The linkage between Safety and Mental Health & Fatigue with Dr. Tim Marsh
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As we approach World Mental Health Day, tune in to identify the linkages between mental health and safety outcomes! In this insightful episode, Dr.Tim Marsh, discusses how organizations can improve their safety performance by taking a more holistic approach that also keeps leaders in tune with fatigue, anxiety and depression that could be increasing at risk work. Approaches such as developing supervisor soft skills and emphasizing the importance of actively caring are important tools for organizations to consider.
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Hi and welcome to the Safety Guru today. I’m very excited to have with me, Dr. Tim Marsh. He’s a professor at Smith University in the United Kingdom. He brought in the 1990s behavioral and safety culture themes to Europe, has written many books. One of his top sellers was around talking safety and coming up in the autumn, we’ll have a new book that he’ll be publishing about talking health and safety, which is really a key topic for the conversation we have today. So, Tim, welcome to the show.
Really excited to have you with me.
Thank you for having me, Eric.
Let’s start maybe first about yourself and how you got into this broad field of safety and safety culture.
Sure. After I got a doctorate in psychology, I worked with the UK Mod and looking at recruit suicidal behaviors in young army recruits. While I finished that at the University, I was at Manchester University. They just started looking at behavioral safety techniques pioneered in America by the likes of Tom Browse, BSD and so on. And they were wondering if they might work in Europe. And the first European research project was at my university. And a colleague had started off that project but had left and they were looking for somebody to step in just for a couple of months to run the project while they found somebody suitable.
And I just finished with the army. And they thought that it was all based on construction sites. And they thought that maybe somebody would work with squaddie in the army might be able to go to a construction and not get eaten. So, they asked me if I step in and I found it so enjoyable, but interesting, I never left.
Interesting. So, you’ve done a lot of work linking mental health to safety outcomes. And I think this is a very important topic that a lot of people talk about mental health. Touch briefly in teams of the links to the safety, but don’t draw the full linkage. Tell me a little bit about some of the work you’ve done there and some of the research in this space.
Yeah, sure. A lot of work has been done in mental health recently, particularly in places like the UK, because we’re aware of the fact that, for example, for every person we lose to an industrial accident, we will have 35 people of working age kill themselves. It’s something like five0 plays been 150 in the UK. Those are the figures. So, we’ve been doing a lot of work in that field anyway, because, of course, it’s tremendously inconvenient and morally awful to have people kill themselves. And we spent half a waking hour in work.
So clearly what happens in work is relevant. But recently, some of our bigger clients, a large insurance company, QBE, asked me to look into the link between mental health and safety directly. And when you look at it, the research is inconclusive, controversial. It’s incredibly difficult to tease out what’s going on and why. If you know you can have been thinking it’s incredibly complex. It’s not complicated. It’s infinitely complex. So, for example, people who are really struggling, a lot of people who are really struggling have learned that the first thing they can do is to be nice to other people and be very pro social.
It makes them feel better. So, it isn’t a simple linear relationship. But anyway, you got problems with reporting, you’ve got problems, people feeling going to be scapegoated, you’ve got problems with confidentiality, then you’ve got problems with medication, self-medication, all that. But when you look into it as best, we can tell, there are three factors that directly relink somebody having a bad day in work, somebody who’s struggling, and a propensity to have an accident. And those three things are that the first thing is if you’re struggling, you’re much more likely to be situationally aware, you’re distracted by other factors, thoughts, emotions, and are less situationally aware.
So, you’re less likely to be aware of the risk. We all know that situational awareness is something we really want to avoid accidents. The second thing, of course, is if you know your Hydra triangle, we all know that the better work you do at the bottom of the triangle, the small at the top with the triangle, you get the love that you deserve. Not every day. There are no guarantees either way, but as a rule, you do well. The trouble with people who are struggling is they tend to be more fatalistic, of course.
