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May 15, 2013

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SHE 2013: Habits are for making as well as breaking

The word ‘habit’ generally has a negative connotation for most people but doing something habitually can also be a good thing, as AZEA’s Bruce Durham told the audience in the Arco Academy at Safety & Health Expo this afternoon (15 May).

Bruce kicked off with the truisms that all companies employ human beings, all health and safety relies on those human beings, and all human beings create habits. Given that, companies need to know how to ‘tweak’ those habits to make their people more effective in terms of health and safety, and productivity.

He then gave the audience a short anatomy lesson, pointing out the two areas of the brain that are intrinsic to creating habits: the amygdala, which is the ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ centre, and the basal ganglia, where habitual behaviour is stored.

Bruce explained: “Look at your workforce and see how they react to certain things. Who, for example, reacts by ‘going off on one’ when they come under pressure?”

The goal is, he said, to make sure that what employees do automatically is both safe and productive. Understanding how the ‘habit loop’ works can help with this. Bruce explained: “There are three stages in the loop — the cue, the process and the result. It’s like if you are driving along the motorway and you feel hungry — this is the cue. So, you look out for and pull over at the next McDonalds — the process. You wolf down a burger and fries and your hunger is satisfied — result!”

The more times we do this, he said, the more it becomes a habit such that we get to a point where we feel hungry just by passing a McDonalds! “It’s like Pavlov’s dog,” he laughed.

The important thing to understand in this is that we generally don’t have any control over the cue but we can control the process. “For example,” said Bruce, “a deadline might be brought forward, a machine could break down, or someone is off sick. Not a lot we can do about those but we can choose how to deal with these things. We still want the same result so we just need to change the process.”

He then introduced the concept of ‘craving’ into the loop — “like the clean feeling you get when you’ve brushed your teeth. This has nothing to do with the actual cleansing power of the toothpaste; it’s all about the feeling of clean that the act of brushing engenders.

“In the habit loop in the workplace, craving is the workers wanting to fit in. It is natural — we all want to impress. What is also natural is that humans flock together. We know we have more chance of guaranteeing our own self-preservation if we are part of a pack.

“So, you need to create a culture in which everyone wants to be part of the team.”

Key to this, Bruce added, are your leaders and supervisors. “If they consistently prove that safety is the way forward, it will become habitual among employees. Employees will adapt to the behaviour of the people they look up to, so managers are key to spreading the right message.”

He concluded by saying that lots of companies have ‘golden rules’ on safety really, you should have only one golden rule: your company should be set up so your  employees can work 100-per-cent productively, 100-per-cent of the time without thinking about safety.

“But,” warned Bruce, “if a danger does arise — the cue, again — and the employees arrive at the ‘T-junction’, where they do have to stop and think about what to do safely, your systems should be set up, and the environment created, such that they feel empowered to make the right decisions about safety.”

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