Why the Writing Was on the Wall for Vintage Sign Writer Jason Anker and Why Value, Worth, and Well-Being Should Always Accompany Health and Safety.
The centuries-old tradition of storytelling is how we all make sense of the world, particularly if it has a moral imperative or compass to direct us towards the all-essential lessons that should be learned.
The five w’s—who, what, where, when, and why—are the staple ingredients of all human-interest storytelling, from in-depth newspaper and magazine features to blogs, vlogs, and the pithier general social media posts that consume our everyday lives.
But what about good, old-fashioned, face-to-face storytelling of real-life experiences and perilous existences, those sliding door moments where a split-second decision alters the course of your life and dislodges you from the very axis on which your whole existence precariously pivots? What about stories about everyday people whose throwaway actions take them into a realm of nightmares and the opposite of the everyday, to a bleak place where they lose everything and everyone they care about?
What about the story of a sign writer who failed to see the warning signs and the writing on the wall after he lost his job and a whole lot more? What about a story from the very same sign writer in his own words and how he slowly turned adversity into opportunity? And how he is now changing the lives and approaches of businesses in terms of their focus on staff welfare beyond health and safety and into the realms of value and all-round well-being?
Are You Sitting Comfortably?
This is an ironic question because the sign writer in question is confined to a wheelchair since a workplace accident paralysed him from the waist down. Jason Anker MBE talks in an unvarnished, yet inspiring way, about how his decisions have impacted his life and how his fall from grace helped him crawl back to a kind of redemption with a platform from which he can now help others.
After nearly a decade of establishing Proud2bSafe as one of the leading go-to companies for motivational and inspirational speakers, Jason is now one-half of culture change consultancy Anker and Marsh, having joined forces with psychology Professor Tim Marsh in 2018.
Jason and Tim, who also run culture change and behavioural workshops, start from a very basic premise, “Everyone gets told what to do and what not to do, what to wear and what not to wear, and where to go and where not to go, but no one addresses the central question of why we need to heed these warnings.”
For anyone other than a risk practitioner, health and safety is ostensibly a dry, one-dimensional tick-box function. However, spend five minutes in the company of Jason and it rapidly becomes a three-dimensional and dynamic discipline that, in his experienced view, should always work in tandem with value, worth, and well-being in a holistic workplace.
According to the Anker and Marsh website, Jason has long been regarded as the UK’s leading inspirational safety speaker. He provides his famous five-second talk, but he has added a new strand of delivery—“It’s Not about the Fall, It’s about the Bounce.” Written with Tim, it covers Jason’s mental health crisis following his fall and subsequent recovery.
Jason now explores and discusses why he made the wrong safety choice on the day of his accident and now realises his own health and mental well-being played a big part in that decision.
Jason now expands on his original story, A Fall from Height, which is now a book, and while he still talks openly talks about his workplace accident and the effect this had on him, his family, friends, and work colleagues, he now also explains how his state of mind at the time of his accident contributed to his decision not to speak up.
Like other health and safety rock stars, Jason and Tim have toured the UK, awing, rather than boring, crowds within seconds of taking to the stage.
This approach has mainly been face-to-face, with Jason and his helper, driver, and general confidante Sean covering more than thirty thousand miles per year, giving inspiring presentations with Tim, a globally renowned expert in behavioural psychology in the industry.
Now, almost two years into a pandemic, COVID-19 and the everyday use of Microsoft Teams and Zoom calls have broadened his appeal and his calling beyond the UK, a factor that is generating some amazing testimonials from international companies.
Lisa Hayes, senior safety engineer at Ford Motor Company, said, “You know it’s been a good day when people that would rather walk over hot coals than attend a safety session come and tell you how impressed they were and how much it’s made them think.”
Likewise, Ian Sleeman, a director with XPO Logistics Europe, said, “Jason is a very thought-provoking and very honest speaker. He is one of the most inspiring people I have ever met.”
Martin Maran, CMIOSH, OSHCR, senior health and safety consultant, said, “The benefit of Jason’s honesty and directness cannot be calculated in monetary terms. The impact he will have on your team will be more than any safety campaign or training program you can run.”
Carolyn Lennox, health and safety manager, transport and technical services for the states of Jersey, in the Channel Islands, said, “It was an absolutely amazing talk this morning—fantastic delivery of such an important message. We are proud to work with Jason and proud to be one of the first to hear this new talk.”
Jason’s unsugared delivery and direct northern accent has silenced whole business seminars as he continues to be true to himself. Many delegates have been moved to tears.
