Anker & Marsh

Author Bio ▼

Dr Tim Marsh PhD, MSc, CFIOSH, CPsychol, SFIIRSM is MD of Anker and Marsh. Visiting Professor at Plymouth University he is considered a world authority on the subject of behavioural safety, safety leadership and organisational culture. As well as many of the world's most recognisable industrial names Tim has worked with diverse organisations such as the European Space Agency, the BBC, Sky TV, the RNLI and the National Theatre in his 25 year plus consultancy career. He has key noted and chaired dozens of conferences around the world including the closing key note at the Campbell Institutes inaugural International Thoughts Leaders event in 2014. He has written several best-selling books including Affective Safety Management, Talking Safety, Total Safety Culture, the Definitive Guide to Behavioural Safety and Organised Wellbeing. Previously he led Manchester Universities ground-breaking research team into behavioural safety methodologies in the 1990s.
May 28, 2021

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Health and safety… differently

Safety IS a laughing matter…

In the latest part of his SHP blog series, Tim Marsh makes the case that humour really does have a place in the health (and safety) world.

Bored after a long vaccine queue and asked, ‘are you here of your own free will?’ the quip “No, Astra Zenca have my family hostage” is amusing only to the person making said quip!

How many times a day do these long-suffering NHS workers get a variation on that, I wonder? However, this article makes the case that humour really does have a place in the health (and safety) world.

A few months ago, I gave a paper at an event and was followed by an interview with the comedian Steve Royale (runner up in last year’s Britain’s Got Talent). Our background research was fascinating. It turns out that the oft heard observation ‘safety is no laughing matter’ couldn’t be further from the truth because it turns out that laughter is a highly useful species adaptation in several important ways.


A laugh can save your life in several ways. Most obviously because not only is ‘laughter is the best medicine’ (see the film Patch Adams and all grandparents everywhere) often it’s true that ‘if I didn’t laugh, I’d cry’.

A lovely quote from William Ward that is directly relevant for wellbeing and mental health: “A well-developed sense of humour is the pole that adds balance to your steps as you walk the tightrope of life”.

It’s also bonding and there’s no need to expand on this nest quote except to reference perhaps the fabulous achievements of the most unlikely pair in all of politics – Ian Paisley and Martin McGuiness. AKA ‘the Chuckle Brothers’. Utterly diametrically opposed politically but, it transpired, with a shared sense of humour that allowed them to work together.

As Victor Borge said: “Shared laughter is the shortest distance between two people”.

The word ‘shared’ is key here as in the famous cinema lines, “we’re not laughing at you, we’re laughing with you”… “but I’m not laughing” …”ok, then we’re just laughing about you and near you”.

I’m told that back in the day I was one of the first people to actively use humour to strive to convey ‘sticky’ safety messages and I’m really quite proud of that. (I’m less proud of a habit of turning into Chandler Bing from Friends, when stressed and/or bored).

So… the third use is that it can make key messages memorable and sticky. Some readers might have heard me try and raise a laugh by explaining the essence of the Cullen Inquiry report into safety culture with a cross reference to the ‘how do I act here?’ anxiety of walking into a swingers club. Even in these more topic cautious times, I still use this if only so I can tell the true story of the female politician who thought I’d said ‘swimming’ and proudly shouted out “twice a week every week”! Similarly when trying to explain the vital importance of an aware, pro-active and calm mind-set to accident prevention my business partner Jason Anker explains that he was fully aware of the risk but fell off the roof, because he had a high score on our newly patented ‘fatalism and intolerance of societal, organisational and relationship stressors’ scale. (Or the “F. I.” scale for short).

Which brings us to the final benefit of humour. To laugh is to “get it” and “getting it” is also hugely useful when we’re considering the wide variety or risks we face every day in life. (If you didn’t smile at our “F. I.” scale – you should know you didn’t get it!).

“Humour is common sense speeded up” (Aristotle)

Clients are already running toolbox talks on the topic of “what’s your F. I. score today?” The point is they’re far less likely to run a productive session that starts with the question ‘how fatalistic and stressed are you feeling?’. Therefore, I’d like to argue that anything that helps colleagues ‘get it’ should be utilised. Astute, objective learning, as described by Matthew Syed in the best ‘safety’ book of the last few decades (Black Box Thinking) is, he argues, the key component of individual, organizational, societal even species success.

Indeed, academics suggest that the primary role of laughter is to give us a pleasurable reward when we spot that what is expected / promised and what is real diverge. A chuckle is an evolved self-generated dog treat reward for ‘getting it’.

Finally, though it’s not safety related, it’s worth pointing out that a sharp and incisive wit that shows you ‘get it’ is apparently more directly of use when it comes to passing on your genes … as it’s attractive.

If only I’d modelled myself on Oscar Wilde rather than Chandler Bing!

Click here for more from Tim’s blog series…

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Diane Thomason
Diane Thomason
2 years ago

Humour certainly does have its place in H&S, but as communicators we should recognise that anyone who doesn’t “get it” doesn’t get the reward, and is going to feel excluded. Such a person isn’t going to enjoy a training session that to them seems filled with in-jokes and other people laughing!

Tim Marsh
Tim Marsh
2 years ago
Reply to  Diane Thomason

That’s a very good point Diane. In jokes – and jokes that’s primary role is to make the joker feel ‘clever’ banned. (But, risking the later, people with no sense of humour whatsoever … have bigger issues to worry about!)

Nigel Dupree
Nigel Dupree
2 years ago

Mmmm, seriously, have we ‘passed the point of no return’ from the event horizon surrounding the black-hole of carrying-on regardless of self-harming exhibited in the scale of Presenteeism as everyone really now to scared to take a coping ‘sicky’ anymore ? Fatigue Risk Management surely, will need the “Right to Disconnect”, some rehabilitative time to restore work/life balance behaviours, let alone a structured and routine approach to addressing common habitual sleep procrastination still on-screen into the night etc. Hopefully many will have retained their sense of the ridiculous even if their sense of humour was crushed a long time passing… Read more »

Bob Hartley
Bob Hartley
2 years ago

Some years ago, (I shudder to think how many), I was running an in house training course for new Work Control Permit Issuers. One of our very senior managers was on another course in the same building, and heard us laughing as he passed the room door. At break time he took me to one side and asked what I was doing, as after all – “safety is a serious subject”. If the guys are laughing, I said, I know they are actually awake, and there is more chance of them remembering the lessons and facts taught, rather than if… Read more »

Tracey Jeffries
Tracey Jeffries
2 years ago

I absolutely believe humour has a place. I don’t class myself as an ordinary or dour health and safety officer, I laugh and joke with the staff at branches when we meet. To my mind that makes me approachable when they feel they need to. That makes me a friend when they need one. It also means I can sneak in a bit of Health and Safety advice when needed. I live and breathe health and safety and everyone knows that; especially when it’s not quite right and guidance to the ‘right way’ is required. I believe I promote a… Read more »