Engaging Employee Energy

No question it's easier to lose trust than to rebuild it. But it is possible to right this ship.

It was disturbing, but not surprising, to read a recent Hewitt Associates study that "almost half of organizations around the world experienced the largest decline in employee engagement since the consulting firm began conducting such research 15 years ago."

Not surprising, because I've heard of this downward spiral in many companies. Just recently, I spoke with a corporate Safety Director who reflected, "Employee morale is at an all-time low."

Disturbing, as I've seen how employee engagement, no matter how you measure it, is directly associated with poor safety, low productivity, and decreased quality. It's as if people seem to give up on their work, then organizational report cards become littered with Ds: disconnected, depressed, drained, disillusioned, disheartened = danger.

On the other side, I've also worked with companies that have pulled themselves out of going-through-the-motions-on-automatic work ruts, steered their way out of the doldrums, re-energized most everyone, and harnessed personal commitment to safety.

How are they able to do this? By employing six strategies to take manual control of their transmission and engage their leadership clutch:

1. Distinguish hidden contributors to disconnection. Some people become disengaged when they are in a state of chronic pain that overshadows all else. The University of Iowa's Dr. Malcolm Pope and others have published studies on the confluence of lower back pain with depression and anger. Difficult to tell which causes which -- chicken or egg? -- or whether negative emotions just reflect chronic pain.

Similarly, ongoing illness can distract and lower efficiency. Not surprisingly, aging workforces may have increased risk here.

In cases like these, the right medical interventions, active preventative health interventions, and arrangements with effective pain clinics can help people become less out of sorts.

2. Rebuild trust. Disengagement is also a waste product of lost trust (e.g., that leadership is unconcerned about or unable to make positive improvements). Parallel to the above disengagement studies, Korn/Ferry Institute's Confidence in Leadership Index recently revealed a significant decline in trust and confidence in corporate leadership. It's difficult to feel positive when you deeply question the steering of the ship you're being asked to row.

No question it's easier to lose trust than to rebuild it. But it is possible to right this ship through concerned and honest communications, setting realistic expectations, and with leaders' following through on promises made and expectations set. For more, see my article, "Boost Trust for Better Safety: 35 Specific Steps You Can Take," at http://tinyurl.com/patertrust.

Keep in mind that expecting one-way trust or commitment won't fly. For example, ever met someone who seems to operate as if "my fiancé is engaged but I'm not"? In my experience, these relationships are never sustainable.

3. Reconnect workers. Drs. Cooper and Marshall's leading research clearly indicates that lack of social support at work adversely affects employee stress and engagement. Recent trends of thinning and dispersing workforces also have contributed to increasing employee isolation. So, to balance this, wise leaders work at reconnecting workers -- through physical and virtual get-togethers, joint problem-solving, safety hero recognitions, sharing best practices, and more. Once-a-year dinners aren't enough; think of different ways to increase person-to-person, phone, and Internet connections. Better yet, make "connecting" a project where your workers take the lead in planning how to best make this happen.

4. Invite everyone's involvement -- in some way. If you've read any of my past writings, you've likely seen two repeating themes:

a. Positive involvement is a sign of healthy Safety and overall culture (see Secrets of Involvement Part 1: http://tinyurl.com/involvement1 and Part 2: http://tinyurl.com/involvement2).

This can entail as little as eliciting individual feedback from each organizational member at least twice/year. Or encouraging each person to set and work on an annual personal safety objective for their work, home, or favorite activities.

b. We've seen significant improvements in engagement, morale, and drastically lowered injury rates from selecting, training, and supporting workers to train and reinforce their peers in mental and physical injury preventing skills (see my OH&S article, "Step Change From the Bottom Up," at http://tinyurl.com/safetycatalysts).

5. "Elevate the quality of safety communications." This comes from Alaska Tanker Company CEO Anil Mathur. Do your utmost to move away from top-down, I-say-and-you-listen-and-do, lecture-only meetings. Encourage and measure workers' vocal participation -- even if it at first means a preponderance of griping. Then ask questions that lead focus toward problem solving, not just blaming.

6. Remind people to "be a warrior, not a worrier," to take some action, however small, that moves toward a positive direction, rather than just complaining -- or giving up. From anonymously dropping off a real suggestion at an intranet site or putting in a word to the wise (someone else who might be more activated currently). Or presenting expertise or experiences at a safety meeting. Or becoming involved in a community or off-work group safety-related activity.

Remember that people who are currently disengaged at some time in the past were at least somewhat aboard. Re-engaging them is definitely do-able but may require persistence -- as well as leaders' not giving up too quickly themselves. Engage people by eliciting, asking, inviting them to say yes, looking at them as valuable to the company, and doing these ongoingly, not taking "OK" times for granted just because things aren't in crisis just now.

You can better engage the clutch of workers' attention and commitment to safety and your organization through higher-level leadership, employee involvement, and energizing interventions.

This article originally appeared in the February 2011 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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