I recently addressed a room full of people waiting to hear if they had won an International Safety Award (ISA), at our gala dinner in London. This is something I do every year, so nothing unusual there.
The week we held our event was mental health awareness week though. And, as it happened, alongside the ISAs we also announced the winners of the Mates in Mind Impact Awards, which recognise and reward the amazing work being undertaken by companies in addressing mental health, especially in construction.
So, mental health was top of my mind as I wrote my speech. And this year, I decided I’d do something I’ve never really done before. I told a personal story, about my own experiences, from my own career.
Why? Well, firstly because I feel strongly about managing stress and improving wellbeing in the workplace. But I also believe that telling my story was the best and most direct way I could get my message across. So, I will also share it with you too. But before I do, let me tell you about another more recent experience.
I met a CEO of a company we work with and we spoke about possibly extending our audit work to start to look at wellbeing. What I didn’t expect was that it was the health and safety team who resisted this.
Towards the end of the meeting, after further discussion, the CEO confirmed he was “committed that we provide our people the safest place to work”. “Great!”, I replied. “I’m assuming you mean a physically and psychologically safe place to work?”
Later, the CEO asked his health, safety and environment manager to talk to the director of HR about scheduling a Wellbeing Five Star audit within the next month. Music to my ears.
More and more organisations are focusing on wellbeing and, even better, looking at health, safety and wellbeing holistically. But too many are still just addressing the effects of poor mental health and wellbeing, rather than measures to reduce the problem in the first place.
Why does this matter? Virtually every aspect of wellbeing, if not managed, has the potential to increase the risk of accident or injury in the workplace.
So, back to my story, which was about my own experiences of working in organisations that were far from psychologically safe.
Before entering first into maritime safety, and now the world of health, safety and wellbeing, I worked in a number of financial services organisations. At one, I remember the chief executive, when asked in front of thousands of employees how he achieved a work/life balance, answered: “I don’t work after 8pm on a Sunday evening.”
We worked 18-hour days, week in, week out. People’s holidays were cancelled at short notice, and if not actually cancelled, routinely disrupted by work. And, if we were acquiring businesses, completing two or three ‘all-nighters’ in a row was expected. In fact, if people struggled, it was seen as showing a lack of commitment and a weakness.
At the time I accepted it – I didn’t know better. But it was wrong. I did not think I had a choice, although with hindsight, I know now that I did. So, why did I do it?
Quite simply, we were very well paid. But that does not make it right, in the same way as it was not right for coal miners to be paid ‘danger money’, knowing that their work was negatively impacting their health.
And the statistics are quite clear in terms of the risks of working excessively – according to a recent World Health Organization study, working 55 or more hours per week is associated with a 35 per cent higher risk of a stroke and a 17 per cent higher risk of dying from ischemic heart disease, compared to working 35–40 hours a week.
So, this is what motivates and drives me to ensure that we try to improve not only the physical health and safety of workers around the world, but also their mental health and wellbeing.
Mike Robinson FCA is Chief executive of the British Safety Council
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