You’ll often find me in the wee small hours of the morning with my headlamp on running up local hills, or sweating away in Lycra on the turbo trainer whilst catching up on obscure TV documentaries. Like increasing numbers of men my age, I’m a keen triathlete, and with tiny children all the exercise I do ends up being at hours only appropriate for badgers.
Badget on grass
It all started about 18 months ago, when I began to get jealous of friends and colleagues who had shiny new carbon road bikes. I would almost explode with envy as my neighbour rode off on a couple of grand’s worth of sporting tech for his morning commute. So, with a wave of the cycle-to-work scheme wand and a bit of persuasion with my wife I got my own shiny, two-wheeled, pedal powered early mid-life crisis.

Here’s the crux of what I’m getting at. Lack of interest in sport has never been a problem, it’s just that I enjoy food more. My house-mate at university would often laugh as I’d knock back a pretty hefty eight sausage and mash dinner after a 20 minute run. So my new triathlon training regime was the answer; I was finally going to lose some serious weight and get the ripped, athlete’s body I’ve always wanted, I just had to exercise more!

So I did. Hour after hour of running, biking and swimming and for the first 6-9 months the weight did indeed drop off. Success! But guess what? Things plateaued. I wish I could say I was sitting here with the toned body of a sporting Adonis but old habits have caught up with me.

There’s a parallel here with the kind of ailing safety programmes we often come across. They begin with good intentions to keep people safe, and things do improve at the start, but old habits will always prevail if you don’t address the underlying root of unsafe behaviour: stubborn attitudes, values and beliefs that haunt your organisation’s incident rate.

If you read anything about habit formation (see Lizz and her biscuits) you’ll realise that habits are hard-wired. If you ignore those routines that build up in our minds over many years then they’ll inevitably resurface without you realising. In my case I’m exercising more, so I’m hungry more, so I eat more (but of the wrong stuff).

That’s the same as your staff reacting to a new safety edict. The novelty and immediacy of the rule means at first people might comply and you’ll see initial improvements. But unsafe behaviour will prevail once people resume habitual shortcuts based on old underlying beliefs, ones like ‘output is more important than safety’.

Try the ‘what if’ strategy

You have to recognise what the trigger is for the behaviour you want to change (when it occurs), anticipate it, and then offer an attractive alternative so that you can at least get some of the pleasurable consequence your brain was anticipating.

In my case, I know I’m going to be hungry after exercise, so before I begin I line up food for when I’ve finished. I make sure it’s healthy food (the new, attractive alternative), because otherwise I’d pick up the old habit of hoovering up eight sausages in one sitting. I’ve mitigated the unhelpful beliefs that I’m too tired to cook anything better, or that I’ve earned this chocolate bar because I’ve put so much effort in.

It’s surprising the temptations you can avoid when you think ahead. Imagine the difference you could make to safety, productivity and quality if you knew more about the triggers, habits and motivations that irk your staff’s performance and cause injuries. That’s why we begin safety programmes with a cultural assessment to uncover just that, and give everyone the best chance at maximising the rewards of their hard work and perseverance.