Viewpoint: Leadership during the pandemic

23 November 2020

Effective leadership has always been the key differentiator between marginal and exceptional performance. Now more than ever, those in management roles from first line to senior managers across every key function at nuclear plants and facilities worldwide, need to provide strong, inspirational leadership and a clear direction for their workforce, writes Ingemar Engkvist, CEO of the World Association of Nuclear Operators.

Ingemar Engkvist, CEO of the World Association of Nuclear Operators (Image: WANO)

"The COVID-19 pandemic has created a number of challenges for the industry. Changes that plants have had to rapidly implement to protect staff - such as new shift patterns, reduced site staffing, remote working and new operational protocols - have meant a disruption to normal working practices. In some cases, these changes have introduced potential risks that have to be understood and mitigated.

Furthermore, some staff are experiencing greater pressure brought about by these new conditions or may be distracted by personal/family life factors, and this needs to be carefully managed to reduce the likelihood of human performance errors.

Focus on human performance

The challenges brought about by the pandemic are not without precedent and there is an opportunity for the industry to apply lessons learnt from the past. In previous years, adverse trends in the area of human performance have been observed following significant non-nuclear related events in certain parts of the world. In the US for instance, the industry experienced an adverse trend of plant events following the attacks which took place on 11 September 2001. Although it is too early to detect a similar adverse global trend in events during this pandemic, the industry needs to learn from previous experience and anticipate and remediate issues early.

It is important then that leaders at nuclear facilities maintain a close real time awareness of these issues and work together to mitigate any risks to plant operations. So set against this context, what areas currently need special attention? WANO has developed a simple proficiency model to understand and manage the human performance risks:

(Image: WANO)

In the left circle of the diagram, the building blocks for proficiency consist of education and knowledge, training and skill, experience, familiarity and currency. Currency is defined as a measure of how recently an individual or group has conducted the task. In the right circle, there is a list of the obstacles to proficiency, which include a lack of preparation, procedural issues, altered configuration, time pressure, environmental factors, technical obstacles and external stressors.

In the bottom circle, there are the interventions that are needed to ensure the proficiency of staff at nuclear facilities is maintained at the highest levels. They include the deployment of human performance tools, nuclear oversight, ensuring leaders deliver ‘in the field’ coaching to staff, and taking measures to eliminate or remediate proficiency issues.

The model shows that COVID-19 arrangements are currently contributing to many of these obstacles. For example, people will be returning back to site and the working configuration will have changed, plants may have postponed non-critical work and there will now be time pressure to complete these tasks, working from home is a challenging environment for ‘knowledge’ workers as access to information and collaboration is limited and some staff may be under stress in their personal lives.

Some leaders may get distracted in focusing all their attention on ensuring COVID-19 mitigation actions are implemented successfully and lose focus on plant operations. Plants should focus on strengthening their human performance, coaching or oversight programmes, to account for the changes staff are experiencing and to maintain a strong focus on operations.

Common challenges and how plants are mitigating them

One challenge experienced by plants during the pandemic is how to increase the presence of managers ‘in the field’. One solution has been to ensure leaders’ time is proactively freed up along with other leaders from across the organisation - for example, experts in independent oversight and engineering. At one plant, those managers who were working from home covered extra routine plant meetings, allowing those on site to spend more active time in the field, observing work activities and interacting with workers. One WANO member has also arranged a rota for its leaders for outside of normal working hours, allowing them to observe different work activities, which are not possible in normal daytime hours.

In some plants, management team coaching reviews have been made weekly, instead of monthly. This has proved beneficial, as feedback has fed into rapid course correction on areas needing attention. Extra controls have been implemented to ensure the same standard of supervision during split shifts, with balance of skills and experience maintained across shifts among supervision teams.

Due to an increase in pressure brought about by increased workloads, staff are reporting that they are becoming more tired, and certain measures can mitigate this. Across some plants, some fitness-for-duty assignments are completed and staff have been encouraged to take annual leave to recharge. There is a need to place a significant emphasis on mental wellbeing, in terms of conducting meetings that focus on raising awareness around mental health and supporting staff.

A common challenge for plant staff has been communicating in noisy environments, whilst maintaining social distancing. Some members have implemented close communication devices and noise cancelling headsets, which allow workers to communicate and work effectively. This equipment is relatively inexpensive and easy to source.

There are also difficulties communicating in the control room when wearing masks. Some sites are practicing enhanced communications on their simulators, which include an increased use of eye contact when talking and using effective three-way communication to help mitigate these difficulties.

Employees have also reported fatigue, fogging of glasses and heat stress when using masks. Measures can mitigate or eliminate these issues. For instance, a risk assessment approach has since been applied with autonomy and authority given to low level leadership to make exceptions for mask use. In one utility, a fatigue symptoms tool allows staff to recognise the signs and symptoms of physical and mental fatigue in themselves and others and take appropriate action. Anti-fogging sprays have helped to prevent glasses fogging whilst using masks.

Finally, the most important single factor that will ensure high levels of performance is for leaders to ensure staff are engaged and motivated during the crisis. This is done by prioritising staff safety, and then building trust and confidence carefully amongst the workforce through robust communication. By ensuring information is openly shared with employees in a timely manner, plants can maintain a strong sense of morale onsite. Essential to this is ensuring a two-way dialogue between leaders and their employees to promote communication throughout the organisation.

Although undoubtedly a challenging time, WANO is enabling its members to share information, learn and support each other to maintain high levels of performance. WANO has implemented a COVID-19 Resource Centre for its members to share operating experience and has held a series of virtual human performance events. By placing an emphasis on leadership and human performance, the industry can ensure plants are in a strong position to maintain performance and thrive once the pandemic is over."

Ingemar Engkvist