When employee engagement saves lives

Some journalists, who do nothing more dangerous than plug in their laptops, like to poke fun at so-called ‘elf and safety’. Typical targets are schools that won’t let children play conkers or councils that ban bunting because of health and safety regulations. Yet in some business sectors such as construction, engineering or the extraction industries, engaging employees about safety issues can actually save lives.

According to the latest UK Health & Safety Executive (HSE) statistics, last year 173 people died in work-related accidents in the UK. Although the fatality rate has been steadily falling (20 years ago it was double this figure), we shouldn’t tolerate any level of death in the workplace.

Construction still accounts for more deaths than any other industry (again, see HSE report), last year there were 50 deaths in the UK. This amounts to 2.3 deaths per 100,000 construction workers. To quote the title of Rita Donaghy’s 2009 UK Government report into the underlying causes, ‘One death is too many’.

Reading such statistics always makes me shudder. Nearly thirty years ago as an undergraduate, I spent a summer vacation working on an office block building site in my home city of Manchester. In three months, I never saw a single person wear a safety helmet. The crane operator spent lunchtime in the pub and could barely walk in a straight line let alone drive a tower crane. The scaffolding crew swung around like monkeys in a zoo. One day when we were hauling the roof trusses by rope onto the fourth storey, a builder had me stand on one end of the truss while he calmly walked along the narrow beam over a 60 ft drop to untie the rope. That memory makes me feel queasy even now. While the industry has improved massively since those mad days, it still has a long way to go.

Recently I co-organised a leadership conference at which the health and safety team used a group of actors to land some powerful messages about taking personal responsibility for safety. In the aftermath of a (fictional) accident, the audience engaged with the characters individually. We learned how each had in some way got their priorities wrong, resulting in  bad decisions with disastrous consequences. Ultimately, nothing is so important that we can’t wait until we can find a way to do it safely.  For me, this was an all time top ten employee engagement experience.

So no one should every fall into the trap of thinking that health and safety communication is dull. Instead, employee engagement professionals should see it as the best opportunity you will ever have to do something that could be the difference between life and death. Until we can drive the UK fatal accident rate down to zero – the only tolerable level – there is still much work to be done.

Secret of a happy life

You would have thought that professional snooker players would rank highly amongst people who if not paid to do their job, would do it for the love of it. Although I find it mindnumbing to watch and impossible to play, I understand why others find the sport so addictive, as they chase the nirvana of that perfect 147 break. So it was a surprise to discover in Jim White’s excellent article in today’s Daily Telegraph about Ronnie Sullivan’s retirement, that  he secretly detests the game and the relentless pressure to perform. Of course, Ronnie is not alone in hating the sport that he has been so blessed to play.

Victoria Pendleton, similarly sees her awesome talent as a curse, ‘I turn left for a living’ she commented drolely after her 2012 Olympic cycling victory and incredible nine world records. The only thing that drove her on was that she hated the idea of giving up even more; could not bear the thought of letting her Dad and herself down.

It’s not uncommon for professional  footballers to loathe the sport that makes them rich. Their idea of fun is often to head for the nearest male grooming salon, bookmakers or golf course. Although highly successful as a football commentator, even the saintly Gary Lineker looks bored senseless when presenting Match of the Day. You get the feeling he would love to do something completely different, but has become addicted to the money and lifestyle.

Ultimately, it’s not enough to be good at something to be happy in your work, even if you have a  special talent. You also have to enjoy it to be there for the long haul. Find something you enjoy doing and get someone to pay you to do it – that’s the secret of happiness. And if you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, find something different. In this respect, Ronnie and Victoria are both inspirational role models. I wish them  success in their quest for fulfilment, away from the sports that have made them famous.

Would you stop a bullet for your boss?

What was it like to work for Margaret Thatcher? As she is mostly famous for ‘handbagging’ her political opponents, it’s nice to know that Maggie also had a soft side. According to former bodyguard, Det Sgt Barry Strevens, whose story is serialised in The Sun this week, Maggie was a boss who inspired loyalty with small acts of kindness. On one occasion, a member of her protection squad was expecting a rollicking for tramping dog poo over her pristine white carpet at her weekend retreat in the country. Instead, Maggie calmly filled a bucket with soapy water and scrubbed away the mess, saying, “never mind, we’re in the country now”. At Chequers, the Prime Minister’s country residence, Strevens had to spend Christmas away from his own family in a grim outbuilding. But Maggie made sure his room was decorated and left him a flask of hot coffee, a miniature bottle of whisky and a card thanking him for ‘all that you do.’ It was this simple gesture that convinced Strevens he would not hesitate to ‘stand in the way of a bullet’ for Maggie. Although this sounds dramatic, you have to remind yourself that taking ‘a bullet for your boss’ is part of the job description for a bodyguard.

The story reminds me of one told to me by a personal friend who is a quadraplegic. While attending a charity function at 10 Downing Street, he entered the wrong lift and exited to find his path blocked by a small staircase and unable to reenter the lift. Calling for help, my friend was slightly horrified when the first person to respond was none other than Tony Blair. Blair was completely unfazed. Rather than summon flunkeys, he asked how he could help. As my friend did not want to risk causing the Prime Minister to put his back out by lifting a wheelchair, he asked him to press the down button on the lift, which of course Blair happily obliged. This is a true story and for me, shines a light on the real Tony Blair and why he inspires the people around him.

For anyone who aspires to be a great leader, the lesson is that it’s often the small gestures and not the grand ones that inspire genuine ‘bullet-taking’ loyalty. We expect leaders to do the big things, but somehow we’re surprised and touched when they take the trouble to do the small things. That’s why a simple handwritten thank you note can have more power for an individual than public recognition, which so often comes across as being phoney.