And if you fatalistic, you’re much less likely to be proactively working the bottom of the triangle and generating your own nut. And the third factor is, of course, people who are struggling can be grumpy. They can create risk around themselves, so they’re less likely to stop and challenge somebody in an effective way, much more likely to walk past situations where I saying nothing bugger them is as they go past, much more likely to be short with other people and have ineffective communications or worse than that, destructive communications where they’re actually awkward, difficult and reasonable and generates problems in others.
So, for those three factors, there does seem to be a direct relationship between that mindset of an 85% of all mental health issues or depression or anxiety, the serious stuff. But 85%, I think the cost of the American economy has been estimated at 2 trillion a year, which is a big number. Who’s you and that is the 85% that is depression or anxiety and depression and anxiety. In essence, depression is simply spending time thinking about something that’s already happened in a negative way. Regrets is the obvious one biting us and so on.
Anxiety really is spending a lot of time thinking about something that hasn’t happened yet in a negative way. So, anxiety and so on and all that depression and anxiety. We all do that. We all have those thoughts every day. Of course, we do. But if we have them to such an extent that it gets in the way, then it becomes a problem. That’s all it is. And people who had having too many Ops focus negative thoughts or future focus negative thoughts that it actually gets in the way and just more likely through those three factors to have problems at work?
Absolutely. It’s quite controversial, but I think that is so self-evidently obvious.
It makes a lot of sense. And I think a lot of people are touching on it. You draw the direct linkage between those themes, the challenges. A lot of organizations look at it separately. So, HR may be looking at mental health wellbeing and safety is looking at safety outcomes. What are some of the things that organizations or safety leaders can do to really address this part of safety?
Yes. I think that the number one thing safety did is control. First of all, to be aware of it, not be afraid of it. There are all sorts of concerns that if you start talking about these things, you’re impacting on people’s private lives, it’s totally inappropriate. People will then not talk about anything. And you’ve got that classic thing where it’s been estimated that something like 85% of days taken off with bad backs are actually people taking days off because they’re struggling. If you have a bad back and you’ve got a positive mindset, I quote Dane Cowell Black over here in the UK on that.
She’s a leader of all these things. And if you’ve got a bad back and you’re in a good place, you enjoy your work. I enjoy my work. I used to play a huge amount of golf when I was a young man. I’ve got a terribly bad back, like every heavy pot you played golf before. They were fully developed on. I just do stretch exercises. I just stand up while I stretch. There is that link on that controversy, but I think so. Don’t be afraid of it.
It’s just what it is. But I think the number one thing that safety can do is to talk to occupational health and HR. I think that should be a key metric. How well does he get on with safety?
I think, is a really important point. And what about organizations that aren’t really addressing mental health wellbeing fully, because obviously this is saying you’re more likely to have an accident. If you’re not addressing this in your workplace, what are some of the tactics that they should be bringing to the forefront to advance the need?
They should be looking at it. We in the UK have been quoted in figures. One person in five is struggling on any given day. Some people they know it’s one in eight, nobody pushes back on nine and ten. So, if you’ve got 2000 employees out there constructing a bridge or a hospital or laying a rolled or whatever they’re doing that as a minimum. You got 2000 staff. You’ve got 200 people who are struggling. Now you’ve got two choices. One is you can try and analyze the extent and the causes and what you can do to help or you can just cross your fingers.
We know from the world of safety, the crossing your fingers and hoping it goes away.
It’s not good. It’s not necessarily proved entirely effective over the years.
I hope it’s not a good plan.
Well, it’s a tactic.
It does. So, one of the things when you’re talking about mental health wellbeing, it links to a lot of themes as well. From a leadership standpoint safety leader have talked about. So, for example, active care to me is also about if I know who’s on my teams, I demonstrate care, maybe I’m more likely to notice a difference today. Tim showed up and maybe you’re not as Jovi as usual or something that looks different. What’s your thought in terms of active care, but other soft skills that could be really key from a supervisor in leadership standpoint?
Well, the obvious thing, of course, is a lot of companies over here in the UK, Shell oil and gas have a very explicit culture of care. They promote an explicit culture of care, and that’s really just a person focus just to talk to people and try and notice them. So, it’s a dialogue piece very much reflected in the whole safety differently thrust the absolute essence of safety differently, which has had such an impact around the world, of course, is you’re the solution as a worker, not the problem.
