In April we received this email, edited here for brevity:

Mr. Johnson,
I am a police officer in Edmonton, Alberta. I have been researching the effects of low morale usually associated with job stress/job dissatisfaction on officer safety performance. Have you noted a relationship between employee morale (job satisfaction) and employee performance with respect to safety?
Olena Fedorovich

Dear Olena,
Excellent question. With the economy in the tank, you would think employee morale is taking a bath. I emailed your question to 112 occupational safety and health experts; and searched the Internet to review published research.

I learned there is no easy answer for you. Safety and health experts disagree vehemently on whether low morale leads to an increase in injuries.

From consultant Bob Veazie: “Yes, LOW MEANS MORE INJURIES.” (The emphatic capitalization is his.)

“The short answer is yes, the potential for errors and injuries is greatly increased by low morale,” said Michael Topf, president of Topf Initiatives.

We also received these responses:

“I’ve seen less than sterling EHS performance during times of a robust economy, when morale was seemingly high, and commendable EHS performance during times of stress,” reported Chris Laszcz-Davis, principal of The Environmental Quality Organization.

“I looked at this question during my research for my Ph.D. One of the surprising things I found was that plants with a more positive attitude had workers who were willing to take more chances in their general behavior toward safety,” recalled Henry Lick, former director of industrial hygiene for Ford Motor Company.

Are you sufficiently confused, Olena?

The problem is a paucity of empirical evidence connecting morale, job satisfaction and job distress to safety outcomes. The expert responses I received often carried qualifiers: “I believe,” “I would think,” “It’s tough to determine,” “I suspect.” Dee Woodhull, a consultant with ORC Worldwide, said it best: “This (low morale, high distress equals more injuries) seems to be one of those myths in the safety profession we assume is true.”

Stick to the facts

Mired in opinion and mythology, Olena, let’s stick to the facts:

• Levels of distress among employees have been rising long before the current recession. Time magazine ran a cover story on June 6, 1983: “Stress: The Epidemic of the 80s.” Dan Petersen, in an interview with ISHN published July 18, 2003, said: “In the last 10 to 15 years I have never seen the number of pissed off and angry people working in companies.”

• Occupational injury rates have plummeted during this timeframe. By 2007, the incidence rate for private industry had dropped to 40 percent of its 1972 value, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

• “The rate of growth of the workplace incidence and illness rate drops about 2.5 percentage points during the 20 months leading up to the (recession) trough, before bottoming out in sync with economic activity,” writes Frank A. Schmid, director and senior economist for the National Council on Compensation Insurance, Inc. (NCCI), in a paper, “Workplace Injuries and Job Flows,” published March 28, 2009.

“Of particular interest is the Great Depression,” writes Schmid. “The recession-related drop in (injury) frequency growth during the Great Depression was the most extensive of all recessions.”

One myth of the Great Depression was punctured by John Kenneth Galbraith in his 1954 book, “The Great Crash: 1929.” Galbraith wrote that the image of speculators hurling themselves from Wall Street windows in a suicide wave following the stock market crash is “part of the legend of 1929. In fact, there was none. The suicide statistics for New Yorkers show only a slight deviation from those of the country as a whole.”

So here is the situation: 1) the U.S. economy is as bad as it’s been in 50 years; 2) distress levels have been increasing for decades; 3) during that time injury rates have dropped significantly; 4) historical statistics show no correlation between recessions, depressions and increased injuries (author Schmid calls this “the dog that did not bark”).

Why doesn’t the dog bark?

What gives, you’re probably wondering, Olena. Here are potential reasons for the decline in injuries despite hard times and increasing distress:

• Workplace injury rate under-reporting. According to a 2008 House Committee on Education and Labor hearing report, under-reporting estimates range from 33 to 69 percent. Among the reasons cited: OSHA logs are maintained by employers, who might have an incentive to under-report to avoid inspection, or win safety performance contests.

• Fear of job insecurity. As a result, safety complaints and reports of minor types of injuries that can be covered up can decline. “Fear of job loss causes many in the workforce to travel under the proverbial radar to not be noticed,” said James Leemann of the Leemann Group LLC.

• Fear drives risk aversion. “What causes risk aversion?” asked A&K Ross Associates in a paper presented at the 2005 International Rail Safety Conference in Cape Town, South Africa. “Basically fear. Fear of blame, fear of job loss or promotion, fear of media scrutiny when things go wrong, fear of prosecution.” The result, according to the authors: “An overly cautious approach to safety.”

All caution was tossed out the window in the consumer spending spree and extreme risk-taking of financial institutions in the years leading up to the recession. But now, bewildered by a recession with no end in sight, risk aversion has reach new heights, according to a September, 2008 Merrill Lynch Survey of Fund Managers. Investors have taken a “flight to safety” with the most risk-averse mindset yet recorded, according to the survey.

• Survival first. “Most folks I know today are grateful to have a job and anxious to work safely and effectively,” said Laszcz-Davis.

“I do not think a ‘morale meltdown’ precipitates an increase in at-risk behaviors or more injuries,” said Leemann. “It results in just the opposite behavior. Most people are in such a survival mode the last thing they want to do is lose their job.”

