29th Dec, 2020 Read time 7 minutes

4 key themes for health and safety practitioners in 2021

Whilst the pandemic is not over there are areas in which life and work are becoming somewhat recognisable. These changes are important for everyone, and particularly those concerned with the health and safety of their employees.

In our first written installment of the future of health and safety series, we take a look at 4 key challenges that health and safety practitioners face in 2021 and what can be done to help meet them in the new year.

In producing the article, HSE Network sat down with Tim Marsh and Andy Barker who have provided insight on what some of the key challenges might be.


Themes from Professor Tim Marsh


Theme 1: Managing the global COVID PTSD 

“It begins to look as if much of the world will be broadly back to normal by next summer as vaccines and quick and efficient testing may mean flights as normal but 30 minutes early to the airport for a quick confirmatory test. The problem over the next few years, however, is that we’ll have, to a greater or lesser extent,  the equivalent of global PTSD because of the shock. Companies can only do what they should always have been doing – engage, empower, listen, care, be flexible and communicate well. 

Some employees will be just fine (as they always are!) but there will be lots of issues to address even among the average worker: employees who loved home working and don’t want to be back in the office; employees who like structure and routine and who want to be back but find things have changed (most people struggle with change but especially people who like structure and routine). 

Then there is the already evident increase in Mental Health issues and the decrease in funds to pay for all this with many economies having barely recovered from the 2008 financial crisis. They say you never really know a person until you split a will with them. Never mind the boldly stated values on the wall in reception – many companies employees are about to find out what they’re really made of.” 


Themes from Andy Barker

“I think 2021 will be a continuation of seeing people as human beings. The concepts of inclusion and working flexibly will continue and I hope will build momentum.  Importantly, I see barriers to working inclusively coming down.  I think the command and control systems are in decline, process design needs to take a back seat, and trusting people to be solutions will come more to the fore, time for “teaming”


Theme 2: Getting well-being higher up on the agenda

“I believe increasingly that pressure from organisations on the wider wellbeing agenda will help us understand how people work and think, and that our motivation is to contribute and not be controlled.  I think we will be better able to spot the forks in the road and there is a potential shift coming from the approach to mental health.  I see people speaking up about what worries them being a catalyst for improving safety.  Happy people do great work, so let us work out what happiness is, what does a good boss look like, behave like?

The gap to improve safety in the area where accident stats don’t work anymore, I think comes from being genuinely concerned about peoples’ welfare.  People speaking up to voice what worries them will reveal the safety issues that are there but can’t be/aren’t being spoken about.  The outcome of having your problems listened to and fixed is trust and pride, so I can see wellbeing taking over the agenda, and rightly so!  Get ready!  It isn’t spotting the problem after it is set in, it is creating an inclusive environment in which to thrive.”


Theme 3: Increased flexibility without rigid software

“I see changes in leadership, the CEO of Siemens announcing “outcome” driven flexible working and Unilever changing their working week shows the way to being more humane.  These are door openers for others.  People are watching.  Emotional intelligence was the quote.

 I think people are going to start seeing that software is holding us back as we’ve digitised what doesn’t work, so we’ve got more transparent and quicker at doing the wrong things.  We did ISO on paper, hit the target and missed the point, and then digitised the paper and expected a different result!  We are now accountable for being busy, not for being valuable, and we kind of know that but are going with it anyway!

 I think we have fought against nature in trying to control behaviour.  I think we have created artificial social structures in corporate organisations that we weren’t designed for, we have had to “fit in” in order to progress, but there is a price to pay.”


Theme 4: people as the solution

“I think that more people are realising that people are a solution and that creativity and innovation are bottom-up, so the role of leadership is to create air-cover for candor.  If we can belong, i.e. be ourselves because we have the right amount of freedom in what we do, then we are free to contribute and add value.  Path to good mental health, good safety and I think works with our nature not against.

 So, 2021 is where we understand that safety is a feeling, not a corporate definition and that safety is an emotional state that requires a different kind of leader, and a different kind of HSE professional.”


What will 2021 look like? 

The 4 key themes touched on by Tim and Andy show that whilst there will likely be a large knock-on effect from COVID packed 2020, there will also be plenty of progression on the health and safety themes that we have seen over the past decade; a focus on well-being and getting the most our of people with good grassroots transformational leadership that drives down incidents and drives up change throughout the organisation. 

About Andy Barker and Tim Marsh

Tim Marsh 

Tim Marsh is a health and safety expert that has worked with the HSE Network on a number of different projects and is a frequent speaker at the HSE Global Series Congresses. The academic expertise he offers on mental health and wellbeing in health and safety provides some interesting context for this video.


Tim Marsh

Andy Barker

HSE Network is always privileged to work with Andy Barker on both content and the virtual series congresses. Andy is an experienced professional in the world of health and safety through his role as General Manager of Group HSE at Rezayat Group. 

Andy is a storyteller and has the ability to captivate a room and relay complex health and safety concepts in a user-friendly way.

Andy Barker

Tim and Andy are two of the key content partners for HSE Network and we are always delighted to welcome their insight.

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