Groundwork for employee engagement

Safety professionals should be suspicious of many management trends.  Over the last decade behavioural-based safety has been popular and more recently workplaces have been subjected to the application of amorphous concepts such as leadership and engagement.  Many of these are dressing up old approaches to management in new jargon,  some have little evidence to back up their claims.

At the end of April 2009 the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) identified limits to the application of employee engagement.  A SIOP statement said 

 Study after study has shown that an engaged workforce is considered desirable in any organization and leads to greater productivity and profitability. In short, There seems to be no downside to employee engagement. However, Thomas Britt, an industrial-organizational psychology professor at Clemson University, cautions there are some limits to employee engagement that managers should consider.

Britt acknowledges that employees who are actively involved in the management and decision-making of their company provide greater productivity and profitability. In modern parlance, engagement is good.  But he identifies several issues that should be considered.

“If [engaged workers] are not getting the resources they feel they need to perform at their best, their engagement may be diminished.”

So worker enthusiasm and initiative needs to be adequately supported.

Britt said performance could be restricted by

  • lack of budget and equipment support,
  • access to important information,
  • work overload,
  • unclear objectives and goals, and
  • assigning employees’ tasks that don’t fit their training.

SIOP said 

Britt’s research shows engaged employees are likely to become frustrated and dissatisfied and may blame their supervisors if they do not have the systems and support necessary to be effective. Given the higher pro-activity and energy levels of engaged employees, this frustration could lead to turnover as they begin to look for more supportive work environments. “The ones who stay behind may well be the ones who just don’t care,” said Britt.

 Work overload can lead directly to burnout.  According to SIOP, Britt said

 “highly motivated employees are willing to go beyond the call of duty to help the organization, but when temporary overload continues and they repeatedly fail to meet their own high expectations, their motivation becomes directed at locating other job possibilities, leaving the organization at risk of losing key talent.”

The impediments to an engaged workforce can often be missed in the enthusiasm of the engagement evangelists It is important not to dismiss the enthusiasm but to temper it so that any benefits are long term.  For any new management approaches to work, there must be adequate groundwork so that the participants know the reasons for change, this will help the new approach succeed.

In short, business needs to acknowledge that consultation is a basis for improvement not a communication method of telling people about change.  As SafetyAtWorkBlog has said consultation occurs in preparation for change as well as during and after.  Thomas Britt and SIOP have provided excellent ideas of the areas of threat for an employee engagement program.

More information may be available at  www.siop.org.

Kevin Jones

Swine Flu lessons – presenteeism is real

There is some debate today about whether Swine Flu (in deference to the request from some pig farmers, now renamed “the Mexican Flu outbreak of 2009“) has peaked.  Colleagues in Asia over the weekend told SafetyAtWorkBlog that in most circles, the Mexican Flu outbreak has not generated the same level of interest, or concern, as elsewhere.  Perhaps the media studies academics can contribute to a redefinition of “global pandemic” as any disease outbreak that occurs in a country next to the United States. (Beware the Canadian Beaver Flu)

But flippancy aside, this dry-run at an influenza pandemic has many benefits and one particularly useful benefit will be a change in attitude to presenteeism in workplaces.

As the Southern Hemisphere enters its flu season and the early round of flu vaccinations concludes, Australia and others will be a test case for any attitudinal change in workers towards bringing their flu-ridden bodies to work, or in workers objecting to the contagious hazards that the presenteeists (?) introduce.

It has always been a suitable HR and OHS process to send someone home who appears impaired or unfit-for-work.  In the past “essential” staff would continue to work for the sake of workload or productivity.  Over time the folly of such an attitude has become obvious and workplace safety advocates have had a major role in this change.  The increased absenteeism of, and the decreased productivity from, a team who have been infected by a single member is now an unacceptable health hazard and productivity threat.

This change has also been helped by the increasingly viable option in some industries for people to work from home.

The Mexican flu outbreak is likely to verify the reality of presenteeism, probably from colleagues demanding that control measures be taken on the unthinking infectious workmate.  Masks may be tolerated but in the tradition of the hierarchy of controls, elimination is always preferable to personal protective equipment.

