Category Archives: Safety

Cost: £99bn and 300,000 lost jobs a year Cause: poor mental health

Every year, poor mental health costs the UK economy up to £99 billion as productivity of employees falls and 300,000 people with mental health problems face the personal tragedy of losing their jobs.

But a report by the UK government, ‘Thriving at Work: The Independent Review of Mental Health and Employers’, shows that the status quo can and must be challenged
and that addressing the issue and fixing the problem not only cuts costs and improves employees’ wellbeing, but it can also have a positive financial return on investment for companies.

 The costsScreen Shot 2017-10-26 at 11.02.39

UK employers face annual costs of between £33 and £42 billion; more than 50 percent of those costs coming from ‘presenteeism’, when workers are less productive, and sickness absence and staff turnover.  The government picks up a tab of £24-27 billion much of it from welfare and NHS costs. The overall £99 billion includes all of the above costs, together with the opportunity costs of companies and the economy not being at full production and of the NHS not having to dedicate resources to mental health interventions – money that could be saved or spent elsewhere

 The opportunity

Equally – there are huge opportunities to cut these costs, improve productivity and improve the lot of the employee at the same time. Studies by Deloitte, cited in the report, show that where investment is made in improving mental health, it gives a consistently positive return with one case showing a £9.98 return on investment of £1.

 The vision

While the solutions should be tailored for individuals and by company, the value of the report will initially be that the issue of mental health in the workplace cannot now be ignored by employers.  In addition, individual employees are also encouraged to be aware of their own and other people’s mental health.

The report’s overall ambitions include that:

  • Employees in all types of employment will have ‘good work’ contributing to positive mental health
  • All of us will have knowledge and confidence to understand and look after our mental health.
  • All organizations, regardless of size, will have the awareness and tools to identify and prevent work factors leading to mental ill-health
  • They will be equipped to support individuals with a mental health condition to thrive
  • Organizations will have access to timely help to reduce sickness absences caused by mental ill-health

 Practical actions

The report highlights a set of actions, which over a decade, are designed to slash by a third the number of people leaving jobs due to mental health problems.  These practical interventions – or mental health ‘core standards’ that all companies must do, include:

  • Produce, implement and communicate a ‘mental health at work plan’
  • Develop mental health awareness among employees
  • Encourage open conversations about mental health and the support available when employees are struggling
  • Provide employees with good working conditions and ensure they have a healthy work/life balance and opportunities for development
  • Promote effective people management through line managers and supervisors
  • Routinely monitor employees’ mental health and wellbeing

Best practice

In addition – and depending on their size and maturity, companies in a leading position on promoting mental health at work will also adopt some or all of the following ‘enhanced standards’:

  • Increase transparency an accountability through internal and external reporting [on mental health]
  • Demonstrate accountability
  • Improve the disclosure process
  • Ensure provision of tailored in-house mental support and sign-posting to clinical support

The bottom line results from these interventions could mean 100,000 fewer people leaving their jobs due to mental health problems and employers should be willing to pay £1 to get nearly £10 back.

All this could be great news for people suffering poor mental health, for the NHS and through increased productivity, for the wider economy.  Overall, it will be one element that promotes a decent, respectful society.

The key will now be implementation, transparently measuring and reporting progress and ongoing government focus on the topic.  Otherwise, as the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

‘Human error’ blamed for BA’s server crash. But which human and what error?

When there’s an accident at work, it’s often the worker involved who is blamed.

Sometimes – after lengthy and thorough investigations – the multiple causes of accidents are revealed to be much broader than ‘someone doing something stupid’ and the hope is that the BA IS system crash investigation will be as thorough.

Just like in a safety investigation, the discipline of applying ‘root cause analysis’ will seek to find out what happened to cause the failure and more importantly, why it happened.  The ‘why’ is critical because it identifies systemic, cultural and management failures – the root causesPlug pic.

Fixing root causes permanently makes a company more resilient – first it’s less likely to face a similar problem and second, if it does, its resulting contingency planning will mean it ‘bounces back’ from problems and recovers faster in future.

