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HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT YOUR JOB?
Only about one in three environmental health and safety pros- 37 percent to be exact - say they're satisfied with their jobs in 2002, according Industrial Safety & Hygiene News's most recent White Paper survey. That's down from 49 percent in 1998.
And in firms with more than 1,000 employees, the largest corporations we surveyed, only 28 percent of EHS pros are satisfied with their work.
To compare, 51 percent of U.S. workers in general like their jobs, according to a recent Conference Board poll.
What is it about EHS work today that's a turn off? In this issue of ISHN's E-News we search for clues in the research responses from more than 600 ISHN readers. We also talk to individual pros. What emerges seems to be a profession in conflict.
For example, when we asked readers what they would like to change about their jobs, they offered few specific complaints. Eighty percent are satisfied with management's support - the bane of many a pro's workaday life.
Fewer than ten percent complain about budgets or staffs that are too small, stress or travel that is too much, not enough time to complete work, or job security worries.
And most pros - 64 percent - will tell you that the environmental health and safety field is still a rewarding career choice.
So what gives? Few EHS pros have specific beefs, most believe EHS careers are rewarding, but only a minority will tell you they are currently satisfied with their work. Can you relate to these conflicted feelings?
THE BIG PICTURE
Maybe the answer lies in the bigger scheme of things. Maybe it's the overall work climate or environment in 2002 - as opposed to anything in particular that's a downer about EHS work.
For example, responses from 12,750 employees across Corporate America compiled for the consulting firm Watson Wyatt's WorkUSA(tm) 2002 report show many workers are alienated, cynical, and mistrustful.
What do these results say to you?
One interpretation: A disconnect within organizations leaves more departments than EHS feeling out of the loop. Take HR managers, for instance. The Society for Human Resource Management recently polled its members and found that:
"It's the challenge and responsibility of human resource professionals to link the organization's human capital to its strategic direction," said the society's VP, Debra Cohen.
DO MANAGERS LISTEN?
Safety and health pros face a similar challenge: prove to management the value of protecting human capital. It's not an easy job. Communicating in general is often frustrating inside organizations. Especially if senior leaders are as remote, preoccupied, and uninspiring as many employees believe.
Says one safety consultant:
"Many bosses are not good leaders, at least in terms of what constitutes leadership in today's business climate. More people leave jobs because of their boss than for any other reason. One senior safety professional from Wisconsin I just talked with is quitting. He's had it with his boss who micromanages, won't listen and is exasperating to work for.
"There seems to have developed a general sense of distrust, cynicism and sense of helplessness that people hold toward organizational leadership. Cynicism is higher than it has ever been. Leaders are not actively consulting with and/or listening to the people. Communication stinks, especially two-way communication."
An EHS pro seconds this view, speaking from inside an organization:
"EHS pros in larger corporations are further removed from the decisions makers and tend to feel less a part of the team. I have worked for some of these corporations and much of what I did was generate numbers and statistics to make us 'look good'. There wasn't much gratification in this kind of work.
"To feel significant, one needs to be part of the team and part of the 'real' communication flow within a company. Even though many of us have expended much effort to become part of the team and the flow, in many instances we are still on some outside tangent looking in."
And it could be that pros are tiring of the fight. Says one:
"I think safety pros are getting tired. While the right things are being said by management, perhaps we have not reached the point where safety is a true value. With consolidations, mergers, economic downturns, layoffs, etc., it may be that they are tired of fighting the same old battle."
Other issues surfaced when we contacted EHS pros directly to explain widespread job satisfaction. And really, these issues are not unique to EHS work. Consider these three pressures typical of many jobs:
1) FAMILY FIRST. "As I've traveled the U.S. this year I have heard considerably more about family issues. For example: 1) My kids are in high school and I am more concerned about what's going on there. 2) My wife has cancer and I have to deal with that first, my job is second. 3) My son/daughter has school problems so I need to work that issue. 4) My family really likes it here, if I really want to change jobs because I am dissatisfied it would upset me and my family."
2) LACK OF CONTROL. "If safety people gave honest answers I bet many would tell you that they think injury reduction is something that they have little control of, but is something that is used to measure their success. Don't get me wrong, I feel I can help reduce injuries, but it takes more than one safety person to make positive changes, and in my current position my management staff is not much help.
"In my last two positions with smaller companies I have found myself responsible for all areas of safety and environmental. I have to admit that there is no way that I could keep everything in control. I am specifically talking about regulations, permits and paperwork in general. I suspect that others in my role feel the same way. I actually support two 200-employee sites and it is overwhelming."
3) TRYING TO SURVIVE. "Many of us are in a 'maintain' mode. There have been very few regulatory initiatives in the EHS area in the past few years. Fewer initiatives mean fewer chances to demonstrate our worth to our employers and to be creative. The easy fruit has already been picked and significant accomplishments require an exponential amount of effort. Many firms are not willing to expend a large amount of effort to achieve minor changes. Many companies are just trying to survive."
A PROFESSION MATURES
There could be something else going on with how EHS pros feel about their jobs. Something beyond corporate cultures and management styles. Something more intimate to EHS work, a field closely tied to values, ideals, and a sense of mission.
One safety pro puts it this way:
"EHS pros are aging and as we age, we change and the things that provide satisfaction also change. If one looks for gratification in the same things that provided satisfaction in the past, we tend to become disenchanted and unhappy."
Here are other comments we received:
"Satisfaction is low because the challenge and excitement is gone or fading fast. There is management support but the thrill is gone."
"There's little excitement. Little novelty. Few new challenges. Few special reasons to be high on senior management's priority list. So there's little pressure. Little attention."
"All the dragons have been slain. Been, there. Done that. Most EHS folks are just oiling a program."
"I suspect that some of the idealism is gone from the EHS profession. It has become more apparent to me that protecting the environment and the workforce is becoming even more tertiary, behind the economy and war. It seems to me that we have slipped backwards somewhat on business's and the government's list of priorities."
"Maybe folks are losing sight of the mission. The external environment we are operating in doesn't exactly lend itself to helping to support our sense of mission."
STOP THE WHINING
Of course there is another way to look at low job satisfaction scores. Some see a red flag flapping, an indicator that pros need to reinvent themselves within organizations, use new tools to get a new "value added" message to management.
Here's what one pro says: "None of us do the safety job by ourselves. In reality, we only cheerlead and guide the effort. If leaders aren't 'stroking' safety people, they aren't hyping the safety effort. We are a pampered lot! We refuse to change so that we can add more value to our employers, but when we don't hear our praises coming from the corner office as much as we need, we become disenchanted. My advice to safety professionals? "Grow up and smell the coffee!"
What do you think?
Dave Johnson is the ISHN E-News editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, (610) 666-0261; fax (610) 666-1906.
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