The negative path to safety

January 23, 2013

Change your mindsetPositive thinking is deeply embedded in American culture, and in American business culture. I’ve worked with enough magazine publishers and advertising sales reps who would be seriously non-productive if not for their “can do, will do” spirit.

But here is a counter-intuitive thought: Psychotherapist Albert Ellis, who died in 2007, was a pioneer of the negative path, and he once said the best way to address an uncertain future is to focus on the worst that can happen, instead of the best-case scenario.

Well, no doubt we live in uncertain times. Who knows what the future might entail?

This puts the future state of workplace safety and health programs in something of a fog or haze. This is not a time of clarity. The world of business is unpredictable, fast-changing, and subject to all sorts of global forces. Many businesses, especially large corporations, seem in an almost constant state of flux and restructuring. There is churn and turnover at the top levels, and an influx of new middle managers and department heads. They come armed with “the better way. The better idea.” Goals change. Strategic plans change. Performance reviews change.

Change freaks out a lot of people, especially when it seems to never abate.

So say you are anxious about what may happen to your safety and health department and programs. You want to be positive, but damn, there are just so many unknowns.

What to do?

Try “defensive pessimism.” According to an article in The Wall Street Journal (December 8-9, 2012), about one-third of Americans instinctively use this strategy. You see, positive thinking is the effort to convince yourself that things will turn out fine. But what if they don’t? You might then succumb to the belief that all’s gone to hell in a handbasket. You lose sleep, grind your teeth, drink a little too much maybe, and complain a lot.

Ellis advocated facing up to your fears by outlining the worst-case scenario. What you usually discover in business is that the “worst” is not as terrible as you imagined. You can confront it and survive it many times. Or the “worst thing that could happen” opens a door, an escape hatch for you, which leads to better things. I’m sure you’ve heard someone say, “You know, the best things that ever happened to me started out as the worst things.”

This could mean landing a more secure safety and health job. Or you survive staying in place, in a downsized department that happens to bring you in contact with some very effective EHS contractors you never would have known about otherwise. Maybe one hires you. You are also now in a leaner, flatter operation which brings you into more formal and informal contact with your bosses. More opportunities to explain and sell safety and health.

In any event, having the capability to live with the idea of the worst that might happen in your business can conserve your energy. You’re hopefully less stressed, with less anxiety draining your batteries.

In other words, be here now. Focus your energies on the day’s work. Just today’s. In safety and health, this mindfulness is crucial because hazards are created and employees get injured only in the present moment. Not yesterday. Not the next day.

Try to hold back on thinking too much about tomorrow… who can tell? Things change, that much is certain. No safety and health program is ageless and timeless. Try to simply accept the notion of impermanence; that your job, your career, and your safety and health efforts are bound to be different down the road.

You’re simply being a realist. And safety and health pros, with successes, failures and years of dealing with human nature under their belts, are usually pretty good at being realistic.