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Huw Sayer

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Business Writer & Editor

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Health and safety: Why HR managers need to think like marketers to win over colleagues


We all need allies in life and business. That’s particularly true if you are an HR manager with responsibility for health and safety (H&S).  All too often the media and even leading politicians portray H&S as bureaucratic red tape that imposes costs on business and hinders managers and employees – yet, as HR and H&S managers know, the truth is very different.

The business benefits of good H&S are well documented and go beyond simply complying with regulations. As long ago as 2002, the World Health Organisation explored the link between effective H&S and an organisation’s economic performance. Numerous reports since have confirmed how implementing robust H&S policies can boost productivity, improve employee morale, reduce costs and strengthen brands.

In fact, the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) goes as far as to say: “H&S is a key driver of continued business success.” Despite this, many directors and managers still seem unaware of these wider benefits, let alone the effect on employee engagement. All too often, as Neal Stone, policy and communications director at the British Safety Council said in a recent discussion, they view H&S as a matter of “compliance and reputation” but lack “a wider sense of moral responsibility”.

As Stone also pointed out, the Institute of Directors (IoD) and Health and Safety Executive (HSE) released a survey in 2010 which showed only one in four directors were aware of the HSE’s leadership guidance for directors and only half of them had actually read it. “Many either feel they’re in low risk organisations or think H&S is not an issue for them,” he said. “Yet it is an issue for every organisation. We’ve got to become much better at helping directors and managers understand that managing risk is a real benefit to employees and the organisation”.

So what can you and your HR team do to counter this lack of understanding? How do you get colleagues to see the importance of instilling a culture of H&S in your organisation and become your internal H&S champions? The answer is to become their ally first, by showing them how implementing good H&S policies can help them achieve their goals, both business and personal.

Lead with real benefits

The first step is to start thinking like a marketing director. Segment your audience in the company, identify the real influencers in each segment, engage with them, listen to them and identify their specific needs and what motivates them. Then tailor your messages to match relevant H&S benefits to those needs and motivations.

Instead of simply telling everyone that good H&S keeps them alive or is good for business; show them how it can make their lives easier and more rewarding. This will require you to manage up, down and across the organisation. But, rather than being caught in the middle of conflicting demands, you will become a strong central pivot – supporting senior managers in achieving their goals while ensuring the physical and mental wellbeing of employees.

Building bridges

This might mean helping sales managers see how good H&S can support their targets, by reducing absenteeism or motivating top sales people. For example, in an HRZone case study, First ScotRail reported how implementing a health and wellbeing programme reduced absence rate from 6.9% to 4.1%. It also increased employee engagement (with survey response rates doubling to 44%) and saved over £2 million a year on sickness absence.

Marketing, customer service, and commercial managers are probably more concerned with brand management, protecting the public or reassuring suppliers. More relevant to them might be the findings of The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), showing how engaged employees make stronger brand ambassadors and deliver higher levels of service and product quality. Whereas a disengaged workforce can result in substantial risks: not just of lost productivity but also of losing talented people and making organisational change difficult.

Production managers tend to be concerned with reducing stoppages, improving motivation, and hitting delivery targets. As such, they might appreciate the HSE report showing accident rates are lower (at 14%) when employees feel they have a real say in H&S, compared with accident rates of 26% when employees don’t feel involved. This report also reveals 77% of employees feel encouraged 'to raise concerns' in companies with good H&S climates, compared with just 20% in companies with poor H&S climates.

Scaling ladders

Good leadership is obviously critical to creating a positive H&S climate. Aside from stressing the legal and moral duty of senior managers to provide strategic direction and support for H&S, the EU-OSHA also makes the point that “leadership is one of the key determinants of employee well-being.” Consequently, poor leadership “contributes to poor operational and financial performance”. 

Ideally you will have the active support of senior managers, who are willing to engage in behaviour based strategies to create a culture of safety. In the words of the IoD: “Leadership is more effective if visible.” This means directors and senior managers should reinforce H&S policy by “being seen on the ‘shop floor', following all safety measures and addressing any breaches immediately”.

Maintaining the support of directors and senior managers will require you to demonstrate how H&S improves business performance overall.  Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends 2014 research shows 78% of business leaders consider talent retention and employee engagement to be among their four most urgent or important business issues. As outlined earlier, H&S can help them with this too because employees who feel safe and valued have a stronger psychological contract with their company, are more likely to act as brand ambassadors, and are less likely to leave.

Up and down

At the same time, be sure to engage in genuine open conversations with the ‘Gatekeepers’ in the organisation – administrators, secretaries, PAs, trade union representatives and works council members – who can help oil the wheels of internal cooperation. Demonstrate how H&S can actually make their lives easier, by improving efficiency, saving time and reducing stress. Listening carefully to them will also help you uncover and understand hidden objections to H&S – and give you an opportunity to correct unfounded or inaccurate views.

It is also worth paying particular attention to the ‘hidden influencers’: the water cooler authorities who other employees turn to for advice. Look to engage the positive ones, the community champions who are always raising funds for charity or are the first to volunteer as first aiders. They are often the people who are good at reminding others to take extra care when returning to work after a long break (such as a holiday or maternity leave).

It's personal, not just business

Finally, don’t forget to talk to employees about how they can apply their H&S training in their home life to protect their loved ones too. This approach has the power to make benefits tangible and immediate. It also encourages people to think of H&S in a positive light rather than as a chore, and shows that you are really committed to H&S for their sake.

Remember: You can tell when a company has leaders and employees committed to good H&S procedures. For a start, the employees tend to be happier, more supportive of colleagues, more welcoming to visitors and are often your best brand ambassadors. This is because implementing good H&S policies and communicating the benefits can deliver improved performance across the business, so long as you have the right people on your side.

The key for you as an HR manager is to create this shared sense of purpose within the organisation, so everyone knows they have a personal responsibility for implementing H&S policies. Only by achieving buy-in at all levels will you successfully integrate a robust H&S culture within your company.

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Huw Sayer

Business Writer & Editor

Read more from Huw Sayer

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