Never assume you are the finished article, keep learning and developing yourself and have the confidence to share that knowledge and expertise with others

Case Study: Helen Tapley-Taylor

NEBOSH Diplomate Helen Tapley-Taylor is Group Health and Safety Manager for Direct Line Group. In this interview Helen talks about her career, and the positive impact mentoring has had for her, both as a mentor and mentee!

When did you decide you wanted your career to be in health and safety and how did you make it happen?

Similarly to most health and safety professionals I know; I fell into health and safety. I was working at the Environment Agency as a Hydrometry Team Leader and was responsible for a team split across three locations who all worked in high-risk conditions. I was only in my mid-twenties at the time and this responsibility felt overwhelming. I felt very exposed, but once I’d completed my IOSH Managing Safely course, I was hooked. Old colleagues might say the move into health and safety had to happen because I was accident prone myself at that time!

Along the way I discovered I liked health and safety better than managing people! I was lucky enough to be offered a secondment into a regional health and safety team that was led by the fabulous Bob Ashman. Bob became my mentor and guided my initial development phase and NEBOSH General Certificate. His calm laid back manner supported me through my newly qualified black and white phase and helped me see the shades of grey. He used to sit me down with a cup of tea and just ask me how I thought it went. He let me fail in a safe way until I found my feet…. and I failed a lot!

I was also lucky enough to get offered secondments in other regional teams within the Environment Agency working with Health and Safety Managers like Janet Smith who taught me the importance of data and getting documentation right; and Andy Stocks who taught me the value of management and networking.

Mentoring shaped my early career, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without the great safety professionals who gave up their time to support me.

You hold several NEBOSH qualifications. Can you tell us how they have supported your career progression?

The best thing about NEBOSH qualifications is that they grow with you as a safety professional. Initially I needed my NEBOSH National General Certificate to give me the grounding in safety principles and practice. Then as I moved into more complex safety roles, I studied the NEBOSH National Diploma to gain the depth of knowledge and insight in health and safety that was required.

 I have been able to take NEBOSH qualifications to support my progress and the additional learning and development gained has helped me to be successful.

You have held roles in a wide range of industries and have worked as a consultant too. How easy is it to switch between sectors and do you have any tips to ensure its successful?

It’s extremely easy to move between the public and private sectors if you are aware of and are prepared for changes of pace and demand.

The private sector is fast paced, and you need to ensure you are comfortable with the boundaries of your competence and can confidently push back if these are tested. It is easy to get caught up and potentially breach your membership body’s Code of Conduct when demands on your time and expertise are high, so you need to remain vigilant. You also need to understand the commercial aspects of the business and its culture and maturity in terms of production vs safety.

The public sector tends to be slower paced which suits some but not others. Being aware of and managing your expectations are important, as is giving yourself time to settle.

Large organisations, regardless of whether they are public or private sector, can suffer from what I call ‘Large Organisational Inertia,’ where they work glacially slowly to reach decisions. Again, managing your expectations for how long key decision making and budget setting can take are key to survival as is building delay time into projects.

Wherever you work, I think its beneficial to build yourself a good support network of other safety professionals. They will provide you with vital sounding boards, especially if you are the only safety professional in the organisation.

Can you tell us a little about your current role as Group Health and Safety Manager for Direct Line Group?

My role at Direct Line Group provides a healthy mix of strategic and operational work across health and safety, fire safety and building safety. I’m able to work alongside our Executive Committee and the Board to drive safety improvements across all aspects of the business, as well as supporting people leaders and colleagues with local safety issues. Each subdivision has their own risks and hazards, so no two days are the same. I am privileged to work with a fantastic group of safety professionals who have extensive expertise in their chosen work area.

Every day is a learning day at Direct Line Group. We have such a broad range of activities; I never know what’s going to come up which keeps me on my toes and makes life interesting. I’m based in the Human Resources function which gives me the opportunity to influence recruitment, onboarding, learning, development, and all aspects of management.

You are an active member of the NEBOSH Alumni. What benefits do you get from being part of this community?

Being a member of the Alumni is essential for me. I can discover the latest best practice, thought- leadership and learning and development, as well as having access to a support network of like-minded professionals who can assist with any issue. You don’t have to know it all in safety, you just need to know where to go for help and support.

I know you are very generous with your time and have mentored several people who are new to our profession. What motivates you to do this?

Early in my career I was incredibly lucky to have great mentors who gave me the support and safe space to develop. The positive impact that their contribution had on my career is the driver for me wanting to do the same and give something back to my profession. Mentoring is a fantastic way to share your knowledge and skills to hopefully make a young professional’s life a little bit easier.

To be honest I learn as much from my mentees as they get from me. It’s great to hear about innovative technology, ways of working, different perspectives and other industries, and it’s another way of keeping your skills up to date. I get a deep sense of pride when I see the professionals I have supported achieve their goals, gain the role they want and thrive in their chosen industry. For me, mentoring is a win win.

You have recently completed one of NEBOSH’s newest qualifications, the NEBOSH HSE Certificate in Managing Stress at Work.

  • Why did this qualification appeal to you?

I’m looking at all our health and safety policies and procedures at the moment and wanted to refresh our procedure on stress. Taking the qualification was an opportunity to understand what’s changed around the enforcement of stress and to get best practice information regarding stress management.

  • How did you find it?

It was a brilliant course with a great mix of theory and practical which made the day engaging and enjoyable.

  • What were your key take aways?

The focus on organisational stress risk assessments and a refresh on the management standards.

What do you enjoy most about being a health and safety professional?

I like the challenge of taking a problem or an issue and collaborating with managers to create a workable solution that meets business needs, but also ensures we retain compliance.

When you look back at your career so far, what are you most proud of?

This is really difficult to answer, as I have been exceptionally lucky and privileged to work alongside so many great teams, managers, and safety professionals over the years. If I have to say one thing, it would be mentoring the next generation of safety professionals and watching them succeed.

What would your advice be to anyone who aspires to make health and safety their career?

I would say don’t limit yourself to one type of safety, try lots of different roles and industries until you find something you love. Never assume you are the finished article, keep learning and developing yourself and have the confidence to share that knowledge and expertise with others.

You also need a great support network behind you. I wouldn’t have had the career I’ve had without the support of my husband Martin and my son Mackenzie. They’ve been supporting me from the sidelines, when I’ve been travelling and working long hours away from home, taking on new and more challenging roles. More importantly, they help me keep things in perspective, make sure I close the laptop down at a reasonable time and get out of my office. They are great levellers for me and often recognise when a role is not right for me before I do.