Safety Starts with Engagement

Safety Starts with Engagement

With employees’ expectations changing—especially over the last few years—employers must make adjustments to their approaches, including safety.

Declining Employee Engagement

According to Gallup’s most recent data, the percentage of engaged employees across the country has dropped by 4 percent over the past 2 years, following nearly a decade of steady increases. Simultaneously, “active disengagement” among both full- and part-time employees increased by the same amount. Additionally, at 1.8:1, the ratio of engaged to actively disengaged employees is at its lowest since 2013.

The equivalent decrease in engagement and rise in disengagement should be concerning for businesses, as the engagement train now seems to have permanently reversed course following a steady rise. Typically, companies try to motivate the “middle of the pack”—the neutral employees, those either “somewhat engaged” or “somewhat disengaged”—when deploying an engagement strategy. Unfortunately, the data now shows that the middle has stalled, with neutral employees dropping to “actively disengaged” status at the same clip that engaged employees are slipping down to neutral.

Increasing Turnover

Last year has become known as the year of the “Great Resignation,” where a record 51 million employees quit their jobs. And according to the data, we know that plentiful job prospects, higher salaries, burnout and remote and hybrid work opportunities fueled the trend.

Unfortunately, though the economics have shifted since last year, the troubling parts of this turnover trend haven’t. Instead, amid record inflation, declining consumer spending, and shrinking margins, companies are in cost-cutting mode, which often means layoffs. However, especially among younger generations, the inclination to leave or change jobs is still top of mind if certain expectations aren’t met. Companies risk finding themselves squeezed from both sides if voluntary turnover stays high while the economic outlook remains uncertain.

A closer examination of the numbers shows this outcome is untenable—most experts estimate the cost of employee turnover to be around 33 percent of an employee’s base pay.

The Expectations Disconnect

The latest data pinpoints clarity of expectations, connection to company mission, opportunities for learning and growth and feeling cared about at work as the “engagement elements” that declined the most over the past several years. Additionally, employees who are “extremely satisfied” with their employers declined by a whopping 6 percent.

This confirms that employees feel more disconnected than ever, and it is no coincidence. Beginning in 2021, the initial shock of COVID-19 had worn off, employees were more familiar with hybrid and remote work, and the shift in employee expectations was becoming permanent. Only once the dust settled over the next two years did managers realize that traditional engagement strategies weren’t effective.

In fact, not only is the old model of “pay them more to stick around” not viable for companies in today’s economy, but employees themselves don’t like this strategy anymore either. Seventy-nine percent of employees say they would “prefer a job where they are recognized over a job where they are not valued but paid more.” Further, nearly 40 percent of employees say they are likely to look for another job if they aren’t recognized at work.

Impact on Culture

For decades, company culture has been defined by management and preached to employees from the top down. However, in the modern era, successful companies will reverse this model. After all, there is no “culture,” at least not a good one, if employees don’t feel appreciated.

According to the Harvard Business Review, moving forward, successful businesses will turn their attention from recruitment to retention. The businesses that rise to the top will be those that respond to new employee expectations, such as encouraging internal talent mobility and upskilling, offering flexible hybrid and remote work options, and providing more effective, personal support for employees and managers as they navigate these shifting tides.

Approached correctly, businesses could ignite an organic, employee-centric culture that employees feel they play an active role in maintaining. Instead of being told to “memorize the handbook,” as it were, employees could carry out their duties in furtherance of the true mission of any business—to serve customers. When properly implemented, culture should be the self-sustaining rising tide that lifts all ships.

But What About Safety?

History indicates that workplace safety generally improves over time, as advancements in technology and improved methodologies are steadily incorporated. However, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the total number of non-fatal work injuries among full-time employees (FTE) has stalled at 7 per 100 FTE over the past several years. What’s worse, the number of unreported injuries appears to be on the rise (the most recent data points to 4.26 million).

Labor experts are becoming increasingly concerned that safety has taken a back seat so far in the post-COVID-19 era, as companies attempt to recover on other fronts, all while battling new economic headwinds. And like the outdated engagement strategies discussed earlier, employers’ approach to safety must adjust to new employee expectations as well as the broader economic climate.

Culture and Safety Go Hand in Hand

Employees who don’t feel appreciated don’t stick around. And employees that don’t stick around never master safety best practices or impress safe behaviors on new workers. This is why culture and safety must be intricately intertwined.

For businesses, it is critical to include safety in the broader “appreciation” matrix. Instead of preaching safety protocols to employees or punishing unsafe behaviors, reward employees for demonstrating their knowledge of pertinent safety topics or positively incentivize them to report accidents.

Too many businesses follow the all-or-nothing approach—“we reward you for a perfect safety record, but you get nothing if there is an accident.” All this does is encourage employees not to report accidents in order to keep their records intact. Instead, businesses should view reporting as a net positive for the company so that managers can modify procedures and best practices using more accurate information. Employees must think of safety, and safety reporting, as a positive aspect of helping themselves, their colleagues and the company. Ultimately, everyone wins. Safety protocols improve, fewer employees are injured and businesses save money in the long run.

As National Safety Month 2023 comes to a close, businesses should take a step back and view safety as part of their larger business culture. Successful businesses will take advantage of the recent economic and societal shifts to reinforce a culture of appreciation and make sure safety is at its core.

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