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Podcast: Creating a culture of compliance and care

For our first podcast episode, we focus on liability issues around injury and ill-health by exploring workplace culture and how it can impact on compliance.

Our guest is Thames Water's Chief Health, Safety and Well-being Officer Karl Simons, who was recently voted by Safety and Health Practitioner Magazine readers worldwide as ‘the most influential person in health and safety’.

Karl covers leadership, competence and communications and describes how a strategy designed to develop an organisational-wide 'culture of care' can have a dramatic impact on overall performance.

Join in our discussion around culture and compliance on Linkedin here.

Discover more about RiskSTOP.

Prefer to read? See full episode transcript below.


Johnny Thomson  0:01  

So hello, and welcome to the RiskACUMEN podcast which offers thoughtful insight around risk engineering and management. Now today we're going to be exploring liability issues, workplace injury and ill health and focusing in on culture, and how that workplace culture can really impact on compliance. And for this, I'm delighted to be joined on a call by Karl Simons of Thames Water. Hi, Karl, how are you?


Karl Simons  0:29  

Very well, Johnny, very well. Good to be joining you.


Johnny Thomson  0:32  

Yeah, thanks a lot for coming on the call. I've just realised there's quite a mix of accents here isn’t there?


Karl Simons  0:40  

My Welsh tones really coming through and your Geordie!


Johnny Thomson  0:44  

Yes, exactly. It's probably useful for the audience to understand where we're from, and that there is a difference between a Welsh accent a Geordie accent, that's probably for another podcast. Okay, now, if you haven't come across Karl before, he's Chief Health, Safety and Wellbeing officer at Thames Water, and he's highly experienced and qualified. He holds a Master's degree in environmental safety and health management, as well as being a Chartered Member of IOSH and just last year you were voted by Safety and Health Practitioner magazine readers as 'the most influential person in health and safety'. So congratulations on that. I guess that's something you've now got to constantly live up to, is it?


Karl Simons  1:28  

Well, it's a hell of a thing to be given an award in any gaze, but when it's, you know, the 600,000 readers, and it's across the world, and it's your peers you know that's really the recognition that I suppose anybody would like to have. So I was hugely humbled by that if I'm honest,


Johnny Thomson  1:51  

Yeah, fantastic. As I say, congratulations with that. Now culture, it's a massive topic, isn't it?


Karl Simons  1:59  

Huge and every organisation should really understand the position they're at any point in time. So there's never ones that  are good or bad, I mean everyone is on a journey when it comes to cultural evolution. And the important bit is, where are you at the minute, what the steps do you need to take? Because even for us, in seven years we've had a really quickly maturing health and wellbeing programme, but it's still, you know, right now, I still feel there's a lot of work to do for us as an organisation.


Johnny Thomson  2:33  

Yes and it was Peter Drucker, I think, the management consultant and he famously said that culture eats strategy for breakfast. And I think what he meant by that was, it doesn't matter how good your strategy is, and your processes and your procedures, if your culture isn't right, you're kind of wasting your time. I guess you see it that way? 


Karl Simons  2:52  

It has to be, I mean, you know, we have tactical plans, and we have a long term strategy. We work in five year cycles in the water industry based on the price review. So, you know, we generally understand those sorts of things that we need to do. But really, when you're talking culture you're on about leadership, competence, engagement, how you communicate that you're dealing with, how do you bring people with you? The best definition of culture, in my opinion, is how our people behave when the organization's not looking over their shoulder. And they're left to work under their own initiatives. In other words, will they stop, will they do the right thing? Will they comply with the safe systems of work? And look after each other? How do you create a culture of care and an environment where people are able to thrive because they are themselves at work? And it's respected and understood the value in which they bring?


Johnny Thomson  3:49  

Interesting. You mentioned leadership there, I guess, what you're saying is that example has to be set from the top, I guess, primarily, yeah?


