EH&S and Lean

In each of the organizations that I have worked in, the mandate for EH&S departments has been principally related to physical safety, ergonomics, and compliance to various laws and regulations. While the focus on physical safety is admirable, it does not go far enough. It must also include mental safety, which is most often compromised by workplace stress.

Acute stress, where the stressor is occasional and dissipates quickly, is not the problem. People in every organization must deal with that. Instead, the concern is the many organizations that have a chronic high stress environment due to the way employees are led, how work is managed day-to-day, and the metrics used to track performance and gauge success.

The link between chronic stress and physical health problems is well documented. It includes atherosclerosis, hypertension, abdominal (visceral fat), chromosome damage, weakened immune system, neuron damage, anxiety and depression, memory loss, and reduced learning and creativity. In essence, employees age more quickly as a result of chronic stress. No organization should do that to its employees.

Remarkably, executives’ concern about the high costs of employee healthcare rarely, if ever, takes into account how they lead employees, how work is managed day-to-day, and the metrics used to track performance (e.g. sales, EPS growth, etc.). These are major sources of chronic stress, which is much higher in organizations that have bad processes; i.e. where material and information is processed by batch-and-queue.

An simple, practical, and effective antidote for reducing chronic stress is to replace bad processes with good ones. A more comprehensive approach is to replace batch-and-queue management with Lean management. But to gain the positive effects, leaders from CEO to supervisors have to correctly understand and apply Lean principles and practices. This is a worthwhile and achievable goal due to the wide-ranging financial and non-financial benefits of Lean management. Leaders who are concerned about the health of employees now have yet another reason to abandon conventional leadership and management routines.

I would like EH&S executives (and company physicians) to do one of two things:

  • Work to gain the buy-in of the board, CEO, and president, and then help lead the adoption of Lean management in their company.
  • Or, join other senior leaders in their organization who may already see the merits of Lean management. That can include HR leaders, operations leaders, and finance leaders (due to the growing awareness of Lean accounting). Work together to gain the buy-in of the board, CEO, and president for transitioning to Lean management.

Organizations must led and managed day-to-day (inclusive of metrics) in ways that reduce, not increase, chronic stress on employees. Ignoring chronic stress or delaying action to alleviate chronic stress is to condone harming the mental health of employees. No leader has that in their job description.

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