“I’m just a normal bloke, telling my story. I think that is why we are in the position that we are able to influence people,” said Jason, who had just come off stage at a business conference close to Warwick University near Coventry when he agreed to share his story with Loss Prevention Magazine Europe.
Jason deliberately points out that his work has now been influenced and enhanced by the input of behavioural psychologist Dan Terry, who helped convince him to share his story more widely in the first place and help change lives through altering businesses’ approach and attitude to safety training and learning.
“At the beginning of 2009, I met Dan Terry, a behavioural safety professional who was sitting at the opposite table to me trying to convince me that my story needed to be heard by as many people as possible. If I’m honest, I was unconvinced. But after two attempts of persuasion, I did agree to speak about my accident for the first time publicly—and really for the first time to myself.”
He added, “Suddenly, I realised what Dan meant when he said that my story could help change people’s attitudes towards safety.”
His starting point is all about the importance of well-being. “I have two questions for people in the audience: First, do you feel valued? Secondly, do you feel part of the team?”
These two questions help crystallise his audiences’ thinking about their employer and their position in the business hierarchy. It’s his way of getting his audience to confront the reality of their everyday lives. Businesses suffer from absenteeism and presenteeism (physically being at work but not engaged), but it is the sense of value that underpins these two states of mind and, if not challenged from an overall well-being point of view, will lead to situations where safety protocols are not followed.
“Its technical term is ‘fatalism and intolerance of situational and organisational stresses,’ but in plain Anglo-Saxon speak this is the ‘f*** it’ approach where you take a calculated risk, a shortcut that in 99 per cent of cases may be all right but in fact is far from all right in the one per cent of cases.”
His story is one of the long way down from the ladder, the even longer journey to the rock bottom in his personal life, but, most important, the journey back up again. It covers the change in direction and how to make the cultural and paradigm shift that can lift the individual but also the industry as a whole.
January 3, 1993, was a cold and frosty day. The grey, murky sky that began the day had not shifted, nor had the challenging conditions. It was late afternoon, and the light was fading fast.
Jason was working as a roofer on a building site, a labouring job he had taken to keep the money coming in after losing his beloved vocation as a vintage sign writer, from where he was made redundant.
“I was asked to do a rush job that was unplanned—it was basically a two-hour job to fix a leak, which I was trying to get done in one hour. I was too eager to please, and this resulted in me having a totally avoidable accident because I fell from an unsupported ladder,” said Jason.
“I should have said no or spoken out that it was dangerous because I knew it was a risk. But it was my father-in-law’s company, and I was trying to be helpful, although no one was really looking out for me. It was what I later realised as the calculated risk or the ‘fatalism’ or ‘f*** it’ factor coming into play.”
He continued, “After the fall, I was taken to hospital and soon realised that I could not move my legs. Although they originally did not believe it to be too serious, a CT scan revealed a fracture to my back and massive spinal injuries, resulting in the devastating news that it was unlikely that I would ever be able to walk again.
“This is difficult information to process, and I was sent to a specialist unit in Sheffield where I underwent treatment and rehabilitation for four months. Apart from my injuries, I needed round-the-clock care because of the complications.
“I was double incontinent, a message that I get across to the audiences I address because there is absolutely no point in trying to sugarcoat what a devastating impact this had upon my physical and mental well-being at the time.
“Long story short, I came out of hospital on April 25, and I was expected to get on with my new life at home. However, my wife could not deal with it and left me, taking my two young children with her—basically, my life went completely upside down.
“Before my accident, I was a huge football fan—I still am—but I used to go to watch my team with my friends. Obviously, I could not go anymore, but I found out that my friends weren’t going either in support of me. I had to tell them to go without me.”
As a result, Jason started using drugs and began mixing with other people who turned out to be the wrong crowd.
“There was no support for me in terms of my mental health other than a prescription of anti-depressants. I started drinking a lot and experimenting with drugs, an experience I found helped all of my fears and anxiety completely—but temporarily—disappear. But this was a feeling that I could not keep recreating, and for the next two years of my life I was completely out of control. I could not talk to anyone about it, and my levels of anxiety simply went through the roof. I was in a cycle of self-abuse, and this resulted in an un-intentional overdose in January 1995, which left me on life support and in an induced coma.
“At this point, my parents were summoned to the hospital with the implied intention that they should give their consent to have my machine switched off. But my dad said ‘No.’”
Coming out of his coma with even more physical damage—further paralysis down his left side—Jason spent months in hospital trying to come to terms with what the rest of his life would look like.
“I was aware of what I had done and that I somehow had to cope.”
He is candid about his own failings during this time, as he was offered a lifeline when his daughter came back to live with him in the late 1990s.
