The human factor as the key to safe, successful and stress-free working

17 of January of 2022

Mandy Hickson knows all about high pressure work environments. As a Tornado pilot in the Royal Air Force, she flew 45 combat missions during three tours of duty in Iraq. She believes human performance factors are the key to successful workplace health and safety.

People sometimes refer to the human performance element of work as non-technical skills, or soft skills. But to me, there is nothing soft about them – these are the absolute essentials.

Teamwork, leadership, decision-making under pressure, communications skills and a culture where people feel empowered to do their job: these are things we talk about in the RAF and the aviation industry to create a safe environment.

You can be an amazing pilot, but unless you have the communications skills to go with it, you will never move up the ranks or get people to follow you. The two things go hand in hand.

Learning from the aviation sector around stress management, workload management, understanding fatigue and situational awareness can also be translated into a business setting, especially high-risk industries like construction.

Being in the here and now

Let’s look at workload management. When you are really busy with a deadline coming up, you can feel the stress levels rising, you have that feeling in your stomach and your muscles become all tense.

You start to lose aspects of your senses, the first of which is your hearing. When you are absolutely focused on a task at hand you have tunnel vision, but you start to fade out what is going on in the outside world.

There needs to be training around this, so people can notice and understand that when they or their colleagues are consumed in periods of high workload, they may not be hearing things properly.

What is really important is to actually recognise when this is happening to ourselves and prepare, so when we are at maximum capacity we have a plan.

Similarly, if you want to transmit something and somebody is not ready to receive, there is no point in transmitting, but there are tools you can use to get people’s attention. Having these tools in place, helps us to avoid breakdowns in communication.

Every person is a vital link in the chain

In different industries, we might think some jobs are far removed from the health and safety frontline. But to make an organisation as safe as possible, we need to recognise the role and importance of every single person.

With human performance factors training, you can’t just work with frontline operators. All employees are cogs in the machine who can have an impact on a daily basis: from logistics, to ordering supplies, to decisions made in headquarters.

Nothing can compare to the camaraderie within the military. These are your brothers and sisters in arms, the people you will be going to go to war with. So you have to trust in the greater team – not just pilots, but engineers and supply chain staff – and the integrity of everyone who is a link in that chain.

Even clerical errors can dramatically affect lives. If you’re working in finance and you get the payroll wrong, everyone on the frontline will be thinking about their pay: suddenly they have payment problems, they might go overdrawn, direct debits might be missed, they might have their partner ringing them up. It might lead to distraction and bad decisions.

All pulling in the right direction

We must try to create a culture where people are not doing their jobs out of fear or scared of the consequences if they get it wrong. That’s a push factor, but we want a pull factor. We want people to be coming towards us.

People join the armed forces to serve their country, to defend their nation, to protect innocent lives and to be part of a team – all these things are amazing pull factors.

If you can get people to focus on the pull factors, this can really affect the behaviours they exhibit at work.

The gift of honest feedback

Training in the RAF is phenomenal. It builds up core skills and technical abilities, but it is also about embedding a culture of reporting, talking openly about mistakes, debriefs and honest feedback.

Nobody likes feedback. They don’t even like the word ‘feedback’.

Feedback is a gift, but people hate it because they know it can be quite brutal. But when you realise people are not doing it to belittle or break you but to help you get better, you start to take it on board. The concept of feedback as an incremental learning tool is really important.

People think debriefs need to be done at the end of the project, but they can be done daily as a process of gradual improvement. With debrief funnels or whirlwind debriefs, you can look straight away at what went well, what went badly, what you need to do more of, or less of.

We need to move from blaming an individual to actually looking at ways to improve, so it doesn’t happen again. By taking this holistic approach, we can create a learning culture not a blame game.

I am really passionate about these things, because they make a difference. This is about much more than just health and safety. It has to be the lifeblood of an organisation and embedded in every part of the company.

I know people at Ferrovial understand health and safety is not a bolt-on. It is not something they do in addition to our day jobs, it is their day jobs.

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