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How Safety Professionals Can Maximize the Value of Empathy

Work colleagues showing empathy, everything is going to be ok!

No one starts working in safety unless they care about keeping people safe. And no one stays working in safety unless they really care about preventing injuries. The job is too much work and too much of a grind unless you truly care about people.

It’s obvious to you that you care. It’s probably obvious to other EHS folks too. But is it obvious to the employees at your organization? Because to some extent, it doesn’t matter how much you care if it’s not evident to others.

When we talk about empathy here, what we’re really talking about is visible caring—making others believe that you care about them. You could also think of it as demonstrating care, as in: how can you demonstrate to workers that you care about their well-being? All too often, employees believe that safety professionals only care about injury numbers and their own reputation, rather than the individual people who are working on the shop floor.

Empathy is one of the most important soft skills in safety, and it’s all about connecting with other people as people. And the way you do that is by showing that you care about more than just workplace outcomes—you care about their safety even when they leave work for the day. And you have to show that you care about more than just their safety, and that their happiness, frustration, hopes and dreams are important to you as well.

You also have to show that you recognize the difficult position they’re in to get their work done. After all, workers need to balance quality and getting work done on time, usually in a fast-paced and less-than-ideal work environment while still following procedures and safety policies. The production versus safety struggle isn’t just a challenge for safety folks, it’s the reality every day for each worker.

Oh, and don’t forget navigating the interpersonal politics of working as a member of a team, while also juggling any personal problems they may have in their life outside of work. All of which is to say, individual workers have a lot more on their plate than it may seem, and it’s never a bad idea to tell them that you know how much they’re juggling.

The most important thing about empathy: it cannot be faked. If you’re only pretending to care about someone, nine times out of ten they’ll see right through you.

If workers believe that you care about them, they’re more likely to buy into your safety message. It seems like a formula that’s too simple to work, but it’s true. People will listen to a safety professional if they think that person has their best interests at heart. They’ll be willing to rally behind them, even if they disagree with individual decisions because they know that the safety person is in their corner. The opposite is also true: they really won’t listen if they think someone doesn’t care about them.

Here are several ways to better demonstrate to employees that you care about them:

Talk about your own life. At work, share details about how your kids are doing at school or what you did on the weekend. And ask about those things from other people—and here’s the important part: make sure you truly listen to the answer.

Discuss family in safety training. Over two decades of SafeStart training have revealed an ironclad trend: safety implementations are much more effective when they talk about safety off the job. (It’s also one of the most reliable methods of engaging workers in safety, not to mention of the lowest-cost ways.) This means offering resources to keep workers’ families safe, talking about safety at home, and discussing other elements of 24/7 safety.

Talk people, not numbers. When talking about incidents and injuries, minimize the amount you talk about it in numbers (“Our injury rate was up 12% last month”) and instead discuss in terms of people (“Three more of our coworkers here were hurt last month”).

Avoid blame. No one tries to get hurt, and there’s no better way to make people think you don’t care about them than by yelling or getting in their faces. There are still times when you need to intervene, but learning to do it without blame will go a long way toward building empathy.

Recognize organizational influences on individual behavior. One reason to avoid blame is that organizational systems can often influence individuals to act in a certain way or deviate from normal routines.

Find other ways to show that you care. A lot of this is trial and error and depends on the personality of everyone involved. But keep working at it until you find out what matters to each worker and you’re able to establish a connection to help you build empathy and a sense of care.

Use nonverbal cues. Smile, raise an eyebrow or lean in to visually show your concern for their safety. Also, look at their body language to get a better sense of how they’re feeling and mirror those cues yourself.

This is an adapted excerpt from 7 Essential Soft Skills For Hard Workplace Safety Problems, a guide on strengthening soft skills to improve safety outcomes.

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