Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Putting the ‘Care’ back into “Duty of Care”

It was only recently that it was shown to me this quite ironic fact. The term “duty of care” is quite a well known term in all sorts of circles, notwithstanding safety, which is the sphere of this discussion. “Duty of care” is quite an illogical term from a humanist viewpoint.

The term duty of care is a legal term of tort or civil law (and not actually typical of occupational safety and health (OS&H) law, which is criminal law) and outlines a ‘standard of care’ duly accorded to parties. When parties fail their duty of care, they’re found negligent, either wholly or contributarily.

The weird thing is duty of care from a layperson’s viewpoint appears to be an oxymoron. We might flippantly use the term in workplace settings to describe how people are failing in it. But, in essence, when we care we do it because we feel like doing it--it’s not a duty. It’s an act of devotion, rooted in love. We care because we want to, not because we have to.

Of course, duties of care are owed to us and by us all in all sorts of circumstances, and not simply in the workplace. We go on a holiday and the holiday operator is bound by certain duties (if we visit civilised countries). We go to a shopping centre or catch a bus; again, duties are owed us, and we too owe certain duties to others in the community. And this system is not new; its existence was established thousands of years ago.

Safety cultures emerge and grow in a caring environment, yet there are competing ‘duties’ of all parties to make safety work and these duties often fly in the face of the care component--a real dichotomy develops. When a manager discharges their duties, they’ll often challenge the way they care, and the tenuous balance.

Duty can become pronounced to the detriment of care. It’s recognising that when a leader discharges a duty, the care factor of his or her action is most often at question. There’s a real leadership skill in attaining a balance; holding both attributes up, in tension, simultaneously. It’s not a ‘either/or,’ but a ‘both/and’ situation.

Putting the ‘care’ back into “duty of care” is a difficult thing to achieve and it can only be done when there’s a larger emphasis on love and devotion over legalism and duty.

There’s an authenticity of intent needed.

Copyright © 2009, S. J. Wickham. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.

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