Author Bio ▼

Dr Nick Bell is a Chartered Fellow of IOSH and a Fellow of the International Institute of Risk and Safety Management. Nick supports Principal Designers and construction Clients to comply with the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015 (CDM). He delivers accredited CDM training and has been advising on construction projects up to £3.2bn in value.. In October 2018 Nick successfully defended his PhD thesis in which he examined the association between worker engagement and behaviour.  His work has attracted interest from across the globe.  He is now Managing Director of Workfulness Ltd and continues his CDM-related work.
October 4, 2016

Get the SHP newsletter

Daily health and safety news, job alerts and resources

Lessons from Sports Direct: Walk a mile in their shoes

By Nick Bell

A few months ago I met up with a union health and safety lead.  I wanted to talk through a rather intuitive idea emerging from my PhD:  workers will be better able and more inclined to invest their heads and hearts in their workplace (i.e. be engaged) if we help them to meet their needs.  I’m trying to understand how this influences health and safety behaviours.

So, I asked: “What do workers need?”

The answer floored me:  “They need to use the toilet.”

It transpired that many of their members are penalised for taking toilet breaks (or having too many or taking too long).  One solution:  Keep dehydrated.

What is going on, I wonder, in the minds of the managers and employers who create these conditions?  Presumably, they prioritise short term profit over the basic wellbeing of staff, and enforcement action might appear a distant and unlikely prospect.  When workers are systematically being treated badly, I also believe that managers have lost their capacity to care.

The feeling that we aren’t cared about is quite widespread.  In an analysis of their Spring 2015 employee survey[1], the CIPD concluded that many employees want to leave big organisations for companies that have a ‘family feel’.

Shortly after my interview, practices at Sports Direct were investigated by a Select Committee of the House of Commons.  Amongst the evidence was a report from the Unite Union[2] which stated that: A total of 110 ambulances or paramedic cars were dispatched…between 01/01/13 and 19/04/16 with 50 cases classified as ‘life-threatening’

The paramedics dealt with one woman who gave birth in the toilets.  It was a stark illustration of the continuing need for Unions to safeguard worker rights.

The committee concluded: What the spotlight revealed was extremely disturbing. Workers at Sports Direct were not being paid the national minimum wage, and were being penalised for matters such as taking a short break to drink water and for taking time off work when ill. Some say they were promised permanent contracts in exchange for sexual favours. Serious health and safety breaches also seem to have occurred. For this to occur in the UK in 2016 is a serious indictment of the management at Sports Direct.

I saw a glimmer of hope when Mike Ashley, the Deputy Executive Chairman and founder of Sports Direct, told the Select Committee that he wouldn’t want his children to experience those working conditions.

This sentiment is great but requires managers to see and hear those conditions and their impact.  If they are using staff surveys, are they hearing the voices behind the numbers?

Once we have those insights, we need to be able to put ourselves in worker’s shoes if we are to actually care what is happening to them.

The most effective leaders are empathetic.

Transformational leaders, for example, have ‘emotional intelligence’[3] meaning that they notice and respond appropriately to others’ emotions.  They also recognise and manage their own emotions and behaviours.  Low levels of emotional intelligence or empathy have been associated with bullying, substance misuse and burnout.  Leadership qualities, including emotional intelligence and even empathy, can be improved through training and coaching.

A 2010 study[4] revealed one reason why we might encounter managers who are not empathetic:  3.9% of managers across various management development programs were psychopaths (compared to 1% of the general population).

One suggestion from this study is that some organisations might see lack of remorse, guilt or empathy as positive qualities in managers.  If that is the prevailing belief, health and safety would either be a low priority or managed with an iron fist.

To understand our health and safety performance we need to start with the core values and beliefs at the top of an organisation.  Let’s park health and safety and ask deeper questions about the function of managers, the role and needs of workers, even how people should treat each other.

One of my litmus tests is to ask managers to tell me what workers might think or say it is like to work in that company/environment and how that experience might impact on the worker.

You’ll quickly work out if they care.


  3. Barling, J., Slater, F., Kelloway E, 2000. Transformational leadership and emotional intelligence: an exploratory study, Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 21(3),.157 – 161
  4. Babiak, P., Neumann, C., Hare, R., 2010. Corporate psychopathy: Talking the walk. Behavioural Sciences and the Law, 28(2), 174-193

Related Topics

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments