Dealing with those time pressures

May 8, 2000
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Like everyone else these days, EHS pros find time to be an elusive commodity. Even with the average EHS pro working a 51-hour week, nearly 72 percent of all pros say they don't have enough time to accomplish their work goals, according to ISHN's White Paper surveys.

How is the race against time changing our profession? What can we do to ease the time pressures? And how is the time squeeze changing professional education? These are the issues I want to explore in this article.

How time impacts us

To gain a step on time, many EHS pros are taking more shortcuts, chances, and dramatically altering their lives and personalities. We steal time from our sleep, personal lives, professional association involvement, and even sometimes our professional ethics in an effort to 'get the job done.' Here's what I mean:

  • Because EHS pros are 'too busy,' attendance at local professional meetings is declining even though our overall ranks are growing. The loss of local comradeship will eventually take a toll on the entire profession as our sense of unity diminishes.

  • EHS pros are looking to leave the profession before they burn out. This vividly hit home for me this past July. An EHS pro that I helped mentor into the profession told me that he's going back to college in order to become a public school teacher. But a schoolteacher's job is no less stressful than being an EHS pro, I replied. And what about the possibility of taking a 50 percent cut in pay? His response: It will be worth it if he can have more time for himself and his family.

  • To save time, EHS pros are finding 'copy and paste' to be an expedient way to comply with written program requirements. But shortcuts in implementing these programs can take pros to the edge of what is ethically correct.

  • Quickly getting exposure monitoring results to employees is a priority. To get faster results, real-time monitoring will grow in popularity. Instead of conducting sampling, or to address accuracy and precision errors inherent in real-time monitors, professional judgment will be used more often to determine if exposure levels are acceptable. Who can and cannot exercise professional judgment will be an unresolved debate.

  • Ironically, technological advances fuel time frustrations. Studies now show that people become agitated if they have to wait more than 30 seconds for 'something' to happen. Watch how annoyed some people get when their computer boots up or responds too slow, even though a mere few seconds pass by. 'Phone rage' is a newly coined phrase by psychologists to explain the anger exhibited by someone who is put on hold too long. Rather than wait a few seconds for a pot of coffee to be filled during the brewing cycle, people will slide the pot aside to fill their cup. We must be alert to adverse psychological reactions due to time frustrations in every person, including ourselves.


Changes in education

Most people today seeking a college education live on campus or commute to one, show up for class, and listen to a professor lecture. Even the staunchest supporters of this system admit that it is often a slow and tedious way to educate.

Knowledge University (see USA Today, July 21, 1998, page 5B, "Milken's venture: Reading, writing and returns") offers a glimpse at how the Internet might be used to educate vast numbers of people. Knowledge University is targeted at "time-strapped working people," and its first classes will focus on technical fields, which should be of interest to EHS pros. This isn't a flash-in-the-pan concept nor is it a diploma mill scam. B-I-G money is backing this venture and it's a safe gamble that it will be highly successful.

How to cope

The strongest advice I can offer is to read pages 149-182 in Stephen Covey's book, "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People." What you'll learn from Covey is that time management can be viewed as a matrix with four quadrants: I) Urgent and Important; II) Not Urgent and Important; III) Urgent and Not Important; and, IV) Not Urgent and Not Important.

"Organize and execute around priorities," is the essence of time management, according to Covey. So focus on Quadrant II - activities that are not urgent but are important. Examples include prevention, planning, and building relationships. Putting your focus here gives you vision and perspective, balance, discipline, control, and fewer crises.

Does Covey's advice work for EHS pros? If you study the habits of an EHS pro who works at an OSHA Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) facility I think you'll learn the answer. OSHA VPP sites have the highest level of safety and health activities. EHS pros working at these sites should be swamped and overwhelmed by time pressures.

But the VPP concept is built around Covey's Quadrant II activities - prevention, planning, and building relationships. You'll typically find that EHS pros at VPP sites have less time hassles than most other pros. Certainly there is an initial extra expenditure of time and effort to build up to the VPP level, but long-term time-savings and having more effective safety and health programs are worth it.

One last thought: Philosophers, poets, and scientists have always struggled to describe time. I've run out of time (and space) to explain it any further here. But read a "Brief History of Time," by Stephen Hawkings, to discover a whole new way of looking at time.

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