Karl Simons  3:57  

It has to be an you know, I mean, within Thamses, so we we have a strategy it's called Time to Talk, but the first thing within it is what are we doing as leaders, and we've worked quite hard over recent years, towards creating, you know, we're striving constantly to better ourselves, but creating a culture of care comes from making sure that leadership understand the responsibility they hold, because orchestrating a company means setting a tone where you really do empower people to you know, be to go to work, and, but to speak up when things aren't correct. And then when they do speak up, you know, because we're human beings here. We have slips and lapses in concentration, make errors in judgement. We're humans. We're not robots. We're built to fail on occasion, unfortunately, and the first thing is understanding that and then making sure that when people  do speak up, the first thing that the manager says, or one of the peers says is, oh, well done. I'm glad you raised that. And that's a heck of a thing yeah? When maybe somebody's doing something unsafe or maybe someone's unhealthy behaviour? If you think in an office environment, for example, when people are they have a moment of frustration and they may vent suddenly, right? I mean, that person didn't go a bed that morning to go and shout at people. And even though what they're doing is unacceptable. It's all about how we have that conversation, then what are the triggers? How do we learn from it. And I think leaders have a responsibility in terms of at the top level, monitoring. I can't express enough. So we have a suite of health performance indicators within the company. And HPI is and is built across the health and wellbeing dashboard, which we share openly, it's on the health and safety hub, you can view it, and it sets out criteria, a suite 10 HPIs, as we call them, and then how do you move from infancy to integrated and it allows any organisation to be able to assess themselves. And the reason for putting that together is not just the compliance statements in each of the boxes, but the question set behind so we have five questions for each box. But it allows companies to develop a strategy around health and well being. But the other bit is how you report on it. We did a lot of work with the government, a couple of years ago, DWP towards producing and introducing the voluntary reporting for business for both physical and psychological health within organisations. And it's really important, because reasonable adjustments for physical disabilities have been in place for a while now, and are working relatively well within organisations not as good as they could be in some, but a lot of companies are doing what they need to, well  you need to look at your psychological health as well, that that is so important. And within Thames, we do that from a leadership perspective, and then empower our managers to make those reasonable adjustments for people who require them. And then you allow them to be better in work. You know, it's not the, I always say it's not the disability that prevents a person thriving in work. It's the environment in which they are placed. And all too often we forget that. So allow your managers to do what they need to do. 


Johnny Thomson  7:13  

I guess an important part of that is giving the guys on the ground the tools as well, isn't it to be able to, to achieve compliance and understand. I guess that's where the competency comes in there that you talked about before as well.


Karl Simons  7:25  

Yeah. So competency starts with, again, upskilling. And do you know what? I know that competency deals with knowledge, ability, attitude, and  training and experience, right, all the normal stuff that we know about. But if you think about what do my courses look like? In Thames, we have a half day mental health awareness course. And then we have a two day Mental Health First Aid course, many organisations have this now. And it works very well. Because all you're doing is allowing people to say I'm an advocate and ambassador for health and understand it, and I can provide pathways should you need any assistance, right, that doesn't replace the clinical team that I have, I work off a rule of thumb for 1000 employees, I have one internal clinical specialist. So we've got a great team of within Thames of six, and then our clinical team, five specialists and a doctor, and they help them support those individuals. But if that's the training, you've got to have the framework, then around it that supports it. You cannot just train people, that's not good enough, because what happens when somebody comes to them? If you haven't suddenly got that pathway? Where do they go? So we set up the structures. And then the individual themselves? How do you support those Mental Health First Aiders, for example, who are suddenly faced with people come in with their really challenging situations on occasion, but then for the individual, what happens to them once they maybe need to see somebody? Did they get the right help and support? How do you feed back? Are we pathwaying them back to health if needed, so we can get proper assessment and support? That structure around it is so important.


Johnny Thomson  9:03  

Yeah. And that that that kind of communication cycle that you're talking about in terms of keeping that momentum and everything going is really important as well, of course, yeah? You mentioned performance as well before, what what's the impact of this approach around culture been at Thames?


Karl Simons  9:19  

So yeah, over the last five years, we've reduced work induced illness by 78%. Now, I want to, I want to help people understand this because if you think about your organisation, I would say to anybody right now, safety and injury prevention has been around for a long time and many organisations measure that in a good way they say, right, if we have an injury that leads to somebody going off work as a result of injury, then we call it a lost time injury. And then they'll have a frequency rate based on 100,000 generally, which is the you know, average working person's lifetime, and then they divide over their man hours. It gives them a frequency rate so they can benchmark. But the important bit is not the frequency rate. It's about if somebody goes off as a result of injury, you have an investigation, you have an executive review, you have learning. Why? To prevent a recurrence to enable people not to fall into the same position and then just somebody else. Why wouldn't you do the same for illness as a legal and moral obligation? If you have a somebody off work as a result of physical or psychological illness at work caused by work, then you have an obligation to undertake an investigation, establish what the cause was, have an executive review, make sure there's learning why because you've got to make adjustments so that when this individual comes back, they're not in the same position. And so often organisations are missing this, because they're not asking the first and most primary question, was it work induced or non work? Because if it's non work, you have general sickness, absence, coughs, colds, flus, and some of the even further illnesses that are really complex, like cancer, etc. But the important bit is, you know, you're asking the question up front. And and we don't really differentiate. So my clinical team see, circa 100 people every month, and 99% of those are non work related, as in they're not illness derived from work, where somebody's gone absent. But, you know, generally we see presenteeism cases for work induced, we see general sickness absence. But the important bit is, although we don't differentiate, I'm really conscious that, you know, work induced illness is grossly unacceptable as a starting point within Thames, and therefore we do something about it. And it works very well for us.


