How “chronic unease” can contribute to good OHS outcomes

The following article is a news item provided for the benefit of the Workplace Health and Safety profession. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the Australian Institute of Health & Safety.
Tuesday, 17 September, 2019 - 16:00
Industry news
National News

“Chronic unease” can play an important role in safety, according to an expert in the area, who explained that it has helped some of the world’s safest, high-reliability organisations manage to operate safely over long periods of time in potentially risky operating environments.

These organisations respond to the absence of surprises with scepticism about their risk management, acknowledge that they may not fully comprehend complex system interactions and approach improvements via a variety of pathways, said Laura Fruhen, Lecturer of Applied Psychology at the University of Western Australia.

Chronic unease was developed as a concept to understand how individuals, and in particular managers may operate within a high reliability context, according to Fruhen, who explained that chronic unease refers to the experience of discomfort and concern about the management of risks.

“It is a healthy scepticism about one’s own decisions and the risks that are inherent in work environments,” she said.

Researchers from the University of Western Australia and the University of Aberdeen in Scotland conducted a review of the research literature and an interview study with senior managers in the offshore oil and gas industry to investigate on what basis some managers may be more likely to experience unease and to tap into it in their risk management than others.

This process led to the identification of five characteristics that shape a manager’s unease response:

  • Safety imagination: The ability to mentally project the development of a situation into the future based on its current state.
  • Pessimism: A personality trait reflecting a tendency to resist complacency and to anticipate failure.
  • Vigilance: The ability to notice and identify (weak) indicators of risks in the environment.
  • Tendency to worry: A tendency to worry about risk and safety.
  • Experience: Whether they have been involved in an incident before.

“Research conducted so far shows that managers experience unease and that its components are likely to be factors involved in their tendency to do so. It also shows that, if used constructively, managers will translate their unease into a variety of behaviours such as flexible thinking around safety problems, positive leadership behaviour, or demonstrations of safety commitment,” said Fruhen, who was speaking ahead of the Perth Safety Symposium, which will be held at Edith Cowan University (Mount Lawley Campus) on Friday 4 October 2019.

The concept of unease intuitively resonates with people who operate in high risk contexts, according to Fruhen, who said there is a general interest in the concept and some organisations have adopted it into their safety vocabulary.

“One of the issues that may sometimes be overlooked in discussions about unease is that more unease isn’t necessarily better,” she said.

“In our writing about the concept we have been careful to highlight that unease is likely to follow an inverted U-shape; that is up to a certain level unease will be positive.”

However, Fruhen said there may be a tipping point at which anxiety takes over and unease may no longer hold its utility for risk management.

Where that point sits is likely to be different for each person (based on individual differences) and will also depend on the context in which unease is experienced.

“I would stipulate that a culture in which it is okay to speak up and raise issues rooted in one’s own unease will go a long way in supporting constructive unease,” she said.

Importantly, from a research perspective there is a lot that is unknown about unease, added Fruhen, who explained that unanswered questions include:

  • How do its dimensions shape an uneasy response?
  • Are there some dimensions that are more potent in generating unease?
  • Based on what personal and contextual factors are different tipping points of unease in individuals shaped?
  • How is unease perceived and received by subordinates?
  • And finally, what is its tangible impact on safety management outcomes such as injuries, near misses and accidents?


For OHS professionals wanting to educate and encourage employees to tune into their unease when it comes to risk management, Fruhen said a nuanced approach is best.

“Key issues to consider include whether your staff are already experiencing some level of unease,” she said.

“If they do, is this something they feel supports them in their risk management?

“Do they feel comfortable to refer to it in their risk management and is this discussed openly?”

Employees who are experiencing high levels of unease but may not succeed in channeling it into constructive behaviour may require a different coaching approach than those that are not aware of their unease or don’t experience it as much.

Those who are experiencing very high levels of unease already will need to be approached in different ways, Fruhen said.

“Recognising that unease may affect individuals negatively is important when using the concept in practice.

“With employee wellbeing and mental health being key issues these days, it is critical to carefully manoeuvre the ways in which unease can be harnessed as a strength in a particular organisation, rather than a factor that adds on to stress levels.”

Fruhen said this ideal level of unease can be labelled “healthy unease”.

“To get from chronic unease to healthy unease, considering the level of unease that someone is experiencing and the extent to which this is affecting them positively and negatively is key as a first step,” she said.

Following that, a key focus needs to be on the context in which unease is experienced, said Fruhen, who explained that environments and cultures that support speaking up, and referring to unease experiences are likely to support healthy unease.

Fruhen will be presenting on the Perth Safety Symposium, which will be held on Friday 4 October at Edith Cowan University (Mount Lawley Campus). For more information visit the conference website, email or call (03) 8336 1995.