the TUC, while mentoring is expected to play a large part in maximising the potential of apprentices, ‘despite the increasing recognition of the value of mentoring there is a lack of clarity over what is meant by mentoring and how it differs from the support typically offered by the apprentice’s line manager, training provider and/or assessor.’*** This suggests a perception, skills and knowledge gap which it might be timely to address, given that the government is looking to have 3m people in apprenticeships by 2020.

For an organisation to get the most out of mentoring, a number of things need to be in place. Both mentors and mentees need to understand the process, the roles and the way that people face challenges, progress and learn. Some level of formality in choice, training and monitoring the mentoring programme also gives the organisation oversight of the process and its level of success.

As well as this, mentors need to:

1.   Have a ‘growth’ rather than a ‘fixed’ mindset – Dweck’s work on mindset and feedback is a valuable resource

2.   Understand diversity, in particular the prejudices that can influence how we open up or limit opportunities for people depending on gender, race, age etc

3.   Have the skills – listening, feedback, coaching – that will best enable the mentee to integrate learning and develop their thinking. David Clutterbuck states that the ability to build rapport is crucial to mentoring in a way that it is not in coaching – the relationship is key

4.   Be exemplary in their behaviours. Mentors act as role models not just in behaviours but in attitudes – to customers, colleagues, management and suppliers. They provide a far more powerful induction into the culture of an organisation than any formal induction process

5.   Understand how different generations in the workplace view their career, learning, team work and feedback. There are significant differences between Boomers, Traditionalists, Generation Xers, Yers and Millennials. Being aware can help all parties get more from the relationship

6.   Most importantly, get a kick out of seeing people develop and grow

The origins of mentoring are said to lie in Homer’s story of Odysseus, the King of Ithaca. Odysseus asks his faithful, wise and trusted friend Mentor to take care of his son, Telemachus, while Odysseus is away – watching over him and guiding him through his transition from boy to man. On that basis of the origins of mentoring my real mentoring came from my tutor constable who I shadowed during my first weeks on the job. He loved policing and was an exemplary officer, but most importantly he liked seeing people develop and grow in the job. His values, enthusiasm and the way he did the job shaped both my approach to policing and to mentoring.

Mentoring is an important organisational learning process and knowledge management tool, and ideas such as reverse mentoring – a younger person mentoring an older one in areas like technology and social trends – increases its scope and value. At a time when businesses are rightly investing so much in apprenticeships, it’s never been more important to get mentoring right.

Do the mentors in your organisation have what it takes? Are you sure they are communicating and role modelling what’s important in your organisation? If not, contact Beehive/b.SAFE at We provide both ILM accredited and bespoke mentoring and coaching training, and have provided mentor and mentee training most recently for the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority’s SME Mentoring Scheme, The National Skills Academy Nuclear, and The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council’s Research Fellows’ Mentoring programme.

*European Mentoring and Coaching Council International Mentoring Survey 2015

** ‘Workforce 2020 – Managing Millennials’, Institute of Leadership and Management

*** ‘The Role of Mentoring in Supporting Apprenticeships’, Andy Hirst, Christina Short and Sini Rinne of Cambridge Policy Consultants, Research paper 20, April 2014

Why ISO 45001 is a safety revolution

I introduced our last b.SAFE@Brathay Safety Culture Event (held at Brathay Hall in Cumbria) by saying that there is a quiet revolution taking place in the field of health and safety with the advent of ISO 45001. ISO 45001 is the new international safety standard that replaces OHSAS 18001. The new standard is designed to change the position of EHS from one of being ‘bolted on’ to the business to it being ‘built-in’ to organisational systems. This shift in focus represents a real opportunity for cultural change.

