Leadership engagement needed to drive health and safety

05 June 2024 Consultancy.uk 4 min. read
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Organisations are experiencing unprecedented change as the workforce composition, the nature and place of work evolve rapidly, while expectations and risks around health and safety increase. However, fewer than one-in-10 businesses feel their leaders are spending enough time addressing these concerns.

Expectations for health and safety from employees, regulators, and boards of directors are continuing to rise in 2024. With greater awareness around the dangers of workplace accidents than ever before, the costs for organisations that fail to rise to the challenge will continue to increase for the foreseeable future as well.

While investment in health and safety is increasing to meet these demands, however, senior leaders are struggling to demonstrate their direct impact on health and safety policy. A new study from sustainability consultancy ERM has surveyed the opinions of 256 health and safety function leaders – and has found that this may be because of the rapid nature of change in the sector – with 72% of survey participants seeing a shift in the nature and scale of risks in their businesses over the last three years.

Leadership engagement needed to drive health and safety

Source: ERM

When asked which factors have driven the changing risk profiles faced by their businesses, the respondents were clear on what was the top issue at play. While the post-lockdown prevalence of hybrid working remains as a long-term issue – with firms struggling with how to adapt health and safety policies to extend to remote locations and people’s homes – it has fallen down the agenda.

To that end, hybrid working was listed by just 7% of professionals. At the same time, another relatively recent trend has also slipped down the pecking order. With the global M&A market having notably cooled in the last two years, a portion of 17% said that growth and decline in the business could relate to risks arising from mergers, acquisitions and divestitures.

Instead, clearly ahead of the rest, were risks relating to ‘modified activities’ – named by 27% of respondents. With hype around artificial intelligence and automation having reached new heights in the last year, many firms are rushing to implement the technology amid a sense of FOMO, rather than business need. This is leading to operational changes arising from the uptake that they did not adequately plan for. In fact more widely, this form of risk was so commonly shared that 50% of ERM’s respondents discussed increasing automation and the use of robotics in their interviews, even if they did not name it as their number-one risk.

Leadership engagement needed to drive health and safety

Source: ERM

The survey found that companies are investing heavily in health and safety in an effort to keep pace with the changes. Participants increased their spending on safety by 26% on average in the last three years – and anticipate a further 20% increase in the next three years. And to a degree, firms also see spending on technology as part of the solution to the risks exposed by their other investments on technology, with 88% of the survey participants deploying new technologies in the last three years including AI to improve health and safety performance. Not everyone agrees that this digital-centric method is a good idea though – and many clearly feel it is being used as a crutch to neglect the human duties of senior management.

An 87% majority of participants who spoke to ERM said they felt that leadership engagement was the most powerful way to drive improvement in health and safety performance. However, although 81% suggested leadership engagement in the last three years had grown, only 7% feel their leaders are spending sufficient time engaging with health and safety policies. In particular, middle-management – negotiating changes from senior management to be put into practice by frontline leaders – seemed most starved of time to spend on health and safety, with just 5% of respondents saying they did not think the group should spend more time on the matter.

Brian Kraus, safety transformation services director at ERM, said, "There is increasing complexity in protecting the health, safety and wellbeing of people at work arising from fundamental changes in the work, those engaging in the work and where the work is done. Our survey findings call for a pause for meaningful reflection on the way forward, not more of the same. Senior organisational leaders and the health and safety profession have a crucial role to play in leading the change in a context where expectations for the health and safety of the workforce from every stakeholder group continue to ratchet up, year on year, with no peak in sight."