How health and safety responsibilities can affect your own wellbeing.

Abby Shaw: 28 April 2022

First up, a disclaimer. I'm no safety specialist.

I have no qualification in workplace health and safety, nor wellbeing for that matter.

So, you might wonder what I have to share that might be worth reading about or why I've been granted the platform to share a somewhat uneducated view on wellbeing, and health and safety.

Before joining UniMed, I spent 12 years in communications roles in large construction firms.

I loved the jobs, the work I did, and the fantastic people I worked with.

Variety was the spice of life, as they say, and my team and I put our hands too many varied briefs, including regularly developing and promoting health and safety. It was rewarding to see the fruits of our labour, with new safety initiatives and campaigns being released and high engagement from the frontline workers. I knew I was playing a very small role in looking after our people, but that was highly fulfilling.

Safety is everyone’s responsibility.

Together, we all had a role to play in ensuring every member of the workforce went home safely each day.

But, even equipped with great health and safety strategy, leadership, and all the educational tools and resources in the world, the nature of the industry does mean that the workforce is constantly presented with significant health and safety risks.

A number of years ago, a subcontractor working on one of our worksites was fatally injured in a tragic workplace accident. I was 26 at the time, and the subcontractor who was killed was younger than me. I still vividly remember the moment the CEO recounted what had happened and carefully explained what I needed to do to support those on-site and the business. Inexperienced, I set out to do the best I could, with a high degree of empathy and compassion. It was a terrible time, and my heart broke for the family and the wider team.

In the weeks and months that followed, investigations were undertaken, procedures reviewed, and additional mitigation plans put in place to ensure such events didn't occur again.

Health and safety were always the number one priority, a mantra that high-risk organisations commit to every day.

Two years later, tragedy struck again. A subcontractor was murdered on a worksite.

It was his first day on the job.

Although different circumstances to those previously, another family would not see a loved one again, a tight-knit community was distraught, and our people, especially those who were the first responders, were emotionally devastated.

For a second time in my career, I was leading communications around a fatality, executing crisis management plans, and doing my absolute best to support all parties, with genuine care and consideration, all while assisting with the investigative proceedings.

I had never experienced a part of my job that I hated but having gone through an accidental death and then a murder, this was it.

There were many amazing people within the organisation, who, with compassion and an unwavering commitment to our people’s safety, would authentically lead through these confronting times. I looked up to them, wished I had the same enduring strength and mana, and wondered how I could be strong like them in a time of crisis.

Unfortunately, over the next three years, tragedy struck a further six times.

I vividly recall the last fatal accident I experienced while working in the industry.

Similarly to my first experience, I can still picture the distraught Executive Manager standing in my doorway, explaining what had unfolded only minutes ago.

What was dissimilar, was me.

I had no emotion. I went into autopilot. I was transactional, and I worked through a prescribed process with no feeling. I was numb to what had happened on a worksite that morning, how a worker wasn't going home to his wife and children that night, and how a tight-knit team had to do the unimaginable and be the first responders for a colleague.

I was managing a crisis without my most important personal attribute. Empathy.

In that instance, I became a robot.

We all have these pivotal moments in both our careers and our lives that cause us reflection. Mine was that last fatality. Not to take away from any other tragedy, nor forgetting the wonderful experiences during my time in the industry. However, that day remains etched in my memory because it's the first time I realised that the responsibility of my job was affecting my wellbeing.

I had mastered the ability to operate in highly stressful circumstances and deliver results. What I hadn't mastered was the art of decompression after major events or even recognising the physical signs my body threw at me. I didn't have my own toolkit to unlock my feelings, or even know that I needed to take time to do so. I wasn't a member of any of the families who had lost someone, or one of the colleagues who had to administer CPR to their workmate.

I was just doing my job and getting on with it.

Since joining the UniMed team, I’ve spent a lot of time learning more about mental health and wellbeing and how, alongside other key factors, our work environment can impact it. I’ve learnt about different strategies, things to look out for, and how to support others.

I've gone on to wonder if those who I was looking up to, inspired by their resilience and strength to lead through extreme times and crises, are indeed getting the care and support they need too?

We equip leaders to look after their people. But who looks after them?

And how can we not expect that exposure to incidents, trauma, and tragedy won't take a toll on those who are 'doing their job' through these events?

With World Day for Safety and Health at Work just around the corner, sharing my experience seemed timely. It’s an important day, like any, to acknowledge the invaluable health, safety, and wellbeing practitioners and leaders who work tirelessly every day to keep their workforce safe.

And to them, and all people leaders in fact, I'd ask the simple question, is the responsibility of looking after your employees' health and safety affecting your own wellbeing? Are you practicing what you preach, to truly look out for your wellbeing?

Because by understanding our own feelings better and reading the signs for ourselves, I believe we can support those who we’re responsible for better too.

Abby Shaw,

Head of Marketing and Communications,