So, we want you to be safe and productive. You want to be safe and productive, what you need, what you need for me. And exactly the same principle applies to mental health and an individual. Wellbeing, so, for example, I need more flexibility or I don’t have enough control or I have too much control. There’s a thing called wars vitamin model of mental health at work. Very influential piece, academically decades. So just been rediscovered, really, as we all turn towards it in a more commercial way. Recently, control is a classic up to nine.
He’s got nine factors. But what he says is you have to have the right level for the right person. So, if you’re the sort of self-employed person who can only really function as self-employed because otherwise you are unemployable, you need a high level of control, give the level of control or somebody like myself who’s self-employed on my own company, give that level of control to a lot of people and they never sleep.
So, it’s about understanding. And of course, when we’re talking COVID, a really good example is a lot of people say, I love working from home. I’ve got children and a lot of people say, I hate working from home. I’ve got children. And of course, that could be the same person on the same morning.
Right. So, the theme of investing in soft skills for frontline supervision seems like a very important one. And probably an area where HR and the safety teams can work together as well to upscale. And any thoughts on that part?
Oh, absolutely. And over the years, we’ve done thousands of safety culture surveys. And the one thing that always comes out is the soft skills of your front-line supervisors and managers could be upgraded absolutely every single time. So, another Web Wars vitamin model is into personal contact, of course. And what you find is some people like a little they’re quite solidary. They don’t really need people very much. Some people like a lot. But the one thing is an absolute constant is they want to have the right level of it and they wanted to be good quality.
So, if you got somebody who isn’t particularly into personally skilled, that’s a problem for everything and always will be, that’s great.
Thank you. Another theme as well is the element. I know when we talked before the theme of just culture and how does that play into safety, but also the element from a mental health standpoint.
Just culture. Now you’re talking some deep and serious stuff that goes back millions of years. You know, they do say that there are two factors that seem to distinguish the most successful societies and species, for that matter. Out. One is that they have a learning focus. So, my multimillion-selling books, like Is Cow Dex Mindset to be a psychologically safe organization, and so on is all about trust. And it’s all about learning. And the two things go hand in hand. So, for me, the organizations that are best, they will have hit Diminishing returns with systems, procedures, compliance regulations, rules, training.
They are pretty much it diminishing returns with that. But then there are two themes. The first one is learning when things go well, why have they gone wrong? What can we do about it? Brilliantly. Covered by a guy called Matthew Said called Black Box thinking if you listeners, I promise you, if you read Black Boxing and you don’t think it’s fantastic, I’ll come over and wash your car if you want to send me whatever you are. And the second one, of course, is trust. There’s a lot of studies that suggest that societies that have higher levels of trust flourish better than societies that have a culture of low trust in the classic example is Italy.
They studied Italy. And so why is the north of Italy doing so well compared to the south? And the correlation that seemed to be strongest was that they have a culture of non-trust in the south and a culture of trust in the north. So obviously it gets complex again, because the trouble with societies that default the trust. Well, the good thing about societies that default the trust is that you set up more virtuous than vicious circles and you flourish because it’s better to have a false negative than a false positive.
The downside, of course, is that cults and Con men take advantage of that. So, to quote, I did an article for a magazine the other day on a book came out called how to Think Like a Spy by Britain’s leading spy just retired. And I thought the line in the book that just absolutely resonated with me. He said this same thing, trust. You have to bit. You have to go from a premise of trust that’s best for everybody. And normally it works. But there will be people to try and take advantage of you.
So just everybody verifies everything.
Trust everybody verifies everything, especially verify everything, but verify everything interesting. So, on that topic, I think your book coming up fairly soon or Talking Health and Safety, can you give our listeners a bit of a preview of some of the teams that you’ll be exploring within that book?
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Com. Yeah, sure. The original Talking Safety. It was home to have a world class safety conversation with the subtitle, and the idea was a cost or commitment from a just culture perspective. So, with the mindset and assumption that if something has gone wrong or is about to go wrong, there is a reason for it that makes sense to the person involved and to have that conversation as proactively as possible, not waiting for something to go wrong, and then you default to blame and finger point doing. But to do it proactively so that it’s just a introduce yourself.