In the 1980s taxation department and many other workplaces, telephone hygienists were employed to disinfect telephone handsets.  Modern handsets cannot be disassembled in the same way however, SafetyAtWorkBlog was reminded of this, at the time, peculiar hygiene practices when watching Mexicans disinfecting subways and public telephones.

In all things there must be balance, but the Mexican flu outbreak of 2009 will undoubtedly revise the way people touch things and others.  In relation to influenza this is a good thing.

Kevin Jones

Genetic discrimination at the workplace

In the Men’s Health page (page 59, not available online) of the Australian Financial Review on 16 April 2009 was a mention of a verified case of genetic discrimination in worker’s compensation.

It says that a woman slipped at work and lodged a worker’s compensation application.  The assessment tribunal noted that some members of her family manifested Huntington’s disease which, in its early stages, may cause clumsiness and the tribunal requested a genetic test for the Huntington’s gene.

It is a shame that this article was limited to the Men’s Health page as the issues raised have considerable impact on how safety and return-to-work obligations are handled in workplaces.  

There are two studies quoted in the article and it is unclear which had the worker’s compensation case quoted.  It may have been Genetics in Medicine  but blog readers’ help would be appreciated.

Kevin Jones

An interesting short article on genetic discrimination from late-March 2009 is available online.

 

 

Engagement is Consultation re-badged

Recently an international business established an intranet discussion forum concerning “employee engagement”.  By and large, this is another example of business management twaddle.

Essentially, when one engages with another, there is discussion, a conversation and the sharing of ideas in a cooperative, positive manner.  In OHS circles this is called “consultation”.  By discussing issues, people learn the basics, they refine their understandings and, often, come to a consensus or a resolution.

“Engagement” is another word for what happens on a daily basis in workplaces everywhere.  What is bothersome is when a new management term is generated in order to, primarily, sell a new management book, and in a much lower priority, to provide a new perspective.

In the current edition of Australia’s business magazine, BRW, there is a discussion on engagement, (not available online).  Through an OHS perspective, interpret the following quotes about “employee engagement scores):

“About 40 per cent of employees were failing at the most basic level, saying they either didn’t know what was expected of them or didn’t have the tools to do it.”

OHS = consultation, job description, induction, supervision.

“Those in a leadership position now are taking advantage and redoubling their efforts around employee engagement.”

OHS =  leadership, safety culture

The article makes a useful distinction that an “engaged employee” does not equal a “happy employee”.

The BRW article does not, however, discuss the possible downsides of engagement.  There is a risk that benchmarking of engagement may applied inappropriately and, according to the CIPD:

“Research confirms however that there is a significant gap between levels of engagement found among UK employees and those that would produce optimum performance.  HR professionals need to recognise that engagement is a strategic issue that cannot simply be left to manage itself.”

Engagement is another tool for management but just how many tools are needed?

In short, a management system needs to talk with employees, listen to employees, and support employees.  Wow, how radical.  It can be that simple.

Kevin Jones

Mental Illness and Workplace Safety

Reports in the Australian media this week indicated that “nearly half the population has a common mental health problem at some point during their lives”.  Safety professionals and HR practitioners should take note of these statistics and hope that it does not manifest in their shift, even though it is likely.

The difficulty with trying to manage or anticipate mental health issues is that they seem to have evolved over time and multiplied.  There is the common phrase of “trying to herd cats” and it seems that mental health issues are the cats.  One could apply lateral thinking and propose the solution is to get a dog but will the dog herd a cat that doesn’t look like a cat, smell like a cat, or worst scenario of all, a cat that resembles a dog!

Because of the fluctuating psychiatric states of everyone everyday how does one recognise when a mood swing becomes a mental health issue.  Does one take everything as a mental health issue and waste time on frivolous matters?  Or is there no such thing as a frivolous matter?

