Antidote to human error?

4 September, 2015  |  News

The health benefits of mindfulness – training the brain to focus on the present moment without distraction – have been widely reported in recent years, but research by the UK’s Health and Safety Laboratory (HSL) shows the practice could also have a positive alphat on workplace safety.

Speaking at the IOSH conference in London in June, health psychologist and research team member Dr Jennifer Lunt said mindfulness can serve as “a potential antidote to human error” and enable a more effective response when things do go wrong. The benefits are such that the HSL – the research, training and consultancy arm of UK regulator the HSE – is now running training courses to help businesses implement mindful leadership.

“Mindfulness in safety is about bringing your attention to the here and now, and mindful leadership enables that state to be achieved for all individuals in the organisation.” The research team had found many high-reliability organisations – those operating facilities such as nuclear power plants, where there was constant risk of catastrophe – were already using systems and processes to facilitate collective mindfulness.

“Inattention occurs because we can’t possibly process all the information that bombards us,” Lunt said. “We’ve developed an attention capacity to help us to manage this, but our working memory is selective – we tend to focus on things that are of interest, or value, or confirm existing preconceptions.”

When dealing with tasks that are new or complex, we are less likely to notice other things that could be important. In emergency situations we tend to look for familiarity and apply remedies that have worked in the past.

“When there is something like a fire alarm going off we tend to use an automatic decision-making mode – system 1 – which enables snap decisions.”

This process is influenced by past experiences, associations and biases of which the decision-maker may be unaware, which can make decisions more prone to error. Whereas making decisions in a deliberate way, weighing up the pros and cons and thinking through the implications, is called system 2 thinking.

“Mindfulness is bringing this sort of decision-making out of system 1 and into system 2, so rather than simply reacting to the situation we absorb the information we need from a more neutral perspective,” she said. “When we are mindful we are more aware of how our inner state, our context and our environment are influencing us, and can make more calculated decisions.”

She described mindfulness as an anchor that enables us to have moments in the day where we deliberately pause and collect our thoughts: about hazards, and about our concentration and fatigue levels. “By incorporating this in a busy work life we hype our sense of situational awareness and become more attuned to noticing the unexpected.”

Mindful leaders, meanwhile, need to develop a state of chronic unease, characterised by having systems in place to identify early warning signals, recognition that bad news does not rise upwards and must be sought, being sceptical of positive audits, paying close attention to the incident reporting system, and not assuming that because things have been this way before they will be again.

“As an addition to the OHS practitioner’s current tools, the idea of bringing people’s attention into the moment, and having leadership styles that enable this to happen, is a potential antidote to human error.

“Done well, mindfulness boosts health, safety, wellbeing, and productivity – the whole thing.”

source: Alert24 7/9/15