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Human Factors and the return to work...

Written by Annette Cairns on .
dozen eggs

I have been fascinated with the idea of Human Factors for some time now in relation to making mistakes or understanding why we do the things that we do. It strikes me that so many of the theories of management, self awareness and leadership fit very easily into the framework of Human Factors providing a structure for understanding the way we work.

The HSE define Human Factors as referring to “the environmental, organisational and job factors, and human and individual characteristics, which influence behaviour at work.. “ . The HSE look at these particularly in relation to these affecting health and safety (https://www.hse.gov.uk/humanfactors/introduction.htm), but originally Human Factors came from the study of ergonomics. How can things be made better for humans to function.

No one (or very few people) goes to work with the intention of making mistakes or creating chaos or being less than 100% productive. And yet regularly this occurs. Understanding why helps us identify how we can prevent it.

The HSE goes on to look at three interrelated aspects. The Job, The Individual and The Organisation. These will all be so relevant in the current situation with Covid-19 and the gradual releasing of lock down. The three have to been seen as interrelated rather than individually. Human Factors are concerned with “what people are being asked to do (the task), who is doing it, (the individual and their competence) and where they are working (the environment) all of which are influenced by wider societal concern, both local and national).” (HSE)

If this isn’t a great explanation of what is happening today, I am not sure what is!

How can this help?

We can take it that on every level these human factors have been challenged in the last seven weeks. People have been asked to cope with changing their way of working, changing their environment and in many cases changing what they are doing. They have been asked to work from home, or are working in environments that by necessity have been adapted to compensate for social distancing or the wearing of PPE. All the while being asked to maintain productivity and focus on their roles.

For those who have been furloughed, they have the stress of wondering if there will be a job to return to and how will they reconnect with the role and people that they have been asked to distance themselves from in the last few weeks. For some it felt like a holiday for others it has been a time of huge stress and uncertainty with little chance to have a connection with their organisation. And human beings need connection! Whether they be introverts or extraverts, we all need some connection. Although this may be shown in a different way.

Management styles have varied from the “I’ll be checking on your regularly to make sure you are working” to “call me if you need me” and all points in between. What type of team culture is that generating?

People were given support in how to set up their desks and their laptops in order to work from home. There were stories of adapting ironing boards or sharing the dining room table with the rest of the family. Home schooling proves a challenge. And at first it was all a bit of a laugh and it was always going to be temporary. There was an initial surge in productivity as people settled in and adapted.

Now the reality is starting to bite. Bad backs, loss of focus, distractions, home schooling have started to take their toll. There has been an increase in mental health issues. Throughout this is a huge feeling of uncertainty. When will this end? When we will be back to “normal”? Whatever “normal” means.

The starting point is to recognise that this is happening. In James Reason’s Three Buckets models, we can see that “Stuff” is going into three pots “Task”, “Context” and “Self” throughout the day. As the buckets fill we need to recognise that they are filling and take action to take some “stuff” out again. We need to be aware and ensure that none of the buckets overflow as that is when mistakes occur.

We need to work out the things we can do something about – and do something about them; and we need to work out the things we can do nothing about and accept them. The skill is in recognising which is which.

What can we do something about?

In 1993 Gordon Dupont identified the “Dirty Dozen”. The twelve elements that influence people to make mistakes. The aim of the concept is to focus attention and resources towards mitigating the effects of these:

  • Lack of communication
  • Lack of teamwork
  • Norms
  • Pressure
  • Complacency
  • Lack of Knowledge
  • Lack of Awareness
  • Lack of Resources
  • Distractions
  • Lack of assertiveness
  • Fatigue
  • Stress

The Dirty Dozen

How many of these Human Factors are relevant to your employees at the moment? I suspect most of them. With a better awareness of what could cause mistakes or lack of productivity would you better placed to integrate your employees back into the workplace?

A psychometric such as Insights or SDI can show how different types react to the Dirty Dozen and how, as employers, we can ensure that the negatives are mitigated. A better understanding of how your teams interact and how their personalities work together or not, will also help that re- entry into work.

Giving employees a voice and a safe place to make that voice heard will help us all get on track to returning to work.

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