In the one article there are these confusing and inconsistent terms for mental health:

  • “common mental health problem”
  • “mental condition”
  • “non psychotic psychiatric problems”
  • “mood disorder”
  • “anxiety disorder”
  • “mental health disorder”
  • “substance abuse or dependency”
  • “mental disorder”
  • “mental illness”
  • “psychiatric condition”

In this report it is unlikely that the synonyms have been generated by the journalist as the data quoted is from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, but it indicates the confusion that safety professionals can feel when they need to accommodate more recent workplace hazards – the psychosocial hazards.

The list above does not include the “established” hazards of bullying, occupational violence or stress.  The fact that there may be a clear differentiation between mental health symptoms and mental disorders but that needs to be clearly communicated to those who manage workplaces so that control resources can be allocated where best needed.

The article referred to above provides interesting statistics and there are gems of useful information in the ABS report but the article provides me with no clues about how to begin a coordinated program to address the mental health issues in the workplace.  It is an article without hope, without clues, without pathways on which the professional can act.

There is no doubt the psychosocial hazards at work are real but the advocates of intervention need to clarify the message.

Kevin Jones

(This blog posting does not discuss the recent changes to compensation for defence personnel and soldiers for mental health from combat, but mental health in that “industry” is a fascinating comparison to what occurs in the private sector.)

Safety In Action Conference

For three days next week, SafetyAtWorkBlog will be reporting from the Safety In Action Conference in Melbourne. This is the 12th annual conference and it remains the dominant OHS conference on the Australian circuit for duration, affordability and credibility.

For three days next week, SafetyAtWorkBlog will be reporting from the Safety In Action Conference in Melbourne.  This is the 12th annual conference and it remains the dominant OHS conference on the Australian circuit for duration, affordability and credibility.

More information on the conference is available at www.siaconference.com.au.  Check out the videos below on this page for an introduction to some of the speakers.

Contact me through my email if you are going to be at the conference and want to meet up.

Kevin Jones

OHS context of leave entitlements

Family-friendly work initiatives always get increased attention around International Women’s Day.  This is a shame as work/life balance is not gender specific, however the dominant Western family structures make the application of the concept relative to gender.  As long as the matter is perceived as a “women’s issue”, it will struggle for attention in a basically patriarchal society.

Family-friendly work structures are predominantly associated with hours of work and leave entitlements.  These don’t seem to be OHS matters as they are mostly handled through HR or the pay department however there is a link and it is a link that work/life and work/family advocates may use as a strong argument for their cause.

Leave is a worker entitlement for several reasons:

  • Situations may occur where the employee is required to stay home to look after an ill relative;
  • The employee may stay home as they are too sick to work; and
  • The employee may feel they need time away from work to rebalance their lives.

The second point has an OHS relevance because going to work while sick may introduce a hazard to your work colleagues – presenteeism.  In many jurisdictions it is a breach of an employee’s OHS legislative obligations to not generate hazards for their work colleagues or members of the public while at work.

The third point relates to an individual’s management of stress and/or fatigue.

In Australia, some workplaces allow for “doona days” (or for those in the Northern hemisphere’s winter at the moment “duvet days”).  These are days where a workplace and the employee would benefit psychologically from some time-out in order to “reboot”.

It may also be a valid fatigue management mechanism where long hours have been worked to the extent where attending the workplace may present hazards to others, or to themselves by feeling impaired, or have the employee working well below the appropriate level of attentiveness for the job to be properly done.

Leave entitlements, to some extent, form part of the employer’s legislative obligations to have a safe and healthy work environment.  But they also support the worker’s obligations to look after themselves and not present hazards to others.

The OHS element of leave entitlements should be emphasized when discussions of family-friendly workplaces occur.  Not only does it legitimately raise the profile of OHS in business planning, it can add some moral weight to an issue that can get bogged down in industrial relations.

Some readers may want to check out recent presentations to the US Senate in early-March 2009, by various people on the issue of family-friendly work structure.  These include

Eileen Appelbaum, Director of the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers University,

Dr Heather Boushey, Senior Economist at the Center for American Progress Action Fund,

Rebia Mixon Clay, a home health care worker who cares for her brother in Chicago. (Rebia’s video is below)

Kevin Jones