University of Portsmouth's History Blog

History & practice – images of wellbeing

In this post, Mike Esbester discusses how his research into the history of communicating health and safety messages is linked to a current initiative to promote wellbeing and better awareness of mental health at work and beyond.

‘History is more or less bunk’. So Henry Ford claimed – rather unfairly, I would suggest. There’s a great deal to be gained from studying and understanding the past, something historians and others have been pointing out for a very long time. I’m not going to rehash that here, other than to note that in addition to the analytical and critical skills gained from engaging meaningfully with the past, the insight it brings is paramount. This is demonstrated by the existence of organisations like History & Policy, which connects historians and policymakers, and is why people and organisations regularly look to the past: to better understand the present.

Courtesy of British Safety Council

1981 British Safety Council poster, making use of a shock approach.

Just one way this comes out of my own research is demonstrated currently in the British Safety Council’s ‘Images of Wellbeing’ poster competition. The competition – which runs until 19 October 2018 – is open to all, and asks for either a static or moving design on any interpretation around the theme of ‘wellbeing.’ There are 2 age categories: under 21s and 21 and over, with a prize of £500 and runner-up prizes of £250. In addition, the winning entries will be exhibited at a London venue.

The idea behind the competition is a positive one: to enhance wellbeing and improve mental health. As such, it is framed in positive terms: not ‘fighting’ mental ill-health, but promoting wellbeing.

So where does history fit in this? I was invited by the British Safety Council to act as one of the competition judges on the basis of my research into the history of health and safety communication. I’ve a long standing interest in how visual methods – posters, booklets, films and so on – have been used to try to persuade people in the UK to change their behaviour and act in ways deemed to be safer. This has been a 20th-century phenomenon and speaks volumes about the relationships between the state, citizens, employers and organisations like the British Safety Council, which has a 60-year history of using posters and other media to try to improve health and safety.

The history of health and safety can broadly be summarised as an initial focus on accidents and visible physical harm to the body – particularly workplace accidents, increasingly so in the 19th century, but also accidents related to mobility: steamships and railways, but with some concern about horse-drawn vehicles and then, into the 20th century, the rise of the internal combustion engine. Beyond public health (things like the spread of communicable disease that have been well explored by medical historians), there was a rather limited concern for health issues arising from other sources (e.g. the workplace): it remained the poor cousin to safety matters.

This pattern continued deep into the 20th century, with health more difficult to tackle due to its long latency period, its relatively invisibility until drastic harm was done, and of course social attitudes which meant people – very often men – tried to continue as if all was well and disguise their ‘weakness.’ From roughly the 1980s historians, activists and the state became much more aware of the health in ‘health and safety’, with increasing attention to things like musculoskeletal disorders and asbestosis and lung diseases. This is seen in the British Safety Council’s posters as well, with health matters appearing more frequently. Much more recently – in the 21st century – coverage of health topics has expanded to encompass not just physical manifestations but also psychosocial aspects like stress and mental health.

Courtesy of British Safety Council

1981 British Safety Council poster, using a humorous approach.

These things have, of course, existed for a very long time, even if they weren’t given the same names, but now at least they are increasingly recognised and steps are being taken to reduce the dangers or to minimise harm if it occurs. (For more on occupational stress and mental health, the Health & Safety Executive have some useful advice here, and a set of useful links and resources here.)

Looking at my own sector, Higher Education, we have seen that this is an extremely pertinent issue of late, across students and staff. (More info on the sector is available here, courtesy of Universities UK, the sector’s umbrella group.) The growing recognition of the pressures on all of us involved in universities – whether studying or working – is one reason I was keen to champion this competition and initiative: hopefully it will be one place I can use my expertise to raise awareness and to make a positive difference.

I’ve been working with the British Safety Council for nearly 10 years, helping to uncover its archive and then making use of it in my research, as well as contributing to the British Safety Council’s mission that no-one should be made ill or injured at work. This relationship includes working on the British Safety Council’s 60th anniversary last year, producing a book to mark the occasion and which is soon to be re-published by Routledge (watch this space!).

Working with the British Safety Council, including on this poster competition, fits happily with my belief – developed out of researching the lives changed or cut short by accidents in the past – that historical research can not only improve knowledge and understanding of the past, but where possible can and should have practical implications that can make our world today and in the future a better place.

The British Safety Council has been supportive both of my work and its own past, including investing money in exploring and then digitising its archive. It’s been a very positive relationship, so when I was asked to help in judging the poster competition it was an easy decision. I’m looking forward to seeing the entries, and expect some tough decisions!

The competition runs until 19 October. Further details, including how to enter, are available here: https://www.britsafe.org/campaigns-policy/competition-images-of-wellbeing/

Everyone is encouraged to enter – and we’ll feature an update after the judging is complete: good luck!

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