Safety Catalyst: Stressing Safety

Sept. 21, 2006
Are you doing more but enjoying it less?

A significant majority of leaders in my seminars agree there is more stress now than in the past and that this adversely affects safety performance.

No question, the pace of change seems faster, information can be overwhelming and the demands of living more intense. Some people find themselves: Working a 40-hour week by Wednesday; pleased to be doing the work of only two people; turning to coffee as a drug of necessity.

There are several definitions of stress, but, in my experience, when people say they're "stressed," they really mean they're feeling "out of control."

You know the feeling. You are dog-tired at the end of the day but are not able to sleep because your mind is racing. You find yourself saying you should do one thing (e.g., lose weight, exercise) and avoid doing others (lose temper, take it out on family), but are not able to make yourself comply.

If we can't control ourselves, how can we effectively influence others?

Stress = Accidents

Studies show that when under a significant amount of stress, people have more accidents and more severe injuries, both at work and at home. Stress tends to narrow our attention into "tunnel vision," which can then lead to bad decision-making like not seeing what's in front of you and contributing to vehicle or struck-by/struck-against accidents.

Unmanaged stress can elevate physical tensions, which reduce balance (slips/trips/falls) or increase softtissue injuries (for example, it is easier to cut a taut rope than a "relaxed" one with slack in it.)

And, getting injured can fuel the stress cycle. We know from working with accident repeaters that stress and accidents can have a chicken-and-egg relationship.

Stress doesn't have to be our enemy. Positive stress means being excited and energized, feeling the challenge of learning something new, being part of an involved team, focusing on do-able deadlines that help us perform, being aware of shifting changes and alert to new ideas.

Positive Stress

How do you help tip the scales towards positive stress? Go beyond those simplistic supermarket articles about "balancing your work and your life." Easy to say, hard to do.

There are realistic methods you can use, that while they won't fix everything, take little time and get significant results. Start by better understanding the link between our mental thoughts, physical body and emotional feelings. For example, if you think of a long-ago embarrassing moment, your body will react just as if you were there now.

But the flip side of control also works. Controlling your body position, balance and small muscle coordination can have quick, positive effects on your mind and emotions. While it's often difficult for most people to direct their thoughts and emotions, it's usually easier to control their physical body.

This isn't just theory. From our 21 years of front-line work preventing strains/sprains, slips/trips/falls and hand injuries, we've seen when workers learn to improve their physical balance and strength, they report feeling more relaxed and mentally in control as well. Like learning skills in sports or hobbies, these techniques really have to be tried rather than just discussed (for example, tasting salt rather than just reading about it).

Controlling the shape of your spine quickly affects your inner state. For example, when people are depressed, they typically slump, with their back in a "C" shape. Contrarily, when someone is anxious, they usually have a rigid, tight posture, an "I"-shaped spine. So if you feel "down," move your back towards a slightly S-shape (e.g., tuck a pillow in the small of your back when seated). For most people, this method helps dispel some mental clouds, gives a boost of energy and leaves them feeling mentally and physically stronger.

Of course, this quick adjustment won't make deeper problems go away, but it will help you take more control so you can better deal with them from a base of strength and judgment.

On an organizational level, studies have revealed that social support helps dissipate feelings of negative work stress. Consider methods for getting workers together around safety in ways that simultaneously provide them a safe outlet, involve them in planning and teach them how to become better safety directors of their own lives. Strong home safety interventions can work wonders here.

We all swim in the seas of work and home stress. Fresh approaches can help turn stress into safety and sureness.

Robert Pater ([email protected], is managing director of Portland, Ore.-based Strategic Safety Associates.

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