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Stress, safety and resilience

We all talk about stress, but do we all mean the same thing? How does psychology define stress?

Stress can be good and helpful, but it can also be very harmful to our health and performance. It all depends on how difficult it is and how confident we are in our ability to overcome it. Stress can either be a source of motivation or an obstacle.


Research (but also our own observation) has shown that stress can and does cause accidents. When employees are stressed by any number of factors, personal or professional, they are prone to lack of focus, attention, distraction, scattering and, most importantly, looking for shortcuts to avoid further stress.


As long as we keep stress within healthy and stimulating limits, it can only push us to do more, to develop and to grow. When, on the other hand, it becomes unbearable, it can lead us to be unable to use our cognitive abilities to the fullest, which could increase the probability of error, and more precisely of what we call human error.

Accidents, incidents, near misses, result from a misinterpretation of our sensory processing of the environment, and consequently from responses that are not totally adapted.

This analysis is tainted by our internal state and our permeability. We select information according to our own barriers, needs, fears and beliefs.


Add to this the fact that the world we live in is no longer predictable, it is constantly and rapidly changing, and it is certainly not simple at all. The U.S. Army coined the term VUCA to describe this global, complex, and changing world: Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. Our companies meet all of these criteria. Markets evolve and react quickly to political, social and economic events. Nothing is set in stone and everything is subject to change, and sometimes change often becomes necessary to adapt to market developments. Finally, what was true and clear yesterday may not be so today. Values change, and adaptability is a necessity.


So how to best deal with this situation? Psychology has taken a close interest in this human capacity to adapt and especially to respond to adversity, i.e. the fact that "things don't go as planned".


The American Psychological Association defines resilience as follows: "Resilience is the process and outcome of successfully adapting to difficult or challenging life experiences, especially through mental, emotional, and behavioral flexibility and adjustment to external and internal demands."


The good news is that resilience is not a trait and can be developed, just like a muscle, through exercise and practice, learning strategies and behaviors that will help us navigate the complexity of the world in which we live and work. Being resilient means looking at life with a positive perspective, having the belief that you can do what you set out to do, and being realistic about how to get there. It means being aware of your strengths, assessing them thoroughly and accurately, and finding ways to use them. It also involves feeling, understanding and controlling our emotions and impulses. Resilience allows us to master our cognitive abilities to be the best we can be in any occasion, even in stressful situations.


Resilience can be developed not only in individuals but also in organizations, especially when it comes to safety and creating a safety culture. When considering safety in the workplace, knowing that stress can be a factor in human error, organizations should foster a workforce and work environment conducive to the development of resilience, focusing on developing individual employee resilience and organizational resilience.


Organizational resilience must be based on clear principles.

The first is clarity of roles and responsibilities, because without them, no accountability can be established.


Next, awareness of the risks associated with any task must be developed through risk assessment processes involving all relevant parties.


Then, management must create a safe and open environment in which employees feel authorized and empowered to question, evaluate and reflect on their own and others' safety performance.


Finally, let's not forget that positive reinforcement is very effective. Celebrating successes, recognizing what has been properly implemented in terms of safety, is a necessity to motivate employees to continue to thrive as they move toward safety excellence.


It's about creating a culture.


A culture where people feel safe to share their mistakes and feel empowered to offer solutions. A culture where management is close to the plant, listening to workers' concerns and ideas. Where communication is encouraged and recognized as a tool for improvement. It is by focusing on these elements that you will build a resilient team and organization.


Credit: Image from Drazen Zigic on Freepik

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