Making a healthy profit - why health and safety is no joke

Q&A: Bev Messinger, CEO of the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health.

by MT Staff
Last Updated: 13 Dec 2017
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Down to business

Bev Messinger is the chief executive of the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), the world’s biggest health and safety membership organisation and the global profession’s only chartered body. MT caught up with her to find out what the future of the health, safety and wellbeing agenda is, and what the profession needs to do to be taken seriously. 

MT: Health and safety has been the butt of a fair few jokes. As the voice of the profession, how do you deal with that?

Bev Messinger: It’s a real shame some sections of the media have undermined the profession’s image as being conkers bonkers or the fun police. Very often it’s actually insurance or a lack of knowledge about the law that’s stopping people from doing things, not health and safety, but the headlines don’t say insurance companies are stopping fun. It is a challenge to rebalance some of that negativity in some sections of the press, but when you start talking to people about health and safety and what it really means, they are genuinely interested.

MT: Convincing the public’s one thing, but what about hard-nosed CEOs and FDs? Do you have to fight to make the business case for the profession?

Messinger: I have a wry smile when I see the prevalence of wellbeing programmes today. The idea that if you don’t look after people it’ll impact the bottom line – because they’re less likely to be happy, motivated and productive, and more likely to go off sick – that’s not new. My professional background’s in HR, so to me that’s what good business and people management has looked like forever. 

You have to talk to them in their language, about profit, productivity and increased capacity. Show them the numbers. I was talking recently to one of our members who’s invested in health MOTs for their employees. They’ve got thousands of employees, and it costs £50 a time. They said they had ten early diagnoses of cancer as a result, imagine the impact if those cancers hadn’t been detected on them as individuals but also as employees, it’s not a cost it’s an investment.

You hear about companies like E.ON saving an estimated £11.8 million a year with its occupational health programme.

In terms of its impact on motivation, morale and sickness absence that investment will pay businesses back tenfold, but it also shows the moral and ethical case for protecting health, safety and wellbeing.

MT: No one wants anyone to get sick or hurt, that’s true.

We want people to do a good day’s work then go home without being harmed in any way. You think you’re safe as houses at work, but actually not everybody is. I still can hardly believe I’m saying this, but a few weeks ago my brother-in-law said goodbye to his family, went to work and never came home, he died in an accident whilst at work.  Sadly fatalities are not a rare occurrence and they are not just happening in remote parts of the world they are happening right here, right now so we can never be complacent.

Worldwide, the reality is that an estimated 2.78 million people will die at work in 2017. Our vision is simple, to have a safe and healthy world of work. Who wouldn’t want that?

MT: Do you think technology has the capacity to improve health, safety and wellbeing at work?

It’s a double-edged sword. It’s fantastic to have real time information, very quick access to the best thinking and to be able to speak to diverse and distributed workforces without relying on a carrier pigeon. But with that comes either a real or perceived expectation that people are always on, or at least online.

We’ve had debates about out-of-hours emails, for instance. I’ve said very clearly it’s my choice as chief exec if I want to clear emails on the weekend, but there’s absolutely no expectation for you to reply.

You need to be explicit about that and support your employees in their work life balance. You’ve got to give people permission to say no. I’m very conscious as a leader that I role model behaviours subconsciously and that I’m setting these expectations from the top. People watch what I do all the time, not just what I say.

MT: So you can set the culture from the top?

Messinger: It doesn’t work like that. I once had a CEO who said Bev, I need you to change the culture. I said it sounds like you want me to change my shoes! Culture’s made up of millions of little interactions and it has to be self-regulated by the employees. I can’t set it from the top, but leadership sets the framework and then has to be the role model for the culture, our shared values and behaviours.

MT: Is the role of health and safety evolving as the gig economy grows?

As an organisation, we’re about occupational health and safety for everyone. What contract you’re on is irrelevant. It’s about employers’ responsibility to keep you safe and well and able to go home at night in one piece.

But we do recognise the need to make sure employers understand the challenges for the flexible economy, because it’s not all in one building or one shift. We have to create innovative and flexible ways of managing people’s health and safety in these contexts. 

But we’re not a profession that wants to stand around with clipboards saying what you can and can’t do. Every organisation has a set of risks – it’s about how you empower people to manage and mitigate them, and embrace the new ways of working.  UK and globally there is a radical shake-up in the way in which we all work, of which the gig economy is just one part.  It’s about moving with the times to ensure that businesses can evolve and innovate, getting the best out of their people by keeping them motivated, safe and happy.

Our call to action to businesses is to make investment in the safety and health of their workforces, at every level, absolutely central to their corporate strategies, their cultures – and to be transparent in how they report against safety and health performance.

Then business will stand up to scrutiny as a responsible employer, and harness the many benefits a safe, healthy and productive workforce can deliver.

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