By: Thomas Carson

How Data Reduces Workplace Finger-pointing and Stress

I have three daughters, a French wife and run a safety software company in the age of COVID – oh the things I have seen.  I learned to dread conversations that start with such phrases as, “This is going to sound worse than it really is” (never true), or “Mom got really mad for no good reason” (plausible, but rarely the case), or “Dad, I am at the police station but it wasn’t my fault” (it was).  These were times in which events that seemed beyond my control contributed to stress levels that were not sustainable.   

Every responsible parent knows that the six-year-old can’t be the one in charge, but they also learn that, “Because I said so” isn’t an effective response to a challenge to authority because it makes you, to paraphrase William Deming, just another person with an opinion.  This leads to the time-consuming, but more effective, approach of explaining the actual, data-supported reasons for behavior guardrails and how they are proven to keep you safe and out of the hospital. This works pretty well until they hit the “I am immortal” phase, but more about that another time.   

Moving to a work setting, few things are more frustrating to a safety professional than being aware of a flow of anecdotal events that can only result in statements like, “It sure seems like we have a lot of incidents here at the rendering plant.” To which a likely response from operations might be, “Really?  I don’t think so.  In fact, I hear that packaging is a lot worse.” Without data, you are both just people with opinions, which turns the discussion into a debating contest with no objective path to resolution, but plenty of opportunity for finger pointing and laying blame.  I am here to tell you that this is a stress-inducing dynamic that can be easily addressed with the introduction of data.   

Use Case

One of our early customers was the first example in what became a series of demonstrated success stories of what happens when data is available to support focusing resources on specifically identified “hotspots”.  This particular company had a number of operating challenges, including safety performance.

Sospes was selected by the newly hired safety manager to implement an automated platform for employees to submit reports of incidents, hazards and other safety concerns as a way of establishing a loop for continuous improvement and to get a sense of where in the plant they needed to prioritize corrective actions.  New systems often have their critics, but it didn’t take long for early employee observations to be acted upon, demonstrating to employees and managers that his was an effective means for improving conditions.  And it didn’t take much longer after that to begin seeing patterns emerge from the reports that allowed the safety manager to proactively focus efforts in specific areas of the plant.  I can’t say that there was no emotion involved in the process, but when your systems present actual source data, it becomes easier to move from “is there an issue” to “let’s decide how to manage this issue”.   

The reduction in costs and losses was so obvious that management found it easy to support the program.  The culture moved from somewhere between apathy and blame to one of what I would call participatory compliance.  And as a visitor to the facility, the reduction in stress levels was absolutely noticeable from one year to the next.   

Data and Stress

So how do you get data to drive this kind of result?  You implement a safety management system that allows for the collection of inputs from your employees, and then continue to encourage its use.  If you want to make this system reliable and sustainable, you implement a software system that supports your safety management system.  This used to be harder than it is today.  Ten years ago, the options were limited to complex, expensive systems for which the return on investment was elusive.  Today, good software is available for less than the annual cost of administrative support – not having systems in this environment almost constitutes safety malpractice.   

Stress is a source of a lot more issues than many people understand.  The Mayo Clinic published this table summarizing common effects of stress:  

On your body On your mood On your behavior
Headache Anxiety Overeating or undereating
Muscle tension or pain Restlessness Angry outbursts
Chest pain Lack of motivation or focus Drug or alcohol misuse
Fatigue Feeling overwhelmed Tobacco use
Change in sex drive Irritability or anger Social withdrawal
Stomach upset Sadness or depression Exercising less often
Sleep problems

Conclusion

Is it any wonder that stress is one of the highlighted psychosocial risks causing problems in the workplace?  Is there any reason that we wouldn’t pro-actively take steps to reduce stress while improving workplace conditions which in turn further reduces stress?   

A final note on the payoff of persistence in finding ways to improve communication and reduce stress.  Just as certain key phrases used to create dread, eventually you get to hear, “Dad, you were really right about…” – and all becomes well in the world.  Be well.   

This topic was expanded from How EHS Software Can Build Better Safety Culture podcast.
Watch here!

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