The Anxiety of Safety

By Nicole Barrett, Psychologist

Mar 06, 2017

anxiety of safety

For nearly 20 years I've been on projects designed to assess and improve culture and collated data from over 6000 surveys, 700 interviews and 100's of focus groups in the energy, construction, aviation and oil and gas industries as well as local and state government.

When it comes to safety culture, not much has changed in terms of the core themes that emerge. Despite all that we have learned, shouldn't there be more progress?

Let me say up front... I don't have all the answers but allow me to share. Over the years, I've noticed an increasing anxiety when I'm finalising a safety culture report. The process of trawling through data and agonising about what themes will be most helpful to the client dependent on the maturity of the organisation. It's not that I lack confidence or trust in my capability to deliver value, it's because the work is important, there is fear of judgement and I don't want to disappoint the client and leave us vulnerable.

Why am I telling you this? Because these feelings are reflective of a much larger system with a very strong appetite to 'get it right' and find the 'silver bullet'.

Why are we eager to find the silver bullet? Because risk and safety is anxiety provoking and human beings are biologically geared to reduce unpleasant feelings.

How is safety anxiety provoking?

  • We are motivated to move away from risk and ensure survival of the species - anxiety plays a key role in our fight/flight mechanism.
  • Imagine the stress and grief if you were injured, the disappointment from your manager or the shame and guilt that might come with feeling responsible for injuring someone.
  • There is pressure to keep up with all of the requirements, let alone assure yourself that the people, equipment and systems are capable and effective in managing risk.
  • Wondering what can be done to control those random unforeseen events.
  • And by the way, if you get it 'wrong', you could be held personally accountable and prosecuted.

Are you feeling anxious yet?

Why is this a problem?

The problem with 'anxiety' and/or concerns about 'disappointing' authority figures is that our social defences kick in to reduce or eliminate the worry which often manifests in unhelpful ways.

Social defences in organisational settings is not a new concept. Like delegating your tax to an accountant, in the realm of safety, patterns of splitting, projection and scapegoating consistently show up in our research programs. Some examples:

  • Leaders, managers and supervisors tend to avoid the full take up of their role and delegate or split safety out. They rely on the safety experts to take the 'heat off'. By way of example, more often than not, the safety department has its own structure and sets the strategy. And, have you ever observed a meeting where the safety professional becomes the target in terms of any conversations and actions about safety? Whilst 'splitting' might reduce the leader's anxiety, safety becomes a separate entity and sends mixed messages about accountability and the priority of safety.
  • Safety professionals identify with the leader's 'projection' and often over-function. That is, the safety expert wants to please management and reduce their anxiety by doing 'all things' connected to safety. What we then see is safety professionals undertaking lots of activity. They may not even have the competency to perform what is being asked of them. Nevertheless, with the best of intentions safety professionals come up with initiatives, paperwork and new requirements which all serve the purpose of reducing the systems anxiety and protects their role. The result on the front-line is that the end user is overwhelmed, confused and distracted by the complex requirements. Safety is then viewed as something 'other' than the real work as opposed to being an integral part of the day to day.
  • When incidents occur, there is a flurry of activity. Leaders want answers and they want them now. The initial reaction is often to locate a target or someone who will 'pay the price'. People seek to reduce their anxiety through scapegoating and blame which also contributes to a failure to learn.

Don't get me wrong, social defences are a good thing. They keep us safe and protected. However, what we observe can be defensive behaviours which have strong impacts on culture. For example:

  • Refraining from challenging authority figures and conventional thinking.
  • Non-reporting and a reluctance to share bad news.
  • Under-rating the significance of incidents.
  • High concern for auditor reports.
  • Changing strategies and flavour of the month initiatives.
  • Complex and conflicting systems and processes.
  • Excessive self-imposed rules beyond compliance requirements.
  • Panic and/or seeking retribution in the event of incidents.
  • Closing investigations and actions prematurely.

If we get it right, we can reduce the anxiety... but who is right?

The quest for the silver bullet in safety is becoming the holy grail that was once seen with employee satisfaction. There is conventional safety, the compliance approach, safety differently, business differently, safety psychology, zero harm, active safety leadership and the list goes on.

All disciplines and philosophies aside, I would hope that we share the same purpose - to keep people safe. In terms of improvement, my gut tells me that it won't matter which safety camp you are in. Yes, we have learned that some things work better than others but the findings from our culture research reveals patterns that have very little to do with safety. Instead, they are about leadership, management and good business practices. They are about people's need for inclusiveness, trust, empowerment and workable processes. They are about a desire to be informed and to learn. They are about having realistic expectations and the time to perform the job well and be recognised for doing so.

The anxiety around safety, fear of accountability and our relationship with authority are systemic themes with far reaching impacts on culture and the behaviour of people at work. Don't you think we might benefit from talking about it?

What do we need to learn / unlearn?

We continue to learn about safety in organisations. As a community, we are asking different questions and the offering of new ideas is contagious. If there was a silver bullet or 'right' way to conceive, manage and do safety - I suspect we would know it by now. At best, all we can do is trial, learn and evolve as a diverse community.

It doesn't matter whether you are leading safety, managing safety or doing safety, anxiety exists. To help contain the anxiety, a first step is to recognise how these unpleasant feelings manifest in your behaviour. If you can name it and talk about it, the feelings lose power. The unconscious becomes conscious and you are better able to make informed decisions and take purposeful action instead of being on auto-pilot and reacting in unhelpful ways.

Take some time to reflect and be mindful of how your personal need to belong and look good in the eyes of authority figures influences how you take up your role at work. For example, how receptive are you to criticism from the Board and how do you respond to bad news?

Get out of the 'personal', focus on what you are authorised to do and find new ways of coping with fear and anxiety. When it comes to safety, 'everyone' has a role. Do your job, do it well and learn from mistakes.

There you have it, a contribution.

Q. Is that the right answer?
A. There is no silver bullet - I have more questions than answers.

Q. Will it help?
A. I'm optimistic.

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