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Adam Bannister is a freelancer journalist who has held various editorial positions, including as editor of SHP's partner publication for security & fire safety, IFSEC Insider (formally IFSEC Global).
May 5, 2023

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Safety & Health Expo

Expo preview: IOSH keynotes on the benefits of cross-team collaboration

OSH practitioners can, and should, cooperate effectively across their organisation in pursuit of complementary goals, argue IOSH luminaries…

The goals of occupational safety and health professionals need not conflict with those of other teams.

That’s among the insights shared in the following Q&A with Louise Hosking, IOSH immediate past president and OneWISH Coalition Co-Founder, and Dr Chris Davis, Head of Thought Leadership at IOSH.

The pair spoke to SHP ahead of their Safety & Health Expo keynote next month, in which they will explain how OSH professionals can work productively in concert with IT, HR and procurement teams.

SHP: Your keynote title is ‘collaborating for a sustainability multiplier effect’ – can you elaborate on what this means?

Louise Hosking

Louise Hosking (LH): No one person has the monopoly on wisdom. Our work and life environments are becoming ever more complex and our only constant is change.

To respond to this we have to get used to working in a more dynamic and agile manner. This cannot be achieved via transactional hierarchical management.

When we work as facilitators across organisations, we will not only develop new ways of working which are smarter than we could have considered at the start, but we help organisations to bring people together, which means other issues are discussed and resolved.

Dr Chris Davis (CD): The title of the session perhaps hints at some grandiose, complex and hard-to-achieve goal for OSH [occupational safety and health] professionals, when in fact we are talking fundamentally about developing natural allegiances within organisations.

Where one function appears to be primarily motivated by cost, another by quality, another by productivity, another by worker safety, health and wellbeing, and so on, questions about trade-offs might seem inevitable.

And while it is true that a balance needs to be struck, introducing the concept of ‘trade-offs’ gives the impression that the goals of different stakeholders are mutually exclusive. This is where the idea of collaboration comes to the fore.

Sustainability should be the shared motivation of all functions, not least because, by definition, it refers to a desirable scenario in which the future of an organisation (including the ongoing wellbeing of its workers, of course) is not compromised.

The hypothesis underpinning United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is that the goals are interdependent – in other words, that progress against one goal will enable progress against others.

This high-level hypothesis is replicated at the organisational level – meaning efforts to achieve sustainable outcomes in one area can lead to sustainable outcomes in another. But it requires shared planning and genuine collaboration.

SHP: What do you expect attendees will gain from listening to your talk?

LH: An understanding of how to facilitate effective transformation via high performing teams, not being afraid as an OSH professional to step outside your comfort zone and why it is so important to develop your own personal leadership style.

CD: Cross-functional collaboration requires more than just intent. With the best will in the world, many organisations are simply not set up in a way that makes it straightforward to work intuitively across functions, nor might OSH professionals themselves have the experience to articulate or achieve the benefits that come from integrating safety and health management into the broader pursuit of social sustainability.

Informed both by insight from IOSH’s Catch the Wave campaign and the in-the-field experience of Louise Hosking, this session aims to walk delegates through the benefits and processes of collaboration: finding common ground and establishing relationships with other organisational functions; presenting and realising a shared vision of sustainable work built on principles of safety and health; integrating and streamlining organisational processes; and so on.

SHP: Why might OSH practitioners sometimes fail to collaborate with other teams effectively?

Dr Chris Davis

CD: There are a couple of reasons.

On the one hand, it is perhaps fair to suggest that OSH has historically been understood first and foremost as a technical, rather than people-focused, discipline. While this has changed over time – and was certainly accelerated by the Covid pandemic, which illuminated the contribution of safe, healthy working environments to organisations’ sustainability – the legacy of OSH endures to a certain extent.

On the other hand, the structural configuration of organisations perhaps reflects the point above in the sense that OSH functions may, simply by design, be limited in their ability to influence (or be influenced by) their most natural collaborators: human resource, IT, procurement and so on.

Also, let us not forget that many organisations – and especially smaller organisations – are not divided neatly or ideally into different functions at all. In truth, those responsible for occupational safety and health could well do so at the same time as undertaking another role.

In other words, it would be ideal if, say, HR and OSH functions were based on the same corridor, belonged to the same reporting structure, were strategically aligned with one another, and had shared visions and objectives. That way, it would be straightforward enough to streamline processes, begin sharing compatible data cross-functionally, even to knock through the wall and rearrange the desks as part of the effort to coordinate efforts towards obtaining sustainable work for all. Of course, this is rarely the case.

As such, the challenge for OSH professionals consists not only of coming to understand the benefits of cross-functional collaboration, but in overcoming any obstacles that stand in the way of it actually happening.

LH: Ask the average person about OSH and they will consider it as restrictive, compliance [related], rule based – something which slows them down.

OSH professionals who create a list of problems without understanding the wider context of the organisations they work within become a stressor. By understanding the current level of maturity within their organisation and working from where they are with other teams will show others the value-add they can bring.

SHP: How does health and safety suffer, or the wider business suffer, when cross-team collaboration is lacking?

LH: We miss opportunities for smarter, more efficient, more people-centric ways of working. Diverse perspectives coming together to develop a collaborative way forward are not just good for OSH, they are good from a business perspective too.

CD: If we consider organisations through a social sustainability lens, a lack of collaboration automatically raises the likelihood of teams working at cross purposes and opens the possibility of the organisation’s social fabric being compromised.

Imagine that an organisation’s OSH function is making a concerted effort to improve the psychological wellbeing of workers – for argument’s sake, through education and training intervention – but operational pressures mean that workers are also being asked to work more intensively, for longer periods, and under greater stress. A meaningful improvement in worker wellbeing is unlikely.

Worse still, it may be only one episode in a larger system of cross-functional tensions. Indeed, workers may indirectly perceive their employers as duplicitous, appearing to preach one thing whilst practicing another.

Ultimately, this is a question about the organisation’s primary motivations. Where a socially minded lens is adopted – and where it is collectively and collaboratively understood across functions – workers become the starting point for organisational decision-making.

SHP: Anything else to add about this or related topics?

LH: I am an advocate for organisations working to improve their psychological health and safety. ISO45003 provides an excellent framework for this.

When we do this, we create teams which trust one another, and with trust they will look out for themselves and the person working alongside them. The board is fundamental to driving modern leadership styles.

They will know when there is an issue within their business – it will be obvious. They need to be bold and face it head on.

IOSH are sponsoring the SHP Keynote Theatre at Safety & Health Expo, where you can catch Louise Hosking and Dr Chris Davis speaking on Thursday 18th May from 10.30 – 11.15. Register to attend here!

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