As an example of some ‘why’ issues: why did the contractor re-connect power without going through a process and or without authority?  Why did they not know about the process, or if they did, why was it ignored. And digging a little deeper: how is the process developed and who has management responsibility for the process and for reviewing and auditing that it’s applied properly. How are ‘near misses’ reported, recorded and shared to the benefit of refining the process?  In terms of culture, are contractors pushed to get things done in double-quick time in order to reduce downtime, do they regularly feel they have to resort to short-cuts in order to meet management expectations?

In manufacturing companies – this is characterised by ‘productivity over everything’; do what you have to do to get it done fast.  Is there constant squeeze on costs?  Is there little interest among management in hearing about the consequences of the squeeze, or do they just insist that all activities must continue, but that they must be done more efficiently.

Capital cost reduction, combined with reduction in staff may also result in a situation where the margin for error or the presence of back-up systems compounded the effect of the error. Was the cost of failure factored-in to financial decisions and how much did management think a failure – with all its attendant brand damage – would cost?

And a proper root cause analysis of BA’s outage will get to the heart of the culture that created the circumstances in which a contractor did what they did – either because they didn’t know what the correct procedure was, or felt pressured to override the process.

All this ‘digging into the issue’ may seem tedious, but it’s as tedious as a pilot doing a pre-flight check in the same way, before every flight. As yet, the total cost of the BA outage is not known, but creating a culture that avoids future incidents will certainly save a fortune.

The culture of the flight deck would be a good aspiration for many companies.

Thanks to Kevin Grocki for the picture, used under Creative Commons Licence

Media waiting for ‘single cause’ for Croydon tram tragedy… They’ll wait. And wait…

A tram crashed in Croydon south of London on the morning of November 9 when it failed to negotiate a bend and left the track, tragically resulting in the loss of seven people’s lives.

A bulletin on a BBC news programme this morning, a day after the incident, caught my attention.  It said that a ‘single cause for the tragedy was yet to be identified’ and focused coverage on the driver who they reported ‘may have fallen asleep or blacked out’.  Like references to ‘pilot error’ all media covering transport crashes want to rush to the conclusion that it was the ‘nut behind the wheel’.

On the strength of this, I’m tempted to offer a ‘101’ course on incident causcheeseation to reporters.  I’d probably start by rolling-out the tried and tested James Reason model, fondly called the Swiss Cheese Model.  It shows slices of holey Swiss cheese, that represent a series of barriers:

  • organisational influences
  • supervision
  • preconditions
  • specific acts or omissions

If these are in place and functioning normally, they will prevent an incident.  They all need to fail in order for a hazard to result in a loss or incident.

But what has this to do with the media?

Well, I think that while journalists want to wrap a story up quickly along the lines of ‘suspected pilot error’, they may be missing the chance of being more rigorous, incisive and systemic in their reports, as the story develops.  Understanding the ‘Swiss Cheese model’ and applying some basic root cause analysis principles would help them get to the heart of the story and may inform the questions they ask and the people they may want to speak to. Eyewitnesses and survivors are essential interviewees, but once they’ve been interviewed, trying to speak to other people in the company may also be productive.  And even if they can’t get them to talk, knowledge of incident causation can open up productive avenues for reporters to investigate: company culture, cost savings, redundancies, audit frequency etc.

Getting to the root cause is what investigators do – and nothing is stopping journalists from taking the same approach.  IF the tram was going to fast – why? IF the driver blacked out or fell asleep – WHY?  Was it shifts or rostering, or another reason? Are there cost pressures? How is the company trading and so why might someone want to save money or speed up operations?  Who may have wanted to save money or provide a faster service?  That’s likely a management decision, so how far might this be a local management problem, or a more holistic issue affecting more than one tram, train or plane operated by the company?

I’ve worked as a reporter reporting on disasters, as a crisis manager for a corporate and as a health and safety leader and consultant.  So, in a way, I’m a poacher turned gamekeeper, but my main concern has morphed into working for the prevention of incidents in the first place.

Just as an incident happens through a series of failures, I’m convinced there are multiple contributions to a safer society. The safety professional or regulator won’t solve these issues on their own. In this context, the media does play a critical role in holding companies’ and governments’ feet to the fire on safety.  So if companies consistently faced the prospect of an incisive media with a real grounding in the principles of health and safety management, it may drive a greater diligence around risk management by more companies.  If this results in one fewer injury or fatal incident, then it will have been worthwhile.

Photo thanks to Ciel Bleu