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Be wary of safety’s ‘velvet rut’

IOSH President Elect, Stuart Hughes, says to succeed we need to get uncomfortable.

Stuart Hughes is also Head of Health & Safety at Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula One Team

It’s very easy to get comfortable.

Safety has an endemic of comfort. It’s wedded to metrics that are meaningless but comfortable; it’s satiated by practices held dear that have no demonstrable improvement on workplace performance or the reduction of harm.

In the UK, we have grown comfortable with our annual statistics repeatedly telling us we have stagnated or are getting worse; comfortable with a consistent number of fatalities, significant injuries and rising number of cases of work-related ill health.

In other parts of the globe those figures continue to get worse with little to no change in practice, education of the profession or critical thought on how best we might solve the problems of today for a better tomorrow.

Author and translator of stoic teachings Ryan Holiday introduced me to this concept. He talks about it in life here, but you could easily transfer this to organisations and their OSH performance:
“To build up your life exactly how you want it to be. Minimize inconveniences and hand off the stuff you don’t like to do. To find what you enjoy, where you enjoy it, and never leave. A velvet rut is what it’s called. It’s nice, but the comfort tricks you into thinking that you’re not stuck.”

How many watermelon green audits and balanced scorecards are out there? You know the ones, they give you the comfort that ‘green is good’ on the surface but if you scratch the skin, they pop a vivid crimson red, a sure-fire warning that your comfortable seat should be on a wild bucking bronco!

OSH is full of comfort, it’s also full of people who are vehemently against change. Perhaps because of fear, possibly protecting their vested interests, or maybe subject to sunk cost fallacy. Whatever the reason, it’s very frustrating. Technology’s impact on changing working practices and environments has led to more harm reduction than any specific development in OSH practices in the last 60 years.

It is absolute madness that we put people in work environments that break them physically and mentally.

Whilst OSH practice’s focus on prevention has led to improvements, as we comfortably sit in our velvet rut there are practitioners out there who scorn the idea of wellbeing being a valid endeavour. Those who scream blue murder at psychological safety cannot comprehend why social sustainability and OSH are mentioned together and are terrified of the ESG movement. They champion prevention but cannot see the madness of not resolving workplace issues beyond physical conditions.

CREDIT: Nathan McBride/Unsplash

To me, it beggars belief; wellbeing is all about prevention, when done well, as is psychological safety. It is absolute madness that we put people in work environments that break them physically and mentally, that can debilitate their health and wellbeing. We spend an extraordinary amount of time and money on rectifying or managing the issues, only to return those people back into the same or similar environments, without fundamentally reducing their exposure to harm.

Developing health and wellbeing skills to enhance our workforce’s ability to perform, to build resilience, to help improve focus, attention, energy and social connection is at its very essence, prevention. Perhaps I would go so far as to say prevention+, with the plus being enabling.

We need to do something differently if we are to get ourselves out of our velvet rut, if we are not just going to transfer our existing comfort to newly labelled reporting within ESG.

The narrative for OSH should be so exciting, it should be screaming to bright purposeful minds that the opportunity exists to solve challenging problems and improve the health of the global population through the provision of working conditions and working environments that are healthy and safe.

Ultimately, it is about the significance of health. For it is health that is the very cornerstone on which every other hope, dream, opportunity and ambition is built upon. Without health we have nothing. That’s why OSH is of significance. The ability to influence the health and well-being of the global population is the opportunity to further unlock the art of the possible, to enable the ingenuity of our species to prosper.

So here is the call to action: to innovate, to change. to deeply understand how we set up organisations to be successful, but without it being at the expense of our workers’ health, wellbeing, or their existence.

What makes us susceptible to burnout?

In this episode  of the Safety & Health Podcast, ‘Burnout, stress and being human’, Heather Beach is joined by Stacy Thomson to discuss burnout, perfectionism and how to deal with burnout as an individual, as management and as an organisation.

We provide an insight on how to tackle burnout and why mental health is such a taboo subject, particularly in the workplace.


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