Johnny Thomson  11:53  

Yeah, and I guess in terms of the benefits, I mean, that leads quite nicely. You must see a whole suite of benefits coming from from this approach. I can think straight away in terms of, you know, the absenteeism, turning that around, you know, has impact on productivity and so on. But there must be a whole raft of benefits accruing from this for the organisation. Yeah?


Karl Simons  12:14  

Yeah, we don't, we don't. What's important is that you don't confuse confuse costs with value, right? Because we have to put in initiatives that produce longer term results. So you know, I have slides etc, which show the reduction year on year based on overlap to the initiatives we've put in place. And I've presented our sort of framework as a case study, to from Lords, MPs, to government departments into major organisations on what those steps were. But one of the things I'm most proud about is not just the employees evolution of culture within the company, people behaving better towards one another, people looking after each other better, culture of care, and understanding from management and leadership that human beings have challenges within life or work. But the bit about the supply chain. So two thirds of our businesses is delivered by our supply chain partners. And we have a suite of contractual obligations called essential standards. There's 30 of these, and they're all available on our health and safety hub external website for viewing. Number 22 is managing occupational health and well being. And in this, we worked with our supply chain partners at the senior level, to be able to say what's right in terms of what all of us should be doing. And we set the tone from a leadership perspective, that anybody working on our behalf should be complying with these essential standards. And we do it from a health and wellbeing perspective as well, not just the safety and injury prevention, but a health and well being and illness prevention. That is really inspiring when you start to really then extend beyond your own employees.


Johnny Thomson  13:59  

Yeah, I was going to say you're extending the the impact there aren't you know, it's worth emphasising that we're dealing with people here and we're dealing with dealing with people's lives as you said. You know, this is this is real lives being injured and damaged, or being made ill and suffering and the family suffer as well. I know that's something that you feel particularly strongly about in your position as well.


Karl Simons  14:20  

We can't we can't stop. The minute you rest on your laurels, because there's so much to do, certainly around the psychological health management. Yeah? And the way I put it across to my peers and leaders in organisation is that you know, we have a, we talk about work life balance. To me, what it really means is, people generally who've got a healthy working environment, and a healthy home life, are thriving in warfare, but there are times in our lives where one may not go the way we want. So you may be made redundant work. Right then it is the home life that is stability and stable. And then maybe the alternative, you may go through bereavement, divorce, whatever it may be, and then the work becomes the stability within your life. It can become very dark very quickly when both go downhill. So the minute you don't look, listen to your employees, and they say, you know, things aren't going too well at work, but at home as well. And that's the moment when, you know, things can become very, very turbulent, in somebody's lives and we know what can happen as a result of that then. So when people go off absent within Thames and it's work related ill health, you know, we really are working quite hard to make sure we're engaging early. We're helping, but also from a general sickness perspective, how as a company are we looking at those individuals that go off regularly, those individuals that are taking one to two days absence? Is it because childcare responsibilities, and it's not really somebody that's got cough, cold flu? You know, you've got to ask the right questions. I think the more organisations that are concentrating on focusing on physical and psychological health management, the better their organisation will be and benefit in the long term.


Johnny Thomson  16:15  

Yeah, absolutely. Brilliant. Great summary call and thanks very much for that, in essence the leadership, you know, set a good example, raise the competency levels amongst the workforce across the board and get that communication cycle in place seems to be the core messages. Yeah?


Karl Simons  16:34  

Without a doubt. I mean, yeah, do not. You've got to be relentless. No, one single initiative will give you the outcomes you desire as a company, you have to be relentless over consecutive years. So you embed a philosophy across the organisation that we really care about people, and our employees come first. And it works. It really does in terms of people thriving in work.


Johnny Thomson  16:59  

Okay, brilliant. Thanks, a lot Karl. i've really appreciate the insight. It's been been wonderful. Thank you very much for your time. 


Karl Simons  17:05  

You're welcome Johnny.


Johnny Thomson  17:07  

You've been listening to the RiskACUMEN podcast. If you have any questions or comments around the topic that we've covered today, please search out our LinkedIn page, that's RiskACUMEN all one word, and please join in the discussion. I'm sure Karl will be on there and be willing to answer any questions and things if they come up. 


Karl Simons  17:25  

Yeah. Absolutely. 


Johnny Thomson  17:28  

Yeah. And thanks again Karl. And so until the next time, goodbye for now.



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