4 min read

Mindfulness: The new buzzword in health and safety – and what it means for you…

By Joseph Nunweek

Mindfulness. The word’s gained increasing currency when we discuss mental health and wellbeing, but it’s also a word that conjures up images of meditation circles and chanting. Mindfulness is airy-fairy, but a lot of health and safety obligations are about getting down to the nitty-gritty. Right?

So why have Safe Work Australia released their findings into “Mindfulness of work health and safety in the workplace” this month?

It’s because leading health and safety professionals have developed a practical, meaningful concept of what mindfulness in the workplace looks like in recent years.

Toward a ‘mindful’ health and safety culture

When we talk about mindfulness in health and safety, we’re looking at a way of developing an environment where employers and workers alike are continually conscious and aware of those factors that could cause injury or harm.

It’s not news that developing an organisational culture in the workplace where health and safety is seen as “everyone’s responsibility” is more important than just having a set of rules workers are ordered to follow.

On a day to day basis, mindfulness in the workplace involves workers actively considering risks, priorities and next steps as they are performing their current tasks. Far from zoning out and being at one with the universe, it’s exactly what most employers would want their workers to be doing!

Across an organisation, mindfulness can be broken down into four processes:

  1. Preoccupation with failure

Mindful preoccupation with failure doesn’t mean being pessimistic about your work or your business. In Safe Work Australia’s report, they describe it as “a healthy alertness and lively awareness of the possibility of errors and failures” in an organisation.

Another way to think about it is always being vigilant – workers are vigilant in their current task, and employers are vigilant about the broader health and safety risks they control – from workplace stress, to new contractors, to procurement matters.

  1. Reluctance to simplify

Everyone knows that some procedures in the workplace are time-consuming and complex. In health care and social assistance sectors, it can feel like some of the requirements on a patient care form are just tick box exercises. In construction and mining, a pre-work vehicle check might seem like lost minutes – the thing was fine yesterday!

But a mindful organisation is reluctant to simplify – it recognises that the most inefficient thing it can do is cut corners and lead to a major health and safety accident.

It socialises its workers to recognise the reasons why some processes need to be complex, and embrace them.

It will make the development of safe operating procedures a priority, and not a ‘nice to have’.

  1. Sensitivity to operations

Sensitivity to operations is similar to a reluctance to simplify. The Safe Work Australia describes this as the way a mindful organisation pays vigilant attention to every detail, regardless of how seemingly insignificant it may be in day-to-day operations.

Think about healthcare again, in a rest home context. One day, a nurse or carer notices an older person has cold hands, and a glassy, staring expression. No big deal, he thinks – older people have bad circulation and ‘senior moments’ all the time.

So he doesn’t bother saying anything to his manager, so as not to be a bother. No one bothers to keep monitoring the patient – and what seemed like ordinary symptoms have become meningitis 24 hours later.

Sensitivity to operations means that workers (even at a low level) are encouraged to report things and speak up. And it means that senior managers and employers need to remain as aware as possible of the current state of their wards, shop floors, or sites.

  1. Commitment to resilience, and deference to expertise

This last element of mindfulness is about what happens in those situations where it’s hardest to be mindful. It could be that an error has developed that could critically damage plant. It could be that a contagious infection is spreading through a care home.

Or it could be that someone has already been injured, and action must be taken to manage the situation.

In these situations, commitment to resilience and deference to expertise are about flexibility. It may be that business as usual stops, and workers leave their usual roles to support each other and help solve a problem.

Alternatively, the usual lines of management might break down temporarily and the individual with the most knowledge may take responsibility in the situation.

Let’s look at that instance where a piece of plant has developed a critical fault. Isn’t it the right time to hand over some of the decision-making to whichever worker is responsible for – and knows most about – its operating and maintenance?

What the Fair Work Australia study showed

The Fair Work Australia report assessed data from its Perceptions of Work Health and Safety Survey 2012 to assess Australian employers, employees, sole trader/contractors and health & safety professionals, using three mindfulness criteria:

  • Preoccupation with failure;
  • Sensitivity to operations; and
  • ‘What businesses count on’, a series of statements designed to assess overall mindfulness.

It indicated that sole traders working as labourers tended to display higher levels of mindfulness across all the criteria. In a way, this makes sense – if you’re your own source of income and labour, you’re hopefully going to be more aware of the risks and dangers around you.

Surprisingly, employers operating in the health care and social assistance sector tended to have the lowest levels of mindfulness compared to other industries.

Crucially, less than half of these employers indicated that their business spends time identifying how its activities could potentially harm workers, compared to around 80% of employers in the manufacturing, transport and construction sectors.

The good news is that a majority of workers across all sectors agreed that they were encouraged to report significant mistakes and talk to superiors about problems – in a ‘good way’, they’re preoccupied with failure!

It’s not the law – but it is a strategy

Australia’s health and safety laws aren’t unduly prescriptive. In other words, an inspector won’t turn up and fine you on the spot for insufficient preoccupation with failure.

But organisational mindfulness is one way to foster a culture in your business that makes for consistent, proactive compliance with the law.

And if the regulators are thinking about mindfulness, it’s a great way to be one step ahead. Ask yourself which of the processes I described today are in place in your business – and if not, what you need to do to kick them off.

Correction: In last Thursday’s Health and Safety Bulletin, we talked about the responsibilities of PCBUs (persons conducting a business or undertaking) when it came to union rights of entry.

Unfortunately, a typo instead read ‘Persons in charge of a business or undertaking’. We apologise for the error – consider it another small but valuable lesson in mindfulness.

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