When we think about health and safety in the workplace, it’s easy to focus our efforts on processes, controls and compliance standards. The systems we put in place are logical and comprehensive that should work efficiently and according to design. However, what these systems can’t always take into account is the ‘human’ factor. Regardless of how rigorous our health and safety systems are, it is the ‘human’ in the equation that can throw a spanner in the works. Habits are our brain’s version of ‘auto-pilot’, so how do we steer them towards safety?
How Habits Influence Health and Safety in the Workplace
To understand how habits influence workplace health and safety, first, we need to understand how they function. Habits emerge through associative learning; we repeat what works and build associations between cues and responses. Habits are the building blocks of our daily routines, allowing us to act without needing to make constant decisions. In fact, studies show that habits make up 40% of our daily activities. When we follow our habits, we conserve our mental power for areas that require more consideration.
Habits are personal, developed over time, and can be a strong driver for workplace health and safety. When habits work as a positive resource, they can leverage our inclination to be cautious at work. However, more commonly associated with negative connotations, habits can also create risky behaviours. When we are on ‘auto-pilot’, our habits can lead us to take shortcuts and not follow safety procedures. The question is, how do we encourage good habits and break the bad ones?
How to Break Bad Habits
Breaking bad habits is no mean feat. We can override habits by focusing on the task at hand, but we aren’t able to continually give that level of concentration. While reminding our workers why safety is important in the workplace and what practices they need to follow helps, it is only temporary. As soon as focus is lost, we all revert back to ‘auto-pilot’.
The only way to break bad habits is to change the associative learning upon which they’re built. Charles Duhigg covers this in detail in his book, The Power of Habit, showing how even large organisations can change habits and drive workplace safety. To break our bad habits, we need to adjust the three-part process that drives them:
- Cue – this is what triggers us to act
- Routine – this is the habit, the action we take
- Reward – this is how taking the action makes us feel
To break habits, we need to try to change the system of cues and rewards. If we are following a habit, which is unsafe, so we can complete a task faster, we are driven by the time-saving or financial gain. However, if we can flip that by rewarding a safer way of acting, with employee recognition, then we can start to change our way of thinking. Likewise, with our cues, if we make it harder to start the unsafe action, by physically removing or replacing the cues, we have a chance of breaking the habit.
How to Encourage More Consistent Safe Behaviours
Building positive habits in the workplace isn’t something that happens overnight. Many studies refer to a minimum period of 21 days to build a new habit, but it can actually take a lot longer. The key, of course, is constant reinforcement.
Negative communications and injury-based scare tactics may work in the short-term, but the effect wears off before it becomes a habit. An approach based on positive thinking, encouragement and support is much more likely to build the foundations of a habit.
To help encourage more consistent workplace health and safety behaviours, consider:
- Providing the tools to build better habits.
- Frequently checking in and analysing progress.
- Creating a consciously positive approach to habit-building.
- Building positive reinforcements for good behaviour.
- Giving motivation, demonstrating how positive habits could benefit outside of the work environment too.
Research on habits and the way our brains are wired continues to evolve. However, what is clear is that we need to actively work on our habits if they are to change. We all have the basic skills we need to work safely, but it requires us to first engage our brains.
The strategies of motivation and reinforcement will help to build positive habits, and hopefully break the bad ones. However, we all work at a different pace. Rewriting deeply ingrained patterns in our subconscious requires perseverance, positivity and commitment. Ultimately, it’s mindfulness and self-discipline that will help us get us over the line, and turn off the ‘auto-pilot’ when needed.