Psychologically safe: Address conditions & states of mind
A company’s culture can be simplistically described as what an organization says it values and how it acts on these values.
A company’s culture can be simplistically described as what an organization says it values and how it acts on these values. Managers who say they believe in working safely yet stress production over safety, encouraging shortcuts, are not acting in line with what they espouse as their values. This inconsistency between what is said and what is done generally leads to employee distrust of management. Safety performance does not depend on only the compliance-driven safety program. It also depends on whether or not the company encourages or hinders the safety program.
In essence, the level of safety performance depends on the knowledge and expertise of safety professionals as well as the amount and type of commitment and support by the organization.
Safety performance factors
Two terms have emerged that are directly relevant to the level of safety performance: organizational factors and psychosocial factors.
Organizational factors include the organization’s reporting relationships, budget, employee selection, length of hours employees work, and other elements fundamental to the way it conducts business. Psychosocial factors, combining psychology and social relationships, refer to work relationships and employees’ psychological response to their work and working conditions. This includes personal issues that may be affecting employees’ work and/or work relationships. The effects of organizational and psychosocial factors on nearly all aspects of workplace life are well documented.
Consider psychological impacts
There is an emerging worldwide trend in safety and health management systems, from a recommended to a required status, of the inclusion of psychological, as well as physical, risks in their workplaces.1 A recent example is the Canadian standard requiring employers to provide psychologically safe workplaces. Even though this standard is currently voluntary, it could be enforced via the general duty clause present in OSH legislation.
Many employers, and safety professionals, may feel daunted by these new regulations because they address areas that were formerly unchartered territory in the running of businesses or safety programs. But as litigation and high awards continue, to do nothing will be far more expensive than nipping potential problems in the bud.
In addition, and not insignificant, is the cost-benefit that is derived such as improved quality, increased productivity, lowered occupational stress, and higher safety performance.2,3 Rucci demonstrated a predictable quantitative relationship between employee satisfaction and employee health, as well as improved customer satisfaction.4 For a more in-depth report of cost benefits to employers, Burton’s “The Business Case for a Healthy Workplace” in an excellent reference.5
Address work conditions & hearts and minds
To ensure that workplace conditions and psychosocial factors are conducive to optimal safety and organizational functioning, the two areas should be addressed simultaneously. For example, if managers pay only lip service to safety, with appropriate actions not following the spoken words, employees might perceive this inaction to mean that managers do not care for the safety of the workforce. If employees feel that managers do not truly care for their safety, they may also feel that managers do not care for their well-being as individuals. This negative perception can lead to higher injury rates, low job satisfaction, low morale, low or no motivation, production errors, increased occupational stress, and in some cases, to potential sabotage or other forms of violence.
To achieve optimal outcomes, be they in business operations or safety, your employer’s responsibility should be to identify, assess, and correct any interfering overlaps between the physical and psychological working environments.
Integrating the “hard” and “soft”
A prime question for safety professionals: how to integrate this additional knowledge into the way most safety programs usually operate. First, let’s examine the backgrounds of most OSH professionals. This most generally relies upon “hard” science such as engineering, physics, biology, chemistry, and statistics, among others, to provide a safe physical working environment. But with the increasing evidence-based research in the field of corporate culture and organizational and psychosocial factors, emphasizing the “soft” sciences such as social and organizational psychology, there need to be ways to integrate these findings into the way safety professionals perform their responsibilities and functions.
The different perspectives — from both the “hard” and “soft” sciences — must be shared and communicated. The primary goal of both is to create safer and more healthful workplaces. If information is not shared, there is poorer decision-making7 because knowledge diversity provides more information than single-discipline approaches to a situation.
It also provides different ways of looking at the world and different viewpoints for solving common problems. Otherwise, new ideas are not introduced, new perspectives are not developed, innovations are not considered, and there is an inherent danger of circular reasoning, whereby everyone thinks pretty much alike. We often see this in the safety profession with its various flavors-of-the-month programs. Safety does not need more programs. What it needs is an integrated, evidence-based protocol that will enhance employees’ working lives as well as increasing and maintaining their safety and health.
In his book “The Emperor Has No Hard Hat,” Quilley wrote that “company culture is a cornerstone of safety excellence.”8 He is correct. Corporate culture is oftentimes defined as, “the way we do things around here.” This statement implies a set of values — what and how things are done; the preferences of certain belief systems over others, and the oughts and the shoulds of acceptable behavior. In order to shape the desired behaviors of working safely, organizations’ leadership needs to create — and live by — the values that will do so.
If safety professionals, in conjunction with management, incorporate the interrelated concepts of safety with organizational and psychosocial factors, they can help increase safety performance. Numerous management consultants are currently stressing the role of corporate culture and psychosocial factors on organizational functioning. For the most part, they are not including the safety function. It is imperative that safety professionals take an active role and be an integral part of this transition.
In essence, exploring the roles of corporate culture, with its organizational and psychosocial factors, and the daily functions of maintaining a safer environment, with safely working employees, cannot be separated; not if optimal safety performance is the goal.
1 Cobb, E. (2012). Bullying, violence, harassment, discrimination and stress: Emerging workplace health and safety issues, an international review. The Isosceles Group. Boston, Massachusetts.
2 Erickson, J.A. (1994). The effect of corporate culture on injury and illness rates within the organization. Dissertation Abstracts International, 55 (6).
3 Erickson, J.A. (2008, November). Corporate culture: Examining it effects on safety performance. Professional Safety, 53 (11), 35-38.
4 Rucci, A.J., Kirn. S.P. and Quinn, R.T (1998, January-February). The employee-customer-profit chain at Sears. Harvard Business Review, 83-97.
5 Burton, J. (2008). The business case for a healthy workplace. Industrial Accident Prevention Association. Ontario, Canada.
6 Paletz, S.B.F., Schunn, C.D. (2010) A Social-cognitive framework of multidisciplinary team innovation. Topics in cognitive science. Vol 2 Issue 1, pp. 73-95.
7 Quilley, A. D (2010). The emperor has no hard hat. Safety Results Limited, Alberta, Canada. p.213.