Opinion

Decisions, decisions

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We make a lot of decisions every day. Some simple, some difficult, but making a good decision is rarely easy. To make a good decision, we need to be able to interpret and evaluate lots of information.


However, experience shows that people are often irrational when making their choices. So, is there a way to prompt people to make better decisions around workplace health, safety and wellbeing? An approach that is increasingly being embraced is the ‘nudge’ theory. Although marketeers have been talking about nudge theory for many years, it equally applies in health, safety and wellbeing, albeit under the pseudonym behavioural-based safety.

Covid-19 has led businesses into taking unprecedented measures to ensure the health, safety and wellbeing of employees. During this process particular attention must be given to employee behaviour as a significant risk factor to be recognised, managed and addressed. Since it is an established fact that unsafe employee behaviour is a direct cause of accidents in workplaces, businesses cannot afford to ignore the importance of nudge theory in keeping people safe.

Mike Robinson: "By influencing people towards making more appropriate choices rather than mandating behaviours at work, it’s possible to create lasting change in everything from health and safety to wellbeing."

Nudge theory subtly leads people into the ‘right’ (or more suitable) decision by way of offering prompts that aid decision-making thereby making the process easier. Real life examples of nudges would be footprints painted on the floor leading to recycling bins, or social distancing markers painted located on the floors in supermarkets and other public places.

An individual’s behaviour or decision-making often arises from a desire to not stand out from the crowd. The most basic method of influencing these factors is saying ‘everyone else is doing it’. Offering peer comparisons is a proven approach. In the workplace, we can use this to help manage employee adherence to controls. For example, when introducing a mandatory health and safety training programme, most employees will complete the training. However, some will often delay. Implementing the disciplinary route may prove counter-productive, so consider using encouraging messages like ‘almost everyone has already completed the training, please make sure you do as well’. You may be surprised by how more effective this approach can be.

In a workplace scenario, behavioural nudges can subtly guide people towards a safer option given a limited choice – typically two courses of action. It can be used to help with health and safety in business, particularly in high-risk industries such as construction. A good example is when an engineering and design consultancy placed small mirrors at entrances to their construction site in Copenhagen, along with the message, ‘Who is responsible for safety today?’.

By influencing people towards making more appropriate choices rather than mandating behaviours at work, it’s possible to create lasting change in everything from health and safety to wellbeing.

The way we describe something has a bearing on whether it is perceived as desirable or not. In relation to nudging, you are the architect of a choice environment. You can influence the likelihood that one option is chosen over another. We react differently to the same information depending on how it is presented. For example, food described as 99 per cent fat free is perceived as more favourable than when described as one per cent fat. A nudge makes it more likely that an individual will make a particular choice or behave
in a particular way to drive the desired change.

Managers can, and do, use nudge theory to improve HS&E aspects of the workplace, such as achieving a ‘zero accident culture’. For instance, a monthly scoreboard to track progress on actions such as safety incidents, with a red, green or amber light next to an action signalling if it is on track and what’s needed to improve, can be effective.

Humans are twice as motivated to avoid losses as they are to secure gains. Hence subtle messaging around how not adhering to safety procedures can result in injury or death is likely to lead to compliance to avoid accidents. Nudges can also be used to promote worker health.

Placing nutritious foods within easy reach at the front of a counter in the work canteen can encourage healthier choices, which in turn can support wellbeing and help workers to manage long-term health conditions, such as diabetes.

Whether your goal is improved safety or wellbeing, more revenue or encouraging employee collaboration, nudges are often a low-effort, high-reward way of making that happen. If this doesn’t form part of your current regime, I encourage you to try implementing a behaviour-based safety approach. However, this needs careful understanding, planning and implementation to make it a success.

Mike Robinson FCA is Chief executive of the British Safety Council

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