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Interview: Making a success of health and wellbeing

BRE’s core value is known to all who work for and within the organisation. This being that the health, safety and wellbeing (H&W) of all our staff, suppliers, resident partners and visitors comes before all else. This is one of the very first things everyone learns about BRE… 

…but what does it actually mean? And why is it BRE’s main ethos?  

How did this focus come about, and whose responsibility is it?  

Who better to talk to about this than BRE’s own Kirsten Lord, Group HR Director, and Ray Jeffery, Group Health, Safety and Environmental Manager. Jo Goodwin and myself caught up with them to find out more about BRE’s own H&W practice, terminology and the construction industry and H&W.  

They also gave us a few ‘top tips’ for creating an organisation with H&W at the heart of it – so watch out for that at the end of this interview. 

BRE and H&W – Constructing a better company 

What makes BRE’s H&W culture tick and why it is so important?

Kirsten:“At BRE health, safety and wellbeing it is a philosophy rather than a value. Our H&W culture is something those joining the organisation, or engaging with us make a choice to join – this is something that BRE takes very seriously and is embedded deep within our core behaviours”

Ray:“If it’s in your head and heart, then it is effective. At BRE it wasn’t a health and safety change, rather it was a cultural and behavioural change. Our CEO, Pete Bonfield was involved in the development of the 2012 London Olympics, and he is very keen to adopt the same culture that led to a record-breaking project, where not one fatality occurred during the Olympic build. He brings this into his own life and work, and through working with teams across BRE, drives home this culture.”

Kirsten:Coming from the top is helpful. Pete genuinely walks and talks health, safety and wellbeing, and this attitude is spread throughout the organisation. For example, all meetings (whether our Friday update for all staff, or our regular board meetings) start with a health and safety story which promotes the notion of keeping an eye out for one another. BRE creates a behaviour change that is second nature to everyone here.”

It’s hard not to think about how BRE’s ethos has rubbed off on me.  

Only the other weekend during a getaway with friends, I immediately found myself checking the back of the hotel room door for the fire escape routes. And that’s BRE’s doing. Although I have always been conscious about the more obvious things, like not sticking my hand into a fire or going for a run with my shoe laces untied, this deliberate checking of safety signage is something that has become second nature within just a few months of being here… 

Jo had a comment here on this topic as well – that she noticed a great attitude here the second she started just under two years ago, and that the business really challenges each and every person to look out for their own health, safety and wellbeing, also for those around them. It’s not just the job of Ray and his team, or Kirsten and her team – health, safety and wellbeing really is our own responsibility.  

During our staff training on this, Ray often talks about how we all do risk assessments all the time, for example before crossing a road, you check to make sure it’s safe. So why for many individuals is this not expanded into their working lives? 

Ray:“The health and safety industry, particularly in the UK has gone too far at times, and there’s a lot of ambivalence and even reluctance around it as a result. At BRE, we challenge this by changing the stereotype. The health and safety team aren’t here to stop you from doing things, they are here for you to ask HOW to do things more safely.”

‘Health and wellbeing’ – The phrase and its implementation 

Although things are changing here in the UK, and people are taking health and safety more seriously, the concept of wellbeing in addition to health and safety is completely foreign…

Kirsten:“There’s a benefit to having well staff – and ultimately, that affects your bottom line. For that reason alone employers should not be rolling their eyes at the term wellbeing. If you can create an environment that caters to strengths and enables people to be brilliant every day, employees are less likely to feel stress, and are more likely to be productive and proactive, which has great individual and commercial benefit.”

Ray:“Employees and employers need to understand that something like downtime, and other wellbeing issues, aren’t bad – and that even if you ‘only work in an office’, H&W is still very important.”

Kirsten: Inherently high achievers want to do more, better and faster, placing addition pressure on themselves which can lead to stress. At BRE, we coach people to understand that it’s okay to make wellbeing choices in order to give a good work-life balance.”

Ray: “Ultimately, we need to get people to understand their own strengths and weaknesses so they can work at their best.”

Ray:“The Health and Safety team working alongside HR definitely helps. When I started they were two completely separate parts of the business, which left well-being to get a bit lost in the middle.”

Kirsten: “Here at BRE the simple implementation of something such as flexible hours has so many positive implications for well-being. It suits individual body clocks, domestic arrangements and removes stress from unavoidable personal emergencies. Performance should be measured by outcomes and achievements rather than the amount of hours on paper people work….

… At BRE there are a lot of people with a passion about H&W. That passion needs to be translated into practical solutions. Health, safety and wellbeing can’t just be a strop line or a box we tick – we always have room for improvements in this area.

H&W change in the construction industry 

What is needed for successful H&W in the construction industry, and who holds responsibility?

Kirsten: “H&W is as much the responsibility of the individual as it is the construction profession. This is not a ‘nannying’ industry and it can’t be. It’s about engaging with people on a personal level, so that they understand what health, safety and wellbeing means for them and even more importantly – how to embrace this in their work in practical ways that are beneficial to them and their teams”

Ray:“Money drives change. For many businesses, H&W comes level with, if not below, profit. It creates this circle where there isn’t available funds for training to begin with. Nobody wants to pay any more. However, if you look at the UK industry, it really has become one of the world leaders in H&W. So much so that other nations come here for advice…

…importantly for the construction industry, change can’t just be driven by one department; it is a cultural change that is needed, therefore many need to be involved. Effective H&W policy is paramount to the industry as it is fundamentally ‘death-on-a-stick’ with all the machinery, electronics etc. From a commercial perspective, health and safety matters, as negative cultures and practices do spread throughout industry – and word does get out. I’ve seen this have a negative effect for a lot of businesses, so they need to make sure they’re on top of it.”

Top tops for effective H&W 

Ray:“Make sure the handbook you send out is clear and concise. Communication is key, especially as English is not the first language for around 50% of the construction industry.”

Kirsten: “Organisations need to be overt from the outset so individuals can voluntarily apply and join knowing the H&W ethos of the organisation…

…In addition to this, training is key. Here at BRE we do more than is mandatory and that is really evident.”

Ray: H&W should be seen as the oil on the wheels not the grit in the gears so things run more smoothly when done well. Managers should remember they are responsible for the H&W of all that they are responsible for.