What makes a job rewarding?

May 30, 2000
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Most professionals in the safety and health field will not experience a rewarding sense of job satisfaction in 1996. Sad, but- at least according to the statistics- true. Only 33 percent of 1,102 professionals who responded to ISHN's annual Safety & Health Planning Survey say they expect to be satisfied at work this year, down from 46 percent last year. The troubling number is an apt kickoff topic for our Managing Careers column: if two-thirds of ISHN readers suffer career discontent, we have our work cut out for us with this new monthly report.

The Managing Careers column will feature information to help safety and health professionals better navigate their career paths. We plan to keep you abreast of new trends in your profession, and offer career success tactics. In profiles of your peers and colleagues- or perhaps even of you- we'll show how real safety and health professionals are getting by and getting ahead.

Frustrating times

When the dismal job satisfaction statistic came out a few months ago, we asked Dr. Howard Cohen, a professor of safety and health management at the University of New Haven, to explain it. He pointed to budget cuts among government-employed safety and health pros, diminishing funds for academics, and continuing cost-cutting for industry pros that means longer hours, harder work, and job insecurities.

This time, to get at the job satisfaction question ISHN talked to a dozen safety professionals selected from among survey respondents who do expect to experience "a rewarding sense of job satisfaction" in 1996.

We asked them to describe the conditions that make their work rewarding, and to offer advice to dissatisfied peers.

Be an optimistic expert

Three phrases came up in interview after interview to describe conditions intrinsic to rewarding work:

  • Optimistic attitude

  • Management support

  • Continued professional development.

To be sure, the biggest reason pros say they feel satisfied is that they make a difference in workers' lives and workplace conditions. Shawn Provencher, a Maine construction safety manager who had previous careers in the Marine Corps and law enforcement, says, "In this field I can see that the work I do makes a difference. I make a difference. That's satisfying."

But like his peers, Provencher attributes his ability to make a difference to the existence of those three conditions. For instance, he says, without managers backing his decisions his job would be a lot more difficult.

Adele Laikin, EHS manager for a large California aerospace manufacturer, speaks from experience when she says, "Commitment from the top makes or breaks how you feel about your job." Laikin says she knows what it's like to be told to just show up and do your job; or worse, to be paralyzed by micromanagement. She encourages others stuck in similar situations to work to change management philosophy. "Get them to understand what kind of a job it is you have."

Angela Martinez was a single mother of two young children when she left a job she wasn't happy with five years ago. "I was doing all these surveys, monitoring, and lab work. Management would say - thanks,' put them in the file, and do nothing about it. It got to be very frustrating, and it got to be hard to speak to people on the front line every day with no answers."

When she took her next job at a south Texas ammonium chloride manufacturer, Martinez made selling management and employees on safety a priority. "If management can respect [the importance of safety] your job can be nothing but rewarding," she says.

In order to sell safety, most pros say optimism and a good attitude are necessary. "This is a very exciting field for those who don't mind selling it," says industrial health consultant William Krebs. Back when he started practicing in the early sixties, Krebs didn't have OSHA to back him up. He was conditioned to sell safety, he says. Construction safety manager Barry McCoy was laughed at in management meetings for the first year he tried selling safety at his California firm. "You've got to be an optimist in this business or you're doomed," he warns.

What's more, to sell to anyone, you've got to be competent, says Laikin. That's why she's working on a master's degree and hazardous materials manager certification. It's why Shawn Provencher will get an Occupational Health and Safety Technologist certification this year and start work on a CSP. And it's why Barry McCoy just got certified as a Construction Health and Safety Technologist, went back to grad school, and is pursuing ASP certification. These folks aren't relying on supportive managers to keep them satisfied.

One veteran pro offers this advice, "If you're not satisfied with your job, you need to look for another job. Then if you find you're still not satisfied, you need to look at yourself."

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