Ask why, curiously, not aggressively. There are other questions based on things like temptation analysis. Is there anything slow and convenient? They’re uncomfortable about doing this job safely because we know for a fact if there is, some people will be tempted to cut corners and then some people will cut corners. It’s just a head coat from then on. And the bottom of how you look famous triangle fills up, and sooner or later somebody gets it. So that was the basic model. And then it costs when you find out if you do need to address the individual, for example, because there is a temptation.
But you can’t do anything about it because you’re pulling down the factory next year, and the cost of making the changes you need is just prohibitive. Then get into coaching. Get into coaching modes rather than telling somebody you use data, you use illustration and praise rather than criticism, and so on and use all those techniques. And then you say, thank you and you go. And I think the absolute essence of talking health and safety. In the first book we said, introduce yourself, ask people how they are, and then crack on.
Obviously, when you ask people how they are, especially in Europe, where we’re already stuffing a bit. I’m fine. Thank you.
I think you get that pretty much everywhere.
Yeah, I especially in Europe, of course. And so, I think the essence of talking health and safety, as well as going through mental health first aid training. And it signs to look out for talkative ones that have gone quiet, quiet ones that have gone talkative, smart ones that have gone scrape, all that sort of stuff and all those top tips about mental health. It’s just to ask the question at the end of the conversation when you’ve developed some rapport when you’ve had a decent conversation and you’ve worked together a bit just to revisit that simple opening gambit of and how are you only this time properly and mean it as opposed to just, I’m okay expecting an answer.
This. I’m okay. Thank you. And that really, I think, is the essence of a culture of care. If you listen to people and know who they are, they’re much more likely to torture. I give you a case study if you like. I’ve got a very large client. They managed to switch off a major airport as an engineer, made a mistake, and they wanted a human error project that made that less likely to happen in the future. I was talking to so they can’t fall down the stairs teams or they can’t do this, you know, it so well, I wouldn’t worry about them falling down the stairs.
You do realize they’re 35 times more likely to throw themselves down the stairs. And if they’ve had a really bad day, they run them up with an axe for half and ever while you’re trying to get into the security secure factory, you’ve got a real problem?
Sure. And they said, well, any of our workers like that well, certainly will be having a bad day maybe as much as ten. But I just spoke to a guy, for example, who has just got divorced, is living on a friend’s couch, is 50 years old, but his drinking as much as he did when he was a student and is really close to the edge. And the MD said, well, how did you know that? That’s I was chatting to him. And I said, how are you? And he said, all right.
And I said, oh, I’m not convinced you’re all right. I said, well, why did he talk to you? I suspect I’m the first person who’s ever asked him if you saw it. You want me to talk to somebody. So, I talked to me. So, Eric, the essence of a caring culture, a culture of care, I think, is really just listening. If you asked question, you are right that somebody says, yeah, I’m fine. You good. Great. And you crack on that’s not going to get us very far.
But if you genuinely listen to the answer and hold their gaze and look at them. And obviously the trick is to genuinely care, not pretend you’re caring, but actually care, they will talk to you nine times, say the ten, they will open up and they will talk to you. And then you can have a grownup adult conversation about the fact that 10% minimum of your workforce I having a bad day and could use somebody to talk to. We can all you somebody to talk to. One of the things that we’ve been doing here with my companies, as I said, taking a genuinely holistic approach to the whole human error piece.
You know, it doesn’t really matter what causes the human error, but because it will be multifaceted. And one of the things that we’re already familiar with, of course, is fatigue. You know, somebody who is very tired, they’ve been up for 18 hours. They’ve done a split shift or whatever, and they haven’t quite recovered. Now you’ve got the same physiology as somebody is drunk. And, of course, fatigue and mental health, two parts of a pair of gloves. Really, if you’re tired, you’re having a bad day. It’s very difficult to have a good day when you’re really tired.