Despite his previous near-death experience, his road to rehabilitation involved falling in with another wrong crowd when he took up disabled waterskiing.
“This was another group who after the sport took part in excessive drinking—I once again ended up in a binge-drinking culture. This happened in 1998 at a time that I had a compensation offer—which I had accepted although it was not for the full amount—suddenly withdrawn for legal reasons.
“I was existing. I had the kids—Sam, my son, had come to live with me as well—but what I was doing to them and myself was having a massive effect on everyone, and members of my family who only wanted to help started to distance themselves from me.
“Sam, who was eight at the time, wanted to play football in the garden, and I realised what I had lost. I continued to suffer, but I also continued to drink.”
In 2005, a new offer of compensation was made—£408,000—which was the same amount that had been withdrawn, but Jason never saw a penny of the claim for more than two years. He decided to invest half of the cash, but in 2008 that investment was wiped out by the financial crash, which served as another blow to Jason’s slow recovery.
It was then in 2009 that he met his muse and mentor, Dan Terry, and another major influencer on his recovery, Matt Terry (no relation to Dan). And the rest, as they say, is history.
His Road-to-Damascus Moment
Having been convinced to give voice to his story and his pain, Jason gave his first account of his life lessons and how decisions can impact our lives at an IoSH conference in front of an audience of 250 delegates.
“I was really raw and nervous. I did not tell them everything. I held certain painful parts back. I certainly wasn’t looking for sympathy. I didn’t think anyone would be interested, but it had a real impact. In fact, one of the audience members was a filmmaker who wanted to make my story into an occupational DVD.”
In his own road-to-Damascus moment, Jason realised that Dan and Matt had been right all along. People buy from people, and telling his story as authentically as possible was the surefire recipe for delivering a message that would resonate with workers and have a profound effect on organisational cultures.
It was a mea culpa moment for Jason.
“I got it at last. I wasn’t listening before. I took sole responsibility for everything that had happened, all the damage I had done to my family, particularly my mum and dad.
“What happened to me twenty-eight years ago has had a major ripple effect. Abbi, my daughter, has been affected, as have my two granddaughters.”
But, he understands the warning signs and the cause of the issues went back further than the time of his accident.
“What happened to me was not a perfect storm, but the storm clouds were gathering in 1992 when I lost my job as a sign writer. It was a job I loved. I was treated properly, and I had a lot of control. Suddenly all that had gone. I went from being a chatty person to being really quiet and withdrawn.
“I went to a labouring job to make ends meet, but it wasn’t the same and there was no one checking in on you. I hate the phrase ‘It’s all right not to be all right,’ but it’s true and sums up that sense of loss. Mental well-being is critical and as we all know, it affects one in four of the UK population. It should be part of the everyday working narrative, not a special conversation.
“It’s also been proved that for every £1 you spend on mental well-being in the workplace, you get £5 back in terms of happier, more productive workers. When businesses say they cannot afford it, my argument back is how can you not afford to?”
The Value Proposition
For Jason, every road returns to the value proposition and his two questions—do you feel valued and do you feel part of a team? The unanswered what-if scenario about his accident all emanates from these key questions.
“Yes, health and safety is important, but a broader understanding of welfare is critical. If health and safety provide the written guidance we must all follow to stay safe and prevent things going wrong, well-being must be the paper it is written on.
“A lot of businesses have invested in mental health first aiders, but they are only a tool, not the complete answer. You have to invest in the notions of reducing human error through educational empowerment and sending your staff home better than when they came to work. Looking after people engenders high levels of productivity and loyalty, so investing here means that safety can almost look after itself—creating the right workplace culture means that people will work safer.”
This well-being, health and safety message is not new. Indeed, it is best described by an historic visit to NASA by President John F. Kennedy in the early 1960s when the US was in a head-to-head competition with the then-Soviet Union to win the space-supremacy race and put a man on the moon.
Jason explained, “JFK was the kind of president that liked to meet not just the top brass but also the guys on the ground. To this point, he struck up a conversation with a janitor who was sweeping the floor at NASA. When asked about his job, the janitor said, ‘I help people to get to the moon.’ Although a janitor, he recognised his worth in the organisation and his contribution to that bigger mission.”
This is another one of Jason’s helpful stories to signpost businesses towards helping their employees by baking well-being as well as health and safety into the very cultural fabric of their organisations, so that high levels of recruitment and retention are the result of feeling valued and being part of a team. Until businesses recognise that their corporate reputation is more than their share price, former sign writer Jason will continue to metaphorically paint his own unique brand of warning signs.