People don’t read so well anymore, and what we can do about it.

I recently read an article by Michael Harris which I agreed with – people don’t read so much, and maybe certain people are losing the ability to concentrate and read longer text pieces and register their meaning.

The article suggests that as reading is a very intensive learned behaviour when we don’t read very well and are easily distracted we’re really going back to a more natural state of being ‘constantly alert’ to fresh inputs. This is in line with the thinking that distractions coming from smart phones and other devices gives us a little ‘dopamine hit’ and is mildly addictive so we’d almost always lean towards browsing for excitement than reading for deep learning which feels like hard work.

Unfortunately, the world of work isn’t always so exciting or so full of distractions as browsing YouTube videos or flicking through social media. Some things need to be written down in order to provide a common standard that anyone can view and apply.

And probably the most sleep-inducing of all the documents tend to be H&S Policies, mainly because the starting point tends to be H&S law which is written in a very long-winded ‘catch-all’ style. Dopamine was certainly off the menu when H&S laws, codes and guidance were being developed.

Regrettably, many employers still seem to think that asking new employees to read pages and pages of policies will get them off the hook if anything happens.

Obviously, this isn’t true – employers have many more duties than just issuing instructions and then letting their staff get on with it. There’s also no evidence that this kind of ‘forced exposure’ leads to any increase in understanding or reduction in accidents. It is, however, likely to give H&S a bad name and turn the employee against future messages.

We only have to ask ourselves: who actually reads all the small print on the back of a car hire form before signing for it – or who reads the conditions on any piece of software or app before installing it – to realise that the key to true understanding is not to blindly expose people to as many incomprehensible paragraphs as possible.

Luckily, there is still a great deal of leeway in how we can put messages across aside from hours of dry reading. Sometimes we can try about approaching old subjects in a new way, after all many think ‘Health and Safety’ is ‘boring’ due to the messages they’ve been exposed to in the past, but is at its heart it’s really about human behaviour, communications, risk perception. No-one expects the H&S to reach the farcical heights of the American version of ‘The Office’, however H&S law is also not as prescriptive as most people think so there is plenty of scope for trying out more effective ways to communicate.

Here are some tactics to try to make the review of work documents more interesting:

  • Firstly, spend time to make your documents as clear as possible before distribution for comments. Pay attention to the basics – Make sure the document has a logical flow, avoids repetition and is grammatically reasonably correct. Also, don’t try and big the document up by e.g. writing in capitals, quoting legislation, using jargon or anacronyms that not everyone will understand, or leaving everything down to ‘common sense’ etc.,
  • Break things down into bite-sized chunks. Instead of asking employees to read and sign off on a H&S Policy, why not pick the highest risk and get together to talk about how to improve the policy and procedures focusing on that subject alone?
  • Apply some subtle ‘pressure’ to avoid people putting off reading what you want them to read e.g. by suggesting that everyone reads the subject matter and comes to a meeting prepared to input thoughts and suggestions. Maybe to avoid ‘the cat ate my homework’ excuses, specify in your communications before a meeting that each team member will be invited in turn to give their input.
  • Try to play to everyone’s strengths – some people are very analytical, some ‘blue-sky thinkers’, some very practical, others very good at spotting snagging points. Whilst you want everyone to work from the same document, the ideas to improve the document and systems it represents can come in many different forms.
  • Try different visual methods – move discussions away from laptops to whiteboards, or away from papers to flipchart, or change locations e.g. away from the shop floor to the coffee shop, or the boardroom to the workshop – anything that changes from the ‘same-old/same-old’ and might get people more engaged.


Now, if you’ll just sign here _________________ to indicate that you have fully read, understood and agree to comply with all of the provisions outlined in this blog, then you can get on with your day 😊