Employees no longer spend their entire career with one employer and their loyalty can’t be mandated or bought—it’s not only about money anymore. People care about who they work for and why, they care about the workplace culture, and they want a meaningful relationship with their organization. As a result, worker engagement is one of the biggest challenges companies face today.
New attitudes towards work affect retention, productivity and—most importantly—safety. Workers want to be engaged but if they’re not provided with the right environment and culture, they’re less likely to commit to the company, its values and its safety rules and regulations.
Only 32 percent of U.S. employees are engaged in their jobs. Organizations need to do a much better job of engaging workers. Here’s why it’s so important—and why it can be a major challenge.
Why engagement matters
Without employee engagement, there will be less participation in safety and compliance might be harder to achieve. In fact, according to a study performed at Molson Coors “disengaged employees were five times more likely to have a safety incident and seven times more likely to be involved in a lost-time safety incident.”
Lack of engagement also negatively affects profitability, retention and turnover. Organizations with engaged employees deliver 27 percent higher profits and 38 percent above-average productivity. As noted by Safety Decisions columnist Ray Prest, companies that overachieved in safety also outperformed the S&P average in 17 different economic measures.
Research clearly shows that engagement significantly impacts safety and the bottom line. But despite the statistics, some organizations might still not see the value of engaging employees. And for those who understand the benefits, simply acknowledging the importance of this issue is only the first of many obstacles on the way towards employee engagement.
EHS Today’s Participation-Based Safety survey reported that the biggest barriers to increasing the level of worker participation in safety are a lack of management involvement, lack of worker involvement, and getting buy-in and alignment on safety goals. Improving these issues isn’t easy, but it’s certainly possible.
Involving employees in decision-making can certainly improve their participation in new initiatives. As J. Kevin Cobb says in his article Safety from the Shadows, “give employees legitimate access to power in the form of sitting on committees, or solicit their opinion and then act on it. (…) It will engage individual employees by making them responsible for new tasks.” Showing trust and giving autonomy builds commitment and helps engage workers in safety. They’re no longer simply told to follow the rules—they are actively involved in shaping them.
Another example of overcoming barriers to engagement is management’s dedication to open communication and recognition of employee efforts, regardless of whether people work on a production line, a building site or in an office. According to a 2014 study, employees receiving little or no feedback are actively disengaged. But receiving it dramatically increases engagement. This is especially true when the feedback is about an employee’s strengths, which confirms the general consensus that people need recognition at work.
When workers follow the processes and display any sort of initiative, they need encouragement and positive feedback. If one worker reminds another to wear their PPE or maintain three points of contact on a ladder, or when they suggest improvements to the current safety program, leadership should show appreciation for this commitment to safety.
When workers only receive criticism for not doing the right thing, and never hear anything positive or get credit for what they do right, engagement is very likely to decrease. The same is true for using fear tactics, which will do little to improve employee attitudes towards safety.
Finding ways to address the issues that limit employee engagement in safety is a big task and should be top of the list for the whole organization, not only for EHS professionals. That’s because engagement is a company-wide issue. And everyone in an organization has a role to play in fostering employee engagement.
Working towards engagement
Safety culture and the resulting engagement cannot be mandated from the top and they certainly don’t evolve on their own. Programs aiming to build engagement need to be based on relevant information and data obtained from the workforce.
Unfortunately, engagement is not easily measured and its impact is hard to determine numerically. But it is possible to assess it and use this information to implement new initiatives.
Any observations and surveys have to be designed very carefully and with a clear understanding of what engagement is and what it isn’t. One common mistake is assuming that happy employees are committed to their jobs and that satisfaction or contentment are synonymous with engagement. Leaders have to ask the right questions and know how to analyze the answers.
Gallup polls repeatedly show that engaged workplaces are safer, more productive and more profitable. Even if a company’s safety goal is compliance, developing a good safety culture and stronger employee engagement will go a long way towards reaching that goal.