Business and Health: Messages for managers?

Ten years ago, at the request of the French ministers in charge of labour and higher education, I, together with numerous colleagues, drew up a report proposing a frame of reference for the occupational health skills of managers and engineers. This work has helped to raise awareness of the crucial role played by managers in prevention.

Three objectives

The frame of reference at the time was structured around three goals:

  1. To identify the human, social, economic and legal issues related to occupational health and safety in the workplace.
  2. To integrate occupational health and safety into the management of activities and projects of the company.
  3. To contribute to the management of occupational health and safety within the company.

Today, after spending ten years developing occupational health and safety training for managers, I think we need to take another look at the wording to make it more specific.

Towards a new frame of reference

The three goals listed above have retained their relevance, but they don’t stipulate what managers should specifically master in terms of knowledge, know-how and soft skills. Moreover, one remark I often hear is that this way of presenting the managers’ role leads to the impression that it involves giving them an additional task. This is particularly visible in the wording of the first objective.

In a flyer I recently published I proposed five managerial attitudes to facilitate the achievement of these goals:

  1. Be informed: what is my company doing in terms of health and safety?
  2. Be vigilant: managers must react at the right level to a situation entailing risk, either individually (signs of distress) or collectively (the emergence of a source of danger).
  3. Be exemplary: there exists a managerial mimicry. A negligent manager in health areas spreads undesirable behaviour.
  4. Be demanding: when you’re exemplary, you can and must demand that your employees obey the rules, without creating danger for themselves or others.
  5. Be benevolent: empathy doesn’t exclude demands, quite the contrary.

A manager who develops these attitudes can make an essential contribution to occupational health. As we can see, this doesn’t entail mastery of technical knowledge of physical, chemical, biological and organisational agents that may affect employees’ health. It’s primarily a question of soft skills and, secondly, a matter of know-how.

As a backdrop, there’s an initial element to remember: fundamentally, managers play a protective role. We need to help them to take it on board expressly. Someone who addresses managers and tries to teach them lessons and make them feel guilty is making a pedagogical mistake. Not all managers are stress agents or harassers! Quite the contrary; the key lies in placing value on this spontaneously produced protection (I’m not unaware that there are managers whose personality is perverse and pathological and therefore toxic, but they’re obviously in a small minority). And let’s not forget that managers should be encouraged to protect their health. This forms part of an exemplary nature.

Call for cooperation

I think the time has come to take another look at this frame of reference for skills. It will require collective expertise. We don’t have to wait for a ministerial order to get down to work. I invite anyone interested in this subject to write to me at william.dab@lecnam.netor on LinkedIn.

William DabWilliam Dab is a Professor and Health and Safety Chair at Cnam – France, where he trains specialists in occupational health and environmental risks, notably through an engineering course in risk management. He is a doctor specialised in epidemiology. His career has been entirely devoted to health and safety, whether it be developing tools for risk assessment, monitoring and management. As a former Director-General of Health, he was a member of the WHO Executive Committee and Chairman of the European Environment and Health Committee for the WHO European Region. He has also published a number of books related to health and safety

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