Productivity, like Safety, is one of those words that is used frequently without a clear and uniform definition. This causes confusion when advocating for occupational health and safety (OHS) interventions that improve productivity.
Safety does not increase productivity but it can minimize lost productivity. Let me try to explain by focusing on labour productivity. Every worker has a certain level of productivity, that is, the creation of a product or the delivery of a service. This level can be affected by family issues, work stressors, poor working conditions and environment. This distraction and discomfort lowers a worker’s productivity. OHS aims to reinstate the worker’s optimum productivity through various operational and procedural changes. OHS tries to close the gap between low labour productivity and peak productivity.
The term “productivity” is often used by politicians and business people as a softer alternative to “profitability”. Profits can be perceived as heartless and “chasing the dollar” or the enemy of safety and worker welfare. “Productivity” sounds less harsh and has a definitional variability that allows the speaker to mean one thing and the listener to hear another. It is this variability that can create problems.
”Productivity” is also a blanket term for lots of economic and social elements, so many in fact that the original meaning of the word may be lost. Business people use “productivity” as an economic term that equates to the health of a company or the broader economy, and sometimes as a euphemism for profitability. Trade unions and safety advocates often use the same term but mean how much goods or services a worker can provide and produce. To a lesser extent, they also mean how much goods and services a worker can provide safely, that is, without exposing themselves and others to harm. Two very different perspectives that use the same word.
Safety advocates need to be more specific in their language when talking to clients about the potential outcomes of OHS interventions. It may not be possible to improve the productivity of a company as there are many factors affecting the health of a company beyond the efforts of the company’s employees. Usually, the health of the workforce is the core focus of the OHS professional which means that the main impact of interventions will be on, and for, the worker. Certainly, improving labour productivity should improve the company’s overall productivity but focusing on the big picture can weaken the application and acceptance of the OHS intervention intended to reduce harm.
Whenever someone uses “productivity” in a sentence or, particularly, in a presentation, if they have not yet defined their use of productivity, ask them to clarify the term. That clarification could substantially change the understanding of the audience and/or the relevance of the message. This is particularly important when reading survey results, government reports, and safety and wellbeing program pitches. And will be very important when Australia’s Productivity Commission releases the findings of its current inquiry into mental health.