Health, Safety & Environment Consultants

Changing Workplace Behaviours


Changing workplace behaviour is the key to successfully influencing safety performance in the workplace, but how do we change behaviours?

First, it should be noted that the conscious mind can only process 7, plus or minus 2, pieces of information at any one time, and the conscious mind will only hold on to what it feels is important at that time. The conscious mind finds processing this information very energy intensive and as such, the mind will often wander. This means that it is very hard for people to be consciously competent all the time. At the point where the conscious mind starts to wander (often referred to as Alpha State) the subconscious mind kicks in and takes over. As safety professionals, we need to work on improving the skills of the subconscious mind within the workforce so that the competencies we desire for a safe workplace are engrained into the subconscious and become a natural way of working.

To improve the subconscious mind repetition is key, but not just any repetition. It is perfect practice that makes perfect performance. It takes 21 days to change the way we do or think about something. As such, perfect practice does not make perfect. It makes a habit. We need to work with the workforce to create positive habits. The best way to do this is to encourage the workforce to look out for each other. For example, if you wish to improve the way you undertake lifting, you can request a colleague say "mind your back" if they notice you lifting incorrectly. It is not about telling people they are doing things wrong and what they need to do right. The individual already knows how to lift correctly, hence why they have requested colleagues to let them know if they see them lifting incorrectly. It's about reminders for the individual as they slip from the desired competency, so they can create a desired subconscious skill by practising perfectly. This act is about creating safe communities, with a no blame culture.

As part of the process of changing workplace behaviour, we need to ensure business leaders are engaged in the process and have the right positive self-talk and beliefs. Leaders need to be approachable and open, such that the workforce feel they can bring safety concerns to their leaders, and these concerns will be addressed. Leaders should also acknowledge that they too may at times demonstrate poor safety practices, and as such, they expect and encourage the workforce to inform them of any unsafe practices they may be undertaking. This transparency and openness will help to create the safety community we desire in the workplace.

We also need to address mental pairing and how many individuals have a negative mental paring with health and safety.  Negative connotations with health and safety often leaves individuals feeling that health and safety is about telling people what they are doing wrong, and what they must not do in the workplace. To change that mental pairing we need look at a more positive approach to how people are conducting their jobs safely in the workplace, by recognising when people are displaying the correct health and safety behaviours. This recognition of workers motivates the workforce. It will drive change and ultimately improve health and safety performance.

Understanding motivation is an important part of the process of changing workplace behaviours. Motivation is the driving force behind the way a person acts or the way in which people are stimulated to act. What motivates the workforce is actually very important to establish. Motivators will vary throughout the workforce and include factors at work, such as recognition, promotion and remuneration, and factors outside work, such as family and hobbies.

It is often reported that time pressures are one of the main reasons why workers find themselves not following safe systems of work. As employers we need to understand the impact of time pressures, be they real or perceived, and how they can affect decision making. It is often found that as we run out of time, accidents happen, this is often seen at the end of the day or towards the end of a project. Whether the time pressure is real or perceived, it is that persons reality. It is important that we acknowledge these real or perceived time pressures, and address the issue.

Ultimately to engage the workforce and create a safety community, leaders within an organisation need to change how they present themselves. As leaders, they have to have the right positive self-talk and beliefs. Leaders then need to immerse themselves into the workforce so they are visible and approachable, giving out positive messages by identifying and recognising good practice. Leaders should encourage immediate corrective action, such that if an individual notices a colleague performing a task unsafely, they immediately step in to notify them without creating a blame culture. To promote immediate corrective action, leaders need to realise why people come into work and ask what motivates them. Working on what motivates them will encourage them to use immediate corrective action and create the safety community you desire.

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