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.
January 14, 2019

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Culture and behaviours

Changing behaviours: New Year’s safety resolutions

The start of a new year is often a time to reflect on ambitions for the year ahead. These typically revolve around, or depend upon, changing behaviours, such as going to the gym more often, living a ‘greener’ lifestyle and so on. Sometimes new behaviours fall by the wayside, as Dr Nick Bell, Dr Colin Powell and Dr Peter Sykes discuss…


When we think about changing personal or work-related behaviour, we need to start by considering what motivates behaviour. Different psychological traditions broadly agree that behaviour is directed at achieving or avoiding certain outcomes. We can interpret behaviour as a means for meeting our needs (or the needs of a group, such as friends and family, whom we are attached to) and we avoid behaviours that frustrate our needs.

What, then, do humans need? Collectively, Social Cognitive Theory, Positive Psychology and Self Determination Theory suggest that people want to feel a sense of competence and engrossed in tasks, want a sense of purpose and meaning and to feel that they belong. Of course, people have more fundamental needs to be able to keep food on the table, to feel safe and secure, which includes feeling psychologically safe (e.g. feeling they are being treated fairly).

When an organisation asks people to change their behaviour it is because the organisation has their own objectives which, they believe, would be better served by different behaviours.

When new behaviours do not ‘stick’, the likelihood is that whatever other behaviours we engage in are better at meeting our perceived needs at that time. Our needs and objectives fluctuate depending on what role we are in. This gives us a very simple and useful way of understanding seemingly ‘illogical’ behaviours.

For example, it might seem confusing why people might not report hazards even after being given all the facts, figures and tools. People are unlikely to do something if they cannot see how this helps them to meet their needs and are even less likely to do something that takes time and energy away from activities which feel more meaningful at that time (e.g. completing assigned work tasks or going home).

Facilitating change

Seat beltThe gaps between the different psychological traditions really becomes apparent when we start thinking about how to facilitate change. In theory, to motivate me to eat more healthily, I could receive some sort of reward whenever I eat vegetables and punishment whenever I eat chocolate. Overtime, some behaviours become habitual. For example, I do not logically think about why I put on my seat belt – it is part of an unconscious ritual of starting a car journey. My attitudes and beliefs about seat belts could change to align with my behaviour (“I’m not an idiot so I must be making this effort for a good reason – Seat belts must be a good thing that make me safer”). However, simplistic, behavioural techniques can quickly unravel when no one is around to monitor behaviour and administer rewards and punishments. Therefore, according to Self Determination Theory, this extrinsic motivation is the weakest form of motivation.

A higher form of motivation is ‘Identified Regulation’ when a person understands and appreciates the reasons for a behaviour. People do not want to be injured or imprisoned, and logic suggests that it should be easy to encourage us to engage in behaviours that keep us safe and legal. However, I’ve encountered many people who have intentionally exceeded the legal speed limit because they have convinced themselves that there is a slim chance of something bad happening and going faster will help them meet their needs.

When a behaviour is aligned with our sense of identity or values, performing the behaviour might give us a sense of pride or of doing the right thing. This provides an even higher level of motivation. A person is more likely to report hazards if, for example, they deeply believed that mates should look after mates (and that reporting hazards helps to do this), and this felt as important to them as getting their work finished on time.

Influencing behaviour needs to begin with understanding people’s objectives and needs and acknowledging how their current behaviours helps meet those needs. If we also discuss and agree what the organisational or team goals should be, including in relation to safety, we can broadly agree what sorts of behaviours best support those goals (without creating a long list of rules). Ideally, workers will find personal meaning in the work of the team or organisation (which is easy to imagine in the case of nurses etc.). Of course, we are unique individuals with different experiences, personalities and so on and we cannot force people to have particular goals, beliefs and values (or even to participate meaningfully in these discussions). However, transformational managers who help workers to meet their needs, and consistently articulate and demonstrate inspiring beliefs and values, can become powerful role models.

Sleep and Fatigue: Director’s Briefing

Fatigue is common amongst the population, but particularly among those working abnormal hours, and can arise from excessive working time or poorly designed shift patterns. It is also related to workload, in that workers are more easily fatigued if their work is machine-paced, complex or monotonous.

This free director’s briefing contains:

  • Key points;
  • Recommendations for employers;
  • Case law;
  • Legal duties.
Barbour EHS

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