Psychology

Are you mindful or mindless when working?

April 26, 2000
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How many injuries occur because people were "just not thinking?" How often do we get into a work routine involving a sequence of behaviors that we perform unconsciously? We take our mind off the process and put ourselves on automatic pilot.

People sometimes move through daily regimes with little thought, alertness or creativity. The more mundane and commonplace the activity, the more likely a person will use an unconscious script to guide behavior-with an accompanying lack of awareness. Social psychologists warn that this mindless activity leaves us vulnerable to sales pitches, authoritative directives and injuries.

Mindless activity is fine if all the habitual behaviors are safe, but what if a risky shortcut is interspersed in the behavioral sequence? What if an environmental event, such as a forklift truck speeding around a corner, requires us to immediately adjust our behavior? Our lack of awareness, or our mindlessness at the time, will prevent prompt reaction. Without even realizing it, our mindless work practice puts us at risk for injury.

So how do we become more mindful of behavioral routines that could lead to injury, either to ourselves or to others?

The power of synergy

It's useful to write down the distinct steps of a job and reflect on the possibilities of an at-risk behavior and injury at each step. Perhaps this was already done in the job safety analysis (JSA) of your job. But that JSA could be long forgotten. A lot has happened since, and maybe you weren't even involved in conducting the analysis. This is about your awareness of the critical safe and at-risk behaviors involved in your daily work practices.

Optimal mindfulness of complex activities is not something you achieve on your own. It requires the interpersonal support of others. A good example of group consciousness-raising is the development of a critical behavior checklist (CBC). Everyone in the group contributes. This has several benefits:

  • Mindfulness is spread across several individuals at once;
  • People become mindful of the varied safe steps of a certain job;
  • Everyone also becomes more aware that maximum mindfulness and protection from injury occurs when people look out for each other.

Mindfulness about specific safety-related behaviors is increased prominently when a work team develops a CBC. But even more mindfulness occurs when a CBC is used.

Imagine one co-worker approaching another who is hard at work and asking, "Is this a good time for a behavioral audit?" Whether the answer is "yes" or "no," some amount of safety mindfulness is raised. Now consider the impact of the actual observation process on job-specific awareness. After volunteering to be observed, the worker is now mindful of every aspect of his or her job. The employee not only thinks about the specific items on the checklist, but tries to be cognizant of every possible safety-related behavior of the task.

The importance of trust

In the right context, the observed employee actually shows off his individual ability to work safely. This is mindfulness at its best. It is initiated by an observation process that includes several key elements: communication is open and direct, the focus is on behaviors and the observation is conducted only with permission. This helps to build the proper context-an atmosphere of interpersonal trust and mutual, active caring.

The individual feedback portion of this behavioral coaching process is certainly important. It supports the safe decisions a co-worker makes, and provides an opportunity to improve the safety of a job. Feedback also makes both employees, the observed and the observer, more mindful of the many environmental and behavioral facets of the work process that could cause personal injury. I'm convinced this increased mindfulness is one of the most influential outcomes of a behavior-based observation and feedback process, contributing significantly to its remarkable injury-prevention success.

By E. Scott Geller, Ph.D., senior partner, Safety Performance Solutions (SPS), and professor of psychology at Virginia Tech. Dr. Geller and his partners at Safety Performance Solutions help organizations develop the kind of observation and feedback process that maximizes safety mindfulness. For information on related books, training manuals, videotapes, audiotapes, and customized consulting, please call SPS at (540) 951-7233 (SAFE) or visit www.safetyperformance.com.

Sidebar 1 -

An exercise in mindfulness

How about this group exercise for a safety meeting? Pass out a raisin to everyone at the meeting and ask participants to place the raisin on their tongues. Then, request each person to close their eyes and very slowly chew on their raisin, attending to every aspect of the raisin: its shape, texture, and taste. The aim is to become awarel-or mindful-of every aspect of this single raisin-eating experience.

Why would you want employees eating raisins at a safety meeting?

Psychotherapists use this raisin-eating exercise to help people reduce their adverse reaction to stressors. In fact, this is a common stress-reduction exercise for heart patients who need to decrease their blood pressure. The exercise reminds me of frequent advice my mother gave me whenever she saw me rushing around to accomplish an overload of tasks, "Don't forget to stop and smell the roses."

So you might use the raisin exercise as a stress-reduction technique. By having participants slow down to experience the process of eating a single raisin, they learn how to intentionally slow down their thinking and body processes and put themselves in a state of relaxation. The experience can also help people appreciate value in "stopping to smell the roses." In addition, I believe this exercise has special benefit for safety. It can teach people the difference between mindful and mindless work practices.

Sidebar 2 -

Observation etiquette

At the October, 1998, Behavioral Safety Now Conference in Dallas, a panelist stated that it's OK to conduct behavioral audits without an employee's permission. In fact, he indicated that his consulting teams often find situations where unannounced observations are especially beneficial. I had to disagree. I have not found a single situation that gives greater advantage to secretive rather than announced behavioral audits. I sincerely hope this brief article on mindfulness helps you see it this way, too.

Unannounced observations might give a more realistic picture of the at-risk behaviors occurring while someone works, but such audits run the risk of reducing interpersonal trust and giving the impression that behavior-based safety is a negative "gotcha" program. And from a behavior-change perspective, observations without permission cannot raise safety mindfulness. It's likely that the mindfulness developed and increased from an open and voluntary behavioral observation process is critical for behavior change and injury prevention. To get the best from such a process we need to remember what it takes to develop and maintain an atmosphere of interpersonal trust and "actively caring."

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