• Humans could be naturally risk-averse. Behavioral economists have discovered “losses hurt twice as much as gains feel good, driving our risk-taking,” writes Michael Shermer in “Irrational Economic Man,” published January 11, 2009 in City Journal magazine. “So deep and powerful an economic emotion is this aversion that it may be an evolved trait,” he writes.

• The innate pursuit of esteem. This pursuit “makes people loss averse,” write Tyler Cowen and Amihai Green in a paper published February 13, 2003, “Esteem and Risk Aversion.” “When esteem enters the picture, individuals are more likely to be strongly risk-averse,” the authors write.

• Low moods. Symptoms of low mood — fatigue, loss of motivation and interest, pessimism, and the behavioral inability to feel rewarded by previously pleasurable activities — function to reduce risk-taking, according to Daniel Nettle in an article published in the Journal of Theoretical Biology.

As the mood state deteriorates, the riskiness of behavior will decline until it becomes highly risk-averse. Low moods sap individuals of the energy, enthusiasm and optimism needed to believe risks will pay off.

To sum it up, Olena, plenty of evidence exists that low moods, low self-esteem, risk aversion, and fear of job loss — recession blues — all contribute to reduced risk-taking and lower injury rates. Historical injury statistics tied to business cycles bears this out.

Distress and injuries: a shaky connection

There’s one more point we should make, Olena. In your email, you connect low morale, job distress and job dissatisfaction, as though they are one and the same. Research tells a different story:

• “An individual’s actual level of morale has no influence on their level of distress, and vice versa,” write Peter Cotton and Peter M. Hart in “Occupational Wellbeing and Performance: A Review of Organizational Health and Research,” published in the July, 2003 Australian Psychologist. “The factors influencing levels of morale are not the same as those determining levels of distress.”

To simplify the authors’ model, morale and job satisfaction are more a function of one’s cognitive states, a matter of making mental judgments, evaluations and perceptions about work. Distress — or its opposite: energizing, motivating stress — emanates more from side, anxiousness, anger, guilt, sadness, energy, enthusiasm and pride.

• “Stress researchers have failed to link indicators of occupational stress to relevant organizational outcomes,” which would include injuries, state Cotton and Hart.

This “failure to link” is also referenced in the 2006 book, “Human Safety and Risk Management,” by A Ian Glendon, Sharon Clarke and Eugene F McKenna. The relationship between job distress, job dissatisfaction and injury is moderated by several factors, according to the authors: safety knowledge, safety motivation, safety culture, social support from co-workers, relationships with supervision, management concern and support, and personality type.

• The “selling of distress.” In our review of relevant research, we discovered most claims of a connection between job distress and costly injuries were made by organizations or associations with a vested interested in promoting the prevalence and cost of job distress — stress reduction coaches and consultants, stress institutes, etc. Most of the research relates distress to the costs of increased absenteeism, presenteeism (mentally checking out while still on the job), high turnover, substance abuse and stress-related workers’ comp claims (typically cases of subjective mental anguish or back injuries, not more objective injuries such as body blows, falls, crashes or amputations).

We don’t want to diminish the damage caused by job distress. It’s real, and it’s costly. But the impact is on one’s overall well-being, especially mental and physical health, more than traumatic injury causation, according to research.

NIOSH makes this point in its booklet, “Stress… at Work,” (NIOSH Publication 99-101) stating: “Job stress poses a threat to the health of workers, and in turn, the health of organizations.”

Important findings

So Olena, we’ll leave you with three discoveries we made in the course of our research:

1 — Injury rates follow business cycle behavior, but counter-intuitively. According to the NCCI report, “Workplace Injuries and Job Flows,” in recessions job creation plummets while job destruction soars. Job destruction (layoffs) decreases the growth rate of workplace injury and illness rates. Why? The most inexperienced workers are laid-off first, and the longest-tenured workers survive. Approximately 30 percent of all reported injuries in manufacturing are associated with workers who have been with their current employer for less than one year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Coming out of a recession, when hiring increases (job creation), injury rates will rise as more inexperienced workers land jobs.

2 — Focusing on the morale, job satisfaction, and distress of employees can lead to a “blame the worker” mindset. “Substantial improvements in the levels of occupational wellbeing will only be achieved by focusing on improving leadership and managerial practices and other aspects of organizational climate,” write Cotton and Hart. “Organizational climate is the strongest determinant of individual morale. Organizational development programs that improve the quality of leadership practices and organizational climate are likely to have a greater impact on reducing workers’ compensation premiums than traditional occupational health and safety risk management approaches.”

3 — “Personality is the strongest determinant of individual distress, write Cotton and Hart. Look for “withdrawal behaviors” that negative emotions trigger: absenteeism, turnover, submitting stress-related comp claims, lack of participation, decreasing volunteerism, and isolation and alienation (leading in extreme cases to potential violent outbursts). Keep in mind that after personality, morale and organizational culture are the two biggest influences on withdrawal behaviors.

So if officers in your Officer Safety Unit are not wearing body armor or carrying radios when they should, don’t be too quick to pin it on the recession, poor job satisfaction, or distress. Step back and look at your organization and the level of communication, social support, training and education and concern and empathy on the part of supervisors and managers.

Dave Johnson, Editor