We’ve finally reached that time of the year when, even if just for a little while, we’re able to turn our attention away from things like vaccine mandates, legal challenges, supply chain disruptions, and the latest exhibitions of political chicanery to focus on more ethereal concepts like gratitude, generosity and compassion. It’s been an exhausting year, maybe even more of a grueling slog than 2020, because the hope we had a year ago that a COVID-19 vaccine could be quickly developed has somehow morphed into a contentious argument on the merits of that very vaccine.
But thankfully, whoever came up with the idea of holidays shrewdly devised it so that we’d have a whole bunch of them at the end of every year. And better still, the winter holidays are a time when all three components of the EHS trilogy—environment, health and safety—are manifest in the way people feel about their homes, their families and their communities. The year-end celebrations offer an opportunity for each of us to acknowledge how much we all depend on each other, and to say thank you.
Maybe it’s a coincidence, but at our recent Safety Leadership Conference (SLC) 2021 in Cleveland, a common theme of compassion and empathy ran through many of the presentations. Rick Fulwiler, for instance, spoke about the three attributes of transformational safety leadership: listening, caring and engaging. Earlier in his career, Fulwiler served as worldwide director of health and safety at consumer products giant Procter & Gamble, and more recently he’s served as an instructor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and a consultant with his own firm, Transformational Leadership Associates. So there’s not much, if anything, about the safety profession he doesn’t already know. And yet, when prompted for advice on how EHS managers can develop the kind of leadership that can truly make a difference in the workplace, Fulwiler’s answer was short and simple: “Lead with your head and your heart.”
Similarly, Rod Courtney has had a long career in safety, primarily at utility and construction companies, including Ampirical (which was named one of this year’s America’s Safest Companies). His keynote presentation offered some insights into how exactly a safety professional can make a difference. Courtney referred to what he calls “a just safety culture, one that maintains channels for communication that truly make it safe for people to raise issues regarding safety, quality of life, dignity, and respect on the site and throughout the company.” Stop all the naming, blaming, shaming and retraining, he advises—none of that works. The hallmark of a just safety culture is accountability—people are accountable to each other and to themselves. When you know your boss and your co-workers have your back, and you have their backs, the workplace takes on an entirely different characteristic—it becomes a place where people care about each other.
Let’s face it: These past two years have been very hard on everybody. We’ve lost friends and loved ones to a virus that refuses to go away, and the pandemic has not only impacted the physical health of millions of people, but it’s taken an even greater toll on the mental health of who knows how many more. In EHS Today’s “2021 Mental Health in the Workplace Report,” we found that safety professionals are being challenged like never before by incidents of substance abuse, workplace violence and major depressive episodes among their workers. While 54% of those surveyed said their companies have a plan to address their workers’ mental health as they return to the workplace, 31% have no plan in place, and 15% don’t know if their companies have any such plan.
We’re in danger of losing an entire generation of young people who are growing up under the cloud of the pandemic, and as The Great Resignation continues to play out, many people are leaving their jobs because they just don’t see a future for themselves in their current situations. Another expert in leadership—Lt. General Russel Honoré, USA (Ret.), former Commander of Joint Task Force Katrina—offered this call to action in another SLC keynote: “Save your best leadership for when you get home from work. Your greatest legacy is not what you’ll do for your industry, but in the kind of kids you’ll raise.”
There are plenty of things to be outraged about these days, but there are also plenty of things to be grateful for as well, including the EHS profession. It’s not easy to champion safety in an era so polarized by political dissension that it can feel like protecting workers from disinformation is harder than protecting them from slips, trips and falls. But every time that you listen to, care for and engage with an employee, you are making a difference. It might seem like just a random act of kindness to you, but those moments can leave a positive impact on people that can truly change hearts.
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