Every day is a better day if you’re broken alert. Likewise, if you’re stressed, you don’t sleep very well. The whole thing becomes a vicious circle. So absolutely, incorporating fatigue management. So, a lot of companies will have a fatigue management process because they’re aware of the fact that they don’t want their workers out. They’re drunk in inverted e-commerce. Thank you ever so much. But they might not have anything in that fatigue management that does any sort of monitoring or Proactive work about mental health. But they should the two things that go together, handing both.
Yeah. I think that’s a really important point.
People simply do not make mistakes very often because they can’t be bothered all because they’re stupid. Of course, both of those things are true a lot, but the majority of yeah, absolutely. But on the majority of occasions, that’s not true. They’re good people doing their best, and they make mistakes for a variety of intel reasons, often Bureau being stressed and preoccupied by issues about the past or the future. Being tired, they’re often front and center in that stupid accident. An invert ecommerce where somebody just does something daft or doesn’t see something or drops something or presses the wrong button or falls over something or drives into something or reverses into something, et cetera, et cetera.
It doesn’t sling something properly. All those accidents start with mental health, fatigue rather than human error. As Sydney Decker says, human error is never the end point of any investigation. It has to be the start point. And mental health is often. I don’t mean you’re crazy. You schizoid free bipolar. I mean, you’re just a bit depressed or you’re really very anxious often that is an important causal element of the equation.
Yeah. And I really appreciate the work that you’re doing in terms of the research in terms of bringing the topic of conversation linking those themes think is incredibly important. So, I really appreciate the work you’re doing and all the consulting that you’re doing with a lot of organizations to bring the topic about and address the broader theme of safety culture.
It’s a lot of fun, actually, but working in such an important field, it’s not a niche. You can’t just find everybody who admits that they’re struggling, in fact, and that’s about 20% of your workforce, so that’s not going to happen. Doing some mainstream work that really brings good psychology front and center in important field is obviously fantastic for anybody myself. Considers himself a psychologist. Excellent.
Well, Tim, thank you so much for joining us today and sharing your thoughts. And I’m looking forward to the upcoming books around talking health and safety.
Oh, thank you, Eric. Thank you so much.
I have. I’ve really enjoyed myself.
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ABOUT THE GUEST
Tim Marsh was one of the team leaders of the original UK research into behavioural safety (in construction) in the early 1990s He is considered a world authority on the subject of behavioural safety, safety leadership and organizational culture, was awarded a “President’s Commendation” in 2008 by the International Institute of Risk and Safety Management and was selected to be their first ever ‘Specialist Fellow’ in 2010. He was made visiting Professor at Plymouth University in 2015.
He has given key note talks around the world including the closing key note at the inaugural Campbell Institute ‘International Thought Leaders’ conference (Dallas, USA, 2014 as well as key note talks at major conferences in South Africa, New Zealand, Asia, India and the Middle East. In 2016 he was the key note speaker at the inaugural NEBOSH Alumni event.
Founder of Ryder Marsh Safety he has worked commercially with more than 500 major organizations around the world, including many international oil and gas, utility, chemical, transport, IT and manufacturing organizations as well as the European Space Agency, the BBC, the National Theatre and Sky. Founded Anker & Marsh in 2018 with Jason Anker to focus more closely on wellbeing and mental health issues. His work as an expert witness includes the Cullen Inquiry into the Ladbroke Grove train crash (Definition of Culture; Changing Culture) as well as with many law firms.
He has worked with media such as the BBC (radio work and selecting and fronting a box set of their “disaster” series) and has written and produced many training videos such as “Drive Smarter” and the extensive “Safety Leadership” series with Baker-media and ‘Crash Course’ (a commercial spin off of the Staffordshire Police speed and safe driving awareness course). He features in “There’s Always a Reason” and “Safety Watch”.
He has written dozens of magazine articles, many academic articles and the books “Affective Safety Management”, “Talking Safety”, “Total Safety Culture”, “Safety Savvy”, “A Definitive Guide to Behavioural Safety” and “A Handbook of Organized Wellbeing”.