Unsafe habits and how they affect safety culture

Habits are formed in the subconscious part of the mind within neural pathways that get stronger with every repetition of use. Using these pathways is efficient in both speed and energy. For this reason if your mind can form a habit, good or bad, it will!


We conduct around 40% of our daily tasks habitually.


Unfortunately, we don’t get to choose our habits and we are often unaware of them until someone points them out to us. This occurs because the subconscious mind is constantly scanning for regular routines that it can shortcut to relieve the slower conscious mind.


The mind genuinely believes it’s doing us a favour, and for the most part it is. Bad habits can easily be picked up from a lack of knowledge, influential people, and emotional soothers. Once we have a repeatable function it is only a matter of time before it becomes a habit.


Unsafe behaviours are often born of bad habits. ‘We’ve always done it this way’ is a comment that is often heard and it speaks of indoctrinated and habitual behaviour.


Breaking habits


This is tough, because we have to use the weaker conscious mind to retrain the stronger subconscious mind. It takes a lot of effort.


There is a popular belief that it takes 21 days to form a new habit, but this isn’t the whole truth. While it takes approximately that time to lay down a new neural pathway, it is in essence shallow compared to the deeply ingrained old habit. The old neural pathway will weaken over time if not used, while the new habit will simultaneously strengthen.


This whole process can take as much as 66 days and within that time, the brain will constantly try to take the quickest route (the old habit), so it takes a lot of conscious effort to keep up the new habit.


Let’s face it, we would have to be very committed to changing an old habit to put ourselves through this.


What’s in it for me?


As we have seen, changing a habit isn’t easy and if a person isn’t personally motivated to do so, it’s not going to happen.


In health and safety, we have typically told people that they are working unsafely and to stop that behaviour in favour of safe ones. We may even go as far as to retrain them. There is then an expectation to see an immediate change and if it doesn’t happen, the person often gets ‘told off’ by a frustrated manager. It is hypocritical of a manager to do this because they would have the same difficulty if they had to change an ingrained habit.


Given what we now know about habits, what a person really needs is constant reminders to stay on track with the new habit, praise when they do, and provide support and encouragement when they slip.


Asking peers to get involved with this process can also have a greater impact because of a) a lack of resistance to authoritarian pressure and b) because social normalising exerts more pressure than any other. Not to mention that while the peers are encouraging others, they are more likely to behave safely themselves.


If some pressure needs to be applied then it is worth asking what the potential consequences are of an accident to the person who needs to change. In other words, what is their ‘what’s in it for me’, as this is the only motivation that will sustain them through the change process. This boils down to the person having a strong emotional connection to the consequences of not changing.


Collective changes


Health and safety professionals know that an emotional shift can change collective mindsets. This is demonstrable after a serious accident has occurred, as people are naturally more safety conscious for a while.


So, they use propaganda videos and posters to try to provoke the same reaction. It rarely works. The reason is that the emotional reaction has to be ‘real’ to each person, otherwise another part of the brain is triggered which is dangerous – the optimism bias that says ‘that’s sad, but it won’t happen to me’. Far from having the desired effect, it has strengthened the thought that the person doesn’t need to change.


The only other way to achieve collective change is to raise the conscious awareness of the issue, inspire the need for change on a personal and emotional level, and then work hard to keep up the motivation for at least a couple of months!


When a change in old habits is required, there needs to be an understanding of how people react to different motivations, and a lot of time set aside to make it stick – perhaps that means a change in habit for the person who requires the change too.