Jon Lamonte: Giving certainty in an uncertain world

Dr Jon Lamonte is our chief executive. Here, he shares his opinion on how employers can support staff through times of uncertainty. This opinion piece was published in the NZ Herald on March 17,2022.

If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the past two years in this turbulent, Covid-stricken world, it’s the importance of looking after each other – at work, just as much as at home.

On a daily basis, we’re faced with uncertainty. By now, almost all of us will have friends or family members who have tested positive, and for those of us who have so far managed to escape the virus, it feels like it’s just a matter of time. And now with the situation unfolding in the Ukraine and the terrible floods in Australia, there’s a whole new layer of unknown.

As an employer, that’s a big concern. When people’s minds are being pulled off the job, they’re less productive, but more concerningly, they’re more likely to get injured.

When I joined Watercare almost a year ago, I reassured my team that the health, safety and wellbeing of our people and customers would always be my number one priority. For me, it’s personal; in my time serving in the Royal Air Force, I had the harrowing job of talking to 55 families whose loved ones were not coming home alive. This is something I never want to do again.

While we can’t change the uncertainty caused by the pandemic or global events, we can create certainty and reassurance in the workplace. This means working hard to build a deep trust between senior leaders and employees through regular and transparent communication. One of the ways we do this at Watercare is with a Covid-19 response team who regularly updates the business on what we’re doing to keep them safe, and what they can do to help protect themselves. We try to keep our ear to the ground and answer questions before they’re asked.

We can also provide certainty by making sure roles are clearly defined; everyone should understand the company’s purpose and their own role in achieving that purpose. They need to know their why – why they’re getting up and going to work each day. For us, this is clear. We need to take care of ourselves so that we can continue to deliver safe and reliable water and wastewater services to our customers.

When it comes to health, safety and wellbeing, people are the solution, not the problem. Instead of a focus on reporting accidents and near-misses as they happen – an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff approach – we encourage staff to voice their ideas on how things can be done better. They’re more likely to do this when there’s mutual trust.

On our infrastructure sites around Auckland, we’re running a health and safety programme with our contractors that we call ‘Back to Basics’. The concept is simple. Frontline staff are asked to come up with one action each week that will make their site safer. They’re empowered to take their collective health, safety and wellbeing into their own hands.

The programme also helps to build better workplace relationships and opens up lines of communication, so people feel comfortable broaching topics they’ve previously found difficult. When people are trusted, empowered and have meaningful connections with their workmates, they have a stronger safety mindset at work.

Empowered staff will voice their own ideas on how we can do things better. We can foster innovation by encouraging our staff to try new things and giving them permission to fail. At Watercare, thanks to our staff taking the initiative, we’re starting to use remote-operated vehicles instead of divers to inspect and clean our network water storage reservoirs. Wherever we can take humans out of the equation in high-risk work, we should do it. If a remote-operated vehicle gets damaged in a reservoir, I’m not going to lose sleep at night.

I believe truly safe workplaces protect a staff member’s mental health as well as their physical health. While trust, open communication and strong work relationships will improve an employee’s mindset at work, we also need to actively check in on our people’s mental wellbeing. One of the best initiatives I’ve seen in this space is MATES in Construction. This programme uses field officers specially trained in suicide prevention to build positive working environments on construction sites, identifying at-risk team members and getting them the help, they need. I’m proud that our Central Interceptor team are founding members of this valuable initiative.

In this incredibly busy and uncertain world, sometimes we just need to slow down and take a moment. Check in with a workmate, but also check in with yourself.