There are two main challenges to elevating health to corporate risk register level: considerations that health is separate from safety, and how to define health risks, according to an expert in the area.
“In my experience as a former health professional, an OHS industry professional and as a consultant, ‘health’ was often absent from corporate risk registers or was grouped with safety under the context of injury,” said Olivia Ryan, director of people & process integration for Small Giants Advisory.
Ryan explained that the first challenge is separating health from safety as discrete – but related items. This separation provides an opportunity for greater attention and more nuanced conversation for each of the subjects.
The second challenge relates to the difficulty (and complexity) of cause and effect when describing and defining health issues on a risk register.
“The typical risk assessment methodology of ‘consequence and likelihood’ matrix is simplistic and insufficient to adequately define and evaluate the risk for health,” said Ryan, who was speaking ahead of the 2020 AIHS National Health & Safety Conference, which will be held online from 22–24 June 2020.
COVID is a poignant example, according to Ryan: “prior to 2020 if an organisation had of had ‘pandemic’ on their corporate risk register, despite available statistics relating to relatively recent pandemics that have community-level disruptions and a geographically dispersed (SARS, H1N1, Ebola, Zika) the rating of risk may not have made it a priority worth discussing for business continuity or strategic planning,” she said.
There are a number of important reasons why executives should embrace health within the corporate risk system, Ryan said.
“Firstly, at a corporate risk level, I am referring to health (physical and mental) areas that can have material impacts on an organisation. This can be positive (opportunities) and negative (risks),” she said.
“I strongly believe that for executives to embrace ‘health’ it requires changing the mental model from ‘people are a problem to be fixed’ to ‘people are a source to be harnessed’ i.e. your business does not exist without people. And that the better your people’s health, the better they can perform, and your business will benefit from it.
“Let me explain using a current example. COVID was (and still is) a disruptor on our way of life and work i.e. isolation, working from home, home-schooling, continual zoom meetings.”
Ryan said this has had significant impacts on people’s physical and mental health: “I would argue that if a company had a 15-20 per cent decrease in productivity or output then this would be a material impact that executives would be interested in understanding more about, and if possible, reducing or mitigating,” she said.
If executives use the mental model that ‘people are source to be harnessed’, then Ryan said the discussion switches to health within the context of continuous improvement, opportunities and material risks to be aware of, plan and where possible mitigate.
“Embracing means shifting perspective and shifting from ‘don’t know what we don’t know, to know what we don’t know’, then iterate from there,” she said.
In elevating health to the corporate risk register level, effective communication with executives is also an important skill for OHS professionals, according to Ryan.
“The skill of being able to ‘talk the talk’ of executives and boards, in my experience, becomes a requirement when an OHS professional reaches a certain level of management and become the OHS leaders that directly support executive leadership on organisational level issues,” she said.
“OHS professionals have a detailed understanding of their content and the impacts of the risks relating to safety and health.”
Ryan said OHS language is often very technical, and in particular, the language of operational risk can be quite specific, contextual and directive (i.e. if-then).
“OHS leaders have a role as ‘translator’ for their executives and it is the responsibility of the person communicating to ensure they have communicated effectively to the receiver of the message.
“Often, we think we have communicated because it’s a one-way push of information, but the message has not been received or interpreted differently. My favourite quote is by George Bernard Shaw: ‘The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.’”
Some reasons for this communication challenge are that executives and board members are generally time-poor, they often assume that if they are receiving information it is important (either positive or negative) and their risk language may be based on a corporate risk criterion which may have a higher threshold for prioritisation.
Furthermore, OHS professionals who are fluent in speaking ‘executive’ are skilful in understanding ‘what’s important’ from the perspective of their executive’s role, priorities, provide solution options and strategic benefits.
“OHS professionals who understand they are ‘translators’ seem to be more effective in their communication with executives and boards,” said Ryan, who explained there are opportunities for OHS professionals to broaden their understanding and skills.
As a starting point, Ryan recommended practising communication techniques and behaviours that make it easier for executives to understand and act (i.e. learn the language and priorities of your executives, make time to understand their preferred communication methods and communicate using questions).
“Become curious and explore the differences between corporate and operational risk and how this relates to defining and evaluating health,” said Ryan.
“Environmental health is a good place to start. And by environmental health I am referring to the impact of the environment on human health, which is a broad field of expertise some of which is already captured in OHS in the areas of industrial and occupational hygiene, epidemiology, and public health just to name a few.”
Ryan also suggested seeking out ‘health’ expertise and having discussions with leaders about the potential impacts of population-based health issues as a function of organisational risk or opportunity.
Ryan will be speaking at the 2020 AIHS National Health & Safety Conference, which will be held online from 22–24 June 2020. For more information call (03) 8336 1995, email email@example.com or visit the conference website.
Article originally published by the Australian Institute of Health and Safety.
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