What We're Into: Vulnerability on the Job

Photo by Flickr user Marianne Muegenberg Cothern

One of the most common dangers to workplace health and safety is an attitude of toughness, explains Deb Lundberg, founder of our partner Health Solutions. In manufacturing and other jobs that require physical strength, workers feel that they have to display that strength at all times, no matter what. For men especially, cultural norms of masculinity make it hard to ask for help or admit when they don't know something.

But that's dangerous — not only to the individual's well-being, but also to the physical environment that affects everyone around them. This summer, NPR's Invisibilia podcast reported a story of Shell oil rig workers who went through therapeutic exercises to get them to open up, be vulnerable, and express their feelings. The idea, proposed by leadership consultant Claire Nuer, was that this kind of vulnerability training could increase on-the-job safety. She was right: The workers became better at communicating, more open to learning, and more willing to admit mistakes. The company-wide accident rate at Shell fell by 84 percent — without sacrificing productivity, which increased during the same period.

Your reaction might be, "Well, of course tough oil workers aren't in touch with their feelings, but that doesn't have anything to do with me. I'm much healthier than that!" But that same culture of being afraid to be honest about personal needs infects many industries and work environments.

Too many Americans are pushed by financial and social pressure and the direct demands of their employers to prioritize work over their well-being. And even though being scared to admit failure or to ask for help may not be a life-or-death situation in every job, as it is on the oil rig, that fear can still cause major errors and keep people from achieving their full potential.

By working with Health Solutions, our goal is to help workplaces become physically safer while also being safe places for communication and new ideas to thrive. The Shell oil workers' experience shows that the two are more closely related than you might think.