Do you have a great job in EHS? What is a great job? Excellent, enriched jobs have the following characteristics:
Good jobs enable the employee to develop and use a wide range of skills, and are interesting and challenging. EHS professionals ideally are engaged in many activities that call upon communication skills (clarity, persuasiveness), cognitive skills (problem-solving, decision-making), analytical skills (identifying and correcting safety hazards, collecting and interpreting safety data), leadership skills (developing a safety committee, etc.), and so on. And no two days are exactly alike. So far so good for most safety pros (I hope).
Good jobs enable the employee to see a whole piece of work through to completion. The safety pro should be able to drive corrective actions and see the work environment improve, collaborate with production and maintenance to ensure that new equipment meets safety requirements; see safety initiatives take hold and bring down incident rates, etc. Ideally, safety pros have their arms around whole projects with measurable outcomes, and are not working in narrowly focused, bits-and-pieces fragmentation.
Good jobs aim at results that matter; that make some contribution; that make a positive difference. Keeping people safe is about as significant as you can get!
The research indicates that these three critical enrichment characteristics add up to the perceived “meaningfulness” of the job. So far, the role of the safety pro should cover all those bases quite well.
Here are two more critical characteristics identified in enriched jobs:
While there will always be rules and procedures to follow, good jobs give the employee a measure of freedom and self-direction as well. Some safety pros have more autonomy than others, but most have at least some measure of permission to “do it their way,” even in light of strict compliance requirements.
Good jobs have ways of letting the employee know how he or she is doing. Feedback can be intrinsic to the work itself (i.e., my measurable output directly tells me how I did), extrinsic (positive or corrective comments from a supervisor or coworker), or both. Most safety pros are well-positioned to get feedback on the effectiveness of their work, certainly intrinsic feedback.
These five critical design characteristics drive engagement and performance only when two additional moderating conditions are met.
Context includes pay, benefits, working conditions, relationship with coworkers and supervisors, support from top management, and related factors. These factors are not automatically motivating in and of themselves, but their absence will demotivate. They must be present in adequate amounts for any of the five enrichment factors to work.
Growth need strength (GNS)
Individuals who are low in GNS aren’t particularly interested in learning new skills, getting promoted, etc. Those high in GNS want to grow. They embrace the opportunity to learn more and do more.
What does this mean for safety pros?
In my experience, if you are high GNS (as are by far the vast majority of EHS professionals I have worked with), you can likely influence most (maybe all) of the five enrichment factors, as well as continue to be inspired and motivated by them.
Some relevant advice that I share freely with my students is, “Don’t automatically accept constraints,” and, “You get what you negotiate.” When I have personally tested the limits, more often than not I have been able to influence the deal in ways that I wanted. What’s the worst thing that can happen? They say no. Even at that, they now know that you are actively looking for more.
The biggest challenges may lie in those pesky (but critical) context factors. And more specifically still, the most challenging of those may be active management support. I do often hear safety pros lamenting their leaders’ lack of visible, tangible support for safety, or at least for the processes that need to be put in place and supported for the workplace to be as safe as possible. Top management support is indeed such a critical context factor that, frankly, its absence can offset the positive influence of all the other factors combined.
Safety pros simply have to make their case. If top leadership folks don’t automatically “get it,” help them out.
What gets their attention? Often, it is financial data. Not that they don’t care about people, but their job #1 is commonly to drive the numbers. OK, so be it, welcome to the real world. What is the financial impact of an accident-free workplace as opposed to one with a high incident rate?
In addition to the human toll, what does a major lost-time accident cost us in dollars and cents? Emphasizing the financials doesn’t mean as a safety pro you have set aside your concern for employee welfare. It simply means taking an approach that is most likely to influence the top decision-makers in your company to provide the support and resources you need to help create a best-in-show, Positive Safety Culture.
The role of the safety pro can be an extraordinarily satisfying one, and definitely an impactful one. Some pros have a truly great job. But if yours is not great, look always at what you yourself can do proactively, to make it so. As the bard said, “… if you try sometime, you just might find, you get what you need”.
No one’s role is more important than yours. Make your case.