5 minute read 8 Mar. 2022

How can we transform health, safety and wellbeing to be future fit?

By EY Oceania

Multidisciplinary professional services organization

Roberto Garcia,  
Patrick Miller
5 minute read 8 Mar. 2022

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The pandemic has demonstrated that health, safety and wellbeing (HSW) needs to be more agile, focused, simpler and integrated into the way business is done.

In brief
  • COVID-19 has drawn our attention to the existing long-standing challenges associated with traditional approaches to HSW.
  • The new HSW practices adopted during the pandemic were more practical and better aligned to the operations and risk profile of each organisation.
  • HSW has a unique opportunity to make a giant leap forward by continuing and building on the function’s new ways of operating.

COVID-19 forced organisations to rethink HSW on the fly, revealing the inadequacies of the HSW systems on which Australian and New Zealand businesses rely. 

In the last two years, HSW visionaries who recognised that blindly following the system wasn’t going to cut it, adopted agile new practices – practices that were simpler, more flexible, more connected to business and only focused on critical risks, practices that have proved to be substantially more suitable for our fast-paced and complex working world.

In the aftermath, HSW professionals began to ask themselves: “Why didn’t we make these changes before?”

To help the profession continue its transformation momentum, EY conducted interviews with HSW leaders across Australia and New Zealand. We asked these seasoned professionals what worked during the pandemic and how this can become business as usual for HSW management in Oceania. As we explore in How can we transform health, safety and wellbeing to be future fit?, their collective experience suggests we need a very different approach to HSW.

Four foundational elements of a new HSW transformation

We believe the way forward is a holistic HSW strategy that considers the interaction of humans and systems. Our interviews with HSW leaders, together with our own research and experience, point to four key elements as the foundation for this shift:

1. Integration: HSW shouldn’t be separate or an add-on to normal operations. The function needs to find better ways to collaborate and integrate with the rest of the organisation. This means linear organisational structures should become more like networks, using digital technology to help HSW and business functions integrate with greater ease. For example, the function should be part of conversations about the new ways of working and proactively participate in embedding HSW in work design.

We need to step back from what we've been doing and look at it differently, looking for better ways to integrate HSW with the business, and at the same time analyse the interaction of people with systems and machines.
Rob McDonald
VP Health and Hygiene – BHP

2. Simplicity: HSW processes have become overly complicated and heavily documented, often including unnecessary information. This is a major barrier to employee understanding and engagement. Neuroscience tells us that human beings can only absorb and make sense of a limited amount of information. We need to challenge the perceived regulatory gain of having granular information at the expense of overloading an employee’s cognitive capacity.

The evidence is clear, if you want your employees to better engage with HSW processes and standards, then the HSW systems of work need to be simplified for a higher level of understanding and useability. There are some basic cognitive limitations that can no longer be ignored for superficial regulatory compliance.
Andy Shaw
Head of Safety, Environment Quality and Training - Western Power

3. Focus: During the pandemic, when slow and laborious HSW practices were no longer viable, HSW functions were forced to prioritise the very real and present threats keeping executives awake at night. HSW leaders must continue to find effective ways to manage what is really critical without losing focus. This will require them to proactively stop trying to manage non-critical risks – and to remind others that legislation and HSW regulators often reiterate the need to focus on critical risks.

We need a tighter focus on critical risks. Considered watchfulness without interference from all of the non-critical noise encourages HSW progress through trust, empowerment and respect.
Ian McLeod
Director Delivery Safety – Major Transport Infrastructure Authority

4. Agility: Despite their organisations increasingly adopting agile ways of working, HSW functions have often lagged, hiding behind the HSW compliance argument. This has resulted in a lack of progress and innovation, creating a rigidity that is actively contrary to the future of work. For HSW, the choice is straightforward: either incorporate agility into work practices or drift further away from the direction progressive businesses are going. Rigidity will only lead to the business continuing to see HSW as a hinderance rather than the driver of business success it can be.

Agility and flexibility during COVID-19 showed that it doesn't always need to be perfect and 50 pages long.
Brian Long
GM Safety, Health & Wellbeing – Mirvac

Far-reaching benefits of HSW transformation

While transforming HSW is no small task, the benefits are huge, and can be seen across all aspects of the business, offering:

  • Better business performance: Reducing people’s administrative burden and cognitive load gives them the time and mental capacity to focus on value-adding work that drives commercial advantage.
  • Stronger legislative compliance: A focus on managing critical risks and integrating HSW with the business increases regulatory coverage, reducing workers’ compensation liability, legal exposure and reputational damage.
  • Enhanced social impact: A proactive, people-centred approach to HSW improves employee health, safety and wellbeing, giving companies an edge in the fight for talent and boosting reputation among local and broader communities.

A better way forward

COVID-19, for all its challenges, has offered us a glimpse into a better way of doing things, demonstrating the benefits of taking a new approach to HSW. Building an agile, simple, and flexible approach to keeping workers safe and well, while giving them the confidence and the freedom to be more innovative, can unlock productivity gains and create a positive workplace culture.

Recent global events have removed many of the perceived barriers to act on transforming HSW. There is now plenty of practical evidence to suggest there is a better path forward for HSW, centred around agility and with a focus on what is really critical. This means there is little doubt that significant change can occur quickly within a business when needed, and this naturally also applies to HSW.
Rebecca Dabbs
Oceania EHS Managing Partner - EY

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Traditional HSW management has become so complex and over-engineered that it no longer manages core risks particularly well – nor is it sufficiently flexible to respond to emerging issues, like psychosocial risks. Having developed more fit-for-purpose approaches during the pandemic, organisations should not revert back into complexity or rigid siloes. Instead, they need to build new HSW frameworks that both advance workers’ health and safety while empowering their innovation and problem-solving abilities.

About this article

By EY Oceania

Multidisciplinary professional services organization

Roberto Garcia,  
Patrick Miller