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More than ‘a handful of men’

The allies spent over two years planning the invasion of Normandy but on “D- day”, the fate of the world was decided by a handful of men on strips of beaches. Throughout history, this has been the case; even in these trying times of the COVID-19 pandemic. As the monster rages on; devouring families, economies, relationships and even dreams; the fate of the world undoubtedly still rests on a handful of men – nurses, doctors and other essential service providers. Not on movie stars, footballers, politicians or astronauts; surely because we are not in a theatre production, a game or popularity contest.

Our world has just experienced puberty; the changes are rapid, and things will never be the same. It is outlandish and somewhat of a struggle navigating the murky waters of our new existence albeit interesting. The COVID-19 pandemic has opened our eyes to new realities and introduced disruption engineered new ways of doing things.

When this is all over, the world we will encounter will be far from the one we knew a few months ago; and so, will require a whole lot more than “a handful of men” to administer it. The execution of our social, political and economic obligations will require a new awakening – smart adaptability. Adapt the same way we did during the heydays of the pandemic; we adapted to enjoying our own company, lived without party jollof rice and abandoned most of our vanities relying on the resolute principles of Health, Safety & Environment (HSE).

A scrutiny of the current global state of affairs reveals dreary trends. From an investor perspective, at least for now, huge profits will no longer be the primary determinant of corporate success; the safety and general wellbeing of the critical stakeholders (staff, clients and partners) is now a leading factor moving forward.

Anxiety driven interim solutions from communities, governments and corporations will surge thereby further accentuating the need for improved HSE standards and good faith. The businesses that are unsuccessful at effectively producing an adaptive cocktail of quality health and safety practices, ethics and empathy; will have their future in oblivion. This truth further underscores the need for business leaders to awaken to their HSE responsibilities. It is not enough that the function has been delegated; hands-on involvement will be most constructive.

In recent times, several questions have been asked on the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic viz a viz HSE. We will address a few shortly.

How can HSE help make organisations stay in business financially and psychologically during the COVID 19 era?

Some industries such as aviation, manufacturing and energy require the highest safety standards. When we fly, we are required to go through the safety briefing with the crew as they pass materials around and do the demonstrations. Frequent fliers are often tempted to view them as just routines, but those are actually the minimum standards for operation; there are however those industries where the need to comply are not as apparent.

In this period, our financials (P&L) will no longer be defined by how much revenue we raked in; it is pretty much like life after a war. A belligerent does not claim victory solely on the back of defeating his adversary, he also considers the soldiers lost. The value proposition of businesses in these times is crucial, but most important is the delivery of such value on the safest of standards because it will increase the brand equity of such businesses for investors, as well as, garner support from regulators both during the pandemic and beyond.

How can business owners and leaders integrate HSE into their businesses from inception and follow through?

Every crisis comes with an opportunity. The positive in the case of COVID 19 is that suddenly a large part of us are now relatively HSE compliant, as there is basic knowledge on what needs to be done. It has successfully nudged everyone to action. The business entities who do not have HSE incorporated into their business model because their primary focus is making tonnes of money, are actually at a loss. Proper HSE can generate lots of revenue for a compliant entrepreneur.

When you scrutinise a luxury car in the league of the Rolls Royce side by side a regular car, something profound strikes. The driver of the luxury car is usually more cautious (even though careless luxury drivers exist) coupled with the fact that the car is designed following the highest HSE standard. That is not the same standard for the regular car and driver, who has a relatively lower premium of safety standards (there are also cautious drivers of regular cars). Figuratively and literally, the mindset of the Rolls Royce driver is what we need to duplicate in our everyday lives; business owners need to view their businesses as a luxury yacht and HSE as the insurance for the business.

What can businesses do to promote cordiality in the face of stigmatisation and mental health challenges?

The introduction of mental health therapies, sessions and campaigns by professionals to address the challenges is essential. This is crucial because although work has a future, the foundation remains the mind; and the ability to initiate critical thought is fundamental to healthy work. COVID- 19 has successfully reiterated the need to discourage health stigmatisation and address the concerns and challenges. The mental health issues that existed prior to the COVID outbreak have been aggravated considering the fact that liberties are now limited, and there is anxiety in the system.

People are not used to these forms of regimented living, there are also those who are on the edges of stress and could fall off the cliff due to excess work requirements (imagine an offshore worker who now has to be on a facility for twelve straight weeks). Businesses with the infrastructure and resources and attentive management will recognise that some irregular behaviours exist in their organisations. This discovery can be the basis of basic guidance and counselling to give such employees the confidence to express their challenges, obtain support and eventually win their trust and commitment.

Business leaders have to be patient and honest to pull this off. Providing mental health support is fundamental to why an entrepreneur is in business; the stability, focus and commitment of the people that work in an organisation are major deciding factors on its growth potential.

What advice exists for SME employers in a post COVID economy?

Small and medium scale entrepreneurs with a small workforce are obviously part of the solution to restart and sustain the economy. The strategies that they adopted, which allowed them to survive will distinguish them. Those who cannot function in this period, the chances are that post COVID, they could disappear. SMEs should improve on what they are doing right now and build on them post COVID without compromising HSE.

What would be the place of HSE considering the work from home policy adopted by most organisations?

HSE has no limit or boundaries, its principles are applicable everywhere (on the road, at home, or in the office). We need to realise that HSE practice begins at our individual homes. Are you physically fit? Start there! Get active in your little spaces and get the best out of your bodies. Next, pay attention to your immediate environment. How is the house built? How safe are the toys and the kids play area? What do the electrical fittings look like? How dry are your walkways?

The key remains paying attention and taking decisive action for yourself and all those around you.

In Nigeria and Africa in general, thoughtful and prudent actions must be taken to ensure that we have more than “a handful of men” to ride the storms that confront us. The key to that remains axial coding of HSE knowledge and practice in our everyday living. This is essential because although in principle the bulk of the HSE weight rests on the shoulders of the leader of a group, the responsibility remains personal to every member of such a group. The simple proof of this is the fact that nobody takes painkillers on behalf of someone else; they show concern at best.

Truly, we need to be more genuine in how we perceive and practice HSE, and not just percolate. HSE has to be promoted at all levels through training and skills reinforcement. Through this, cost reduction is inevitable and technology will make more sense of it; so please embrace it. Finally, people need to be alert to the frontier opportunities that credible and purposeful HSE practices will birth for the HSE conscious corporations.

Ken Etete

Etete is the CEO, Century Group

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