Key differences between OHSAS 18001 and ISO 45001

A look at some of the key differences between the two standards might help to explain why. ISO 45001 includes:

  • Understanding the cultural context of the organisation and what drives it
  • Recognising the needs and expectations of stakeholders – neither of these two have an equivalent in OHSAS 18001
  • Changing focus from ‘management’ to ‘leadership’ and from ‘ensuring’ to ‘engaging’
  • Increasing worker participation, engagement and consultation
  • Moving from procedure and records to ‘documented information’
  • Considering the objective and result of communication, not just who, when and what *

These changes have the potential to be what’s known in the field of organisational development (OD) as ‘second order changes’ – change that can transform organisations.

Transformational change

Not all change that takes place in organisations is the same. A useful way of thinking about the differences is as First and Second Order Changes


First order change is evolutionary – incremental, linear, doing more or less of what’s already done, making minor changes and adjustments that enable things to be done better or faster and not really changing anything fundamental about the beliefs, values or ways of working of the organisation. It’s adaptive and incremental – an example might be refining existing processes and procedures, or finding new ways to collect or report data, or reminding people about correct PPE. It’s about regaining balance – the homeostasis of the system.

Second order change is revolutionary – it’s not about doing the same thing faster or better but doing something different. It’s transformational not incremental, requiring unlearning and relearning, and it both enables and requires people to think, feel and behave differently to how they did before. Second order change includes cultural change and an example might be, well, any of the differences between OHSAS 18001 and ISO 45001:

  • Understanding and embedding EHS as part of the wider organisational and stakeholder system;
  • a shift in focus and style from management to leadership
  • engagement and participation rather than policing
  • accountability for the effectiveness of internal and external communications

Are all changes that have the potential to transform the safety culture of an organisation.

Why behaviour change initiatives usually fail

Most behaviour change initiatives fail because the type of change required is misdiagnosed. Most culture change initiatives fail because the wider implications of the changes required aren’t fully understood or accommodated. What’s needed at this point is not just someone with expertise in health and safety. What’s also needed is an understanding of organisational development.

Organisational development and safety

Organisational development is a field which includes:

  • Managing planned change, in a flexible manner that can be revised as new information is gathered.
  • Not just creating change but reinforcing it 
  • Applying changes in the strategy, structure, and/or processes of an entire system, such as an organisation, a single plant of a multi-plant firm, a department or work group, or individual role or job.
  • Improving organisational effectiveness by:
    • helping members of the organisation to gain the skills and knowledge necessary to solve problems by involving them in the change process, and
    • by promoting high performance including financial returns, high quality products and services, high productivity, continuous improvement and a high quality of working life. CIPD OD Factsheet

Helping your organisation make the change

Beehive is perfectly placed to help organisations make the changes to mindset, skills and tools needed to transition to ISO 45001 because we understand the organisational side of things. We know what needs to change in the behaiours, and structures – we have associates who ca audit your organisation so you can plan your transition. If you have certification to OHSAS 18001 you will have a window of three years to migrate to ISO 45001 to maintain the validity of certification (see NQA Information re 45001). And because ISO 45001 represents an opportunity for cultural rather than simply procedural change, the sooner the change begins the more likely you are to gain the greatest benefits.

This is the first of a series of articles in which I’ll consider each of the differences between the two standards from an organisational development perspective. The next article will be ‘Safety SySTERMS – what drives culture’.

Click here for more information about b.SAFE

Click here for more information about Brathay Trust

For more information about our next Safety Culture Event at Brathay on March 29th 2019 please email

Click here to find out more about our Transforming Safety Behaviours Workshops

*The NQA ISO 45001 Health and Safety Briefing outlines the key differences between the two standards. The differences outlined above relate to points:

  • 4.1 – Understanding your organisation and its context – what drives your culture? 
  • 4.2 – Understanding the needs and expectations of interested parties – engaging with stakeholders
  • 5.1 – Leadership and commitment – changing from ‘management’ to ‘leadership’, and from ‘ensuring’ to ‘engaging’
  • 5.2 & 5.4 – OH&S policy & Participation and consultation – increasing (or introducing?) worker participation and engagement
  • 7.2 & 7.5 – Competence & Documented information – a move from ‘procedure’ to ‘documented evidence’
  • 7.4 – Information and communication – considering not just the who, what and when of communication but the objective and the result of it