Duty of care

I was listening to the latest episode of Brene Brown’s podcast, Dare to Lead yesterday. A second part to her interview with Aiko Bethea, Diversity, Equality and Inclusion expert. I recommend both this podcast and Brene’s other one, Unlocking Us, for lots of insight on leadership and what makes us tick. There are lots of discussions relating to the difficult but vital work needing to be done around race, – and the impact of recent times on people of colour, along with many other important issues.

Something Aiko said in this podcast got me thinking in all directions. “Stop asking for the business case for diversity and inclusion work”. (I could be paraphrasing)

Business case. What is in it for me? For the business? Will this make us more money? More productive? Give us a better reputation in the community? The answer to all of these by the way is generally yes. But what if it wasn’t?

What does it say about a business that is are only prepared to make things better for their staff if it pays? It says firstly that you acknowledge there is a problem, which is negatively impacting your teams or your community, but that you don’t care. And that message in itself makes it so much worse for those staff. Destroys any idea they might have that they are valued by their employer.

For Diversity, Equality and Inclusion, you can also read mental health, health and wellbeing work. If we see evidence that our staff are struggling with their mental health, or know we are going through a period of intense stress (either within the organisation, or in the wider world), and we shrug our shoulders and tell our staff to get on with it, then we are failing in our duty of care to those staff.

We’re also failing to question – why? What’s going on? Are we causing these problems or worsening them by the way we work or do business? We have reached a point in time where we accept, hopefully, that the risk to people’s health that they face in the line of their work should be the absolute minimum necessary. Some jobs have a certain amount of inherent risk, unavoidable risk. Even then we know we should be doing our best to protect the worker – Soldiers given bullet proof gear and weapons to defend themselves, Firefighters with breathing apparatus and fireproof clothes. Doctors and nurses with effective PPE (more important right now than ever), Factory workers with ear, eye and foot protection.

We carry out risk assessments to make sure the environment people work in is free from avoidable hazards – things we might trip over, sharp edges, unstable items in high places. We test air quality, light, noise, fumes. Over the course of the past few years, working in a variety of industrial settings I have been provided with ear plugs and visors and strange rubber shoes and ventilators, had to take courses and pass tests to be even allowed onto a site. Most employers (if not as many as should) take Health & Safety pretty seriously. If only because they know there will be hefty fines and potential liability if it goes wrong. In some professions where the duty of care is inherent (i.e. medicine, nursing) there are avenues for whistleblowing if conditions within an organisation are preventing the proper implementation of that duty.

And yet when it comes to our mental or emotional health and safety, there is a sad lack of awareness or concern about why this should be any of their business.

The Health & Safety at Work Act etc Act 1974 gives a general duty to look after the welfare of employees, The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 require the assessment and management of risk.

This includes mental welfare, it includes the need to assess the risk of stress and the illness that it can cause – or worsen.

Thinking about looking after the mental welfare of your employees needs to be preventative and pro-active as well as re-active. If there are factors in your work or business that increase risk, you should be either eliminating these, or ameliorating the impact, and protecting your staff. If there are things you could be doing to actively improve the mental and physical wellbeing of your staff – which in itself is protective, you should be doing them. And you should also be thinking about whether there is any way you can help those staff who are struggling with their mental health – whether wholly work related or not.

There is a business case. There is a legal case. But the most important is the human case. People are struggling. More so than ever in these difficult pandemic times. We certainly don’t want to make things worse than they have to be – but employers have a perfect opportunity to actually make things better. To improve life and working conditions, to challenge behaviours which are unnecessary and unkind, (bullying, harassment, discrimination – all of which negatively impact mental health), to equip people with an understanding of their mental health, skills for wellbeing and coping with life’s challenges – and also, in the case of larger organisations, providing access to information, advice and services which help us to get back in control of our lives sooner – if we are struggling to access that help outside of work.

Too often I find Mental Health is only taken seriously in an organisation when someone at the top is personally affected, or one of their family members is struggling. Suddenly they get it. Suddenly they realise it is important, and that they have it in their power to do something.

We all have that power, to some extent. To learn more. To support our friends, families and co-workers. To lead by example in our words and acts. But businesses and government have the most power of all – and could transform the world if they chose to use it properly.

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