Fear – occupational illness?
The words evoking fear amongst the working population have changed. Layoff, termination, closure and recession immediately come to mind. So, what is it about fear that clutches our thought process and hangs on with a vise like grip? Why are we unable to keep our minds on our tasks?
Well, fear unites us. Maslow identifies a need for socialization, and describes how we have a psychological need to belong. When our colleagues are leaving the workforce in droves without prospects for re-employment, we unite ourselves with them, trying to protect them and ourselves. Trying to provide comfort and hope in an environment devoid of both. Especially when we see their loss as no fault of their own, they did nothing wrong, and we have no way of gauging who of the remaining staff will be let go. We have all been asked to do more with less. And we are spending more to attract fewer prospects, companies cut throat pricing to try to keep those in their employ working. We commensurate with our fellow workers and we feel a sense of belonging, and we stand together facing a management group, each afraid for themselves as well as their co-worker.
Fear also divides us. In the absence of fact or information our brains work tirelessly to fill in gaps, often making up ridiculous solutions that we perceive as factual. When employees see the decline in the workload, they know that companies cannot sustain a labour force that isn’t producing. In a corporation where communication is weak, I would wager that a rift already exists between labour & management. Typically, production or process labour is the first and hardest hit when revenues drop as a result of work shortages, with some core production employees remaining along with many administrative/managerial positions. Violence between workers & supervisors, violence amongst workers, and loud social media comments about poor corporate morale in boardrooms begins to pervade the workplace. Besides the obvious threat to safety, we don’t have our minds on the tasks at hand, we are allowing whatever drama is happening inside our heads to be more important than our life, our health and our families. We have started to dismiss the future (injury) – opting for the immediate (dealing with a fear we believe is more likely materialize than suffering harm). Is this fear new, or just “more” real?
Safety professionals have long preached how keeping our minds on our tasks will greatly reduce injuries, both mild and severe. Thinking about what we are doing before and during, also results in lower property damages, personal and corporate. There are a plethora of theorists and behaviourist plying their ideas about accident causes, many with a great deal of merit. Each describes situations where incident causes are found relating to behaviours, ideas, capability, desire, process or system flaw(s) etc. In uncertain economic climates where emotions are running high, behavioural motivations can be influenced by a simple odour and are more likely to impact the workplace negatively when the predominant emotion is fear. We constantly remind workers to wear their PPE, to follow the safe work practice, abide by the rules and refuse unsafe work, and we USE fear to help us accomplish compliance.
As of January 1, 2016, across our Edmonton clients, we have noticed an increased number of minor injuries, property damage and non-documented close calls. Most of the investigations have difficulty determining root causes, repetitively citing “operator/worker inattentiveness” or “operator error”. Workers involved have many years of experience and have a great deal of specialized training, program elements are in place and functioning (guarding, procedures, ppe), and investigators speak about being frustrated because corrective actions are ineffective. There are fewer employees, less exposure to risk yet the incident rates are rising. Our discussions with the employees – in small informal groups – always led back to fear. Fear of losing your job, not being able to get another job, fear of having to provide for a family, fear of losing possessions like cars & houses, and shame for feeling helpless.
When you look at how strong the emotions that fear elicits can be, it is understandable how people can be distracted from focusing on a task they have performed a zillion times, and yet it fits a definition of mental illness. “According to the U.S. surgeon general (1999), mental health is the successful performance of mental function, resulting in productive activities, fulfilling relationships with other people, and providing the ability to adapt to change and cope with adversity. The term mental illness refers collectively to all diagnosable mental disorders—health conditions characterized by alterations in thinking, mood, or behavior associated with distress or impaired functioning.” (National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, n.d.) “In humans and animals, fear is modulated by the process of cognition and learning. Thus fear is judged as rational or appropriate and irrational or inappropriate.”(Wikipedia.org/wiki/Fear)
These definitions may help us understand why workers aren’t documenting close calls and why they feel shame for fearing they may lose their jobs. It can also be a root cause for many incidents – perhaps not as easily identified or corrected. This doesn’t help combat or end the problem, it just makes us aware of it and hopefully more tolerant when our co-workers remind us to keep our minds on our tasks.