Give & take: worker engagement
Research shows engaged workers are more likely to give back to their workplace and support organisational objectives. Nick Bell, Dr Peter Sykes and Dr Colin Powell analyse the positive impact this can have on health and safety.
Engagement has been a buzzword for many years. In health and safety publications, the terms ‘worker engagement’ and ‘worker involvement’ are sometimes used interchangeably. However, they are very different concepts.
Examples of worker involvement practices, found in HSE-sponsored research, include consultation, pre-task briefings (to discuss hazards and coordinate activities) and involving workers in risk assessments.[1,2,3,4] Such activities can support organisations in meeting basic, legal duties and expectations set out in the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 and associated guidance (such as HSE guidance on risk assessment). Other examples from this same research are suggestion and hazard-reporting schemes. These are formal mechanisms that help workers meet their own legal duties (set out in the management regulations) to report dangers and notify employers of gaps in their arrangements.
Such schemes are sometimes called ‘engagement’ and presented as being innovative. However, they are principally mechanisms to meet legal obligations and create a dialogue between workers and management.
There is no guarantee that workers will actually get involved. Telling workers that they must report hazards does little to make them care about health and safety or their organisation and its goals.
The HSE research recommends promoting involvement by discussing the schemes during inductions, giving feedback to workers on action that has been taken in response to their suggestions, and ensuring that managers have the skills needed to explain and encourage the use of these mechanisms. Recognition and rewards might also be considered (for example giving breakfast vouchers for workers who make suggestions).
Engagement is, however, something much deeper and, in our opinion, more meaningful than involvement. If you dip your toe into the vast pool of academic research into engagement you will find many different, and frequently conflicting, definitions. Engagement can refer to workers’ thoughts and/or feelings and/ or behaviours towards their work and/ or organisation and/or manager. Muddled definitions do not help give clear guidance to managers looking for a way of improving health and safety performance. There is, however, a fairly consistent theme in the articles: engaged workers have positive thoughts and feelings about their workplace which encourage them to behave in ways which support organisational objectives and values.
What behavioural differences might we observe between involved and engaged workers? An involved worker might (perhaps with some reluctance) use formal mechanisms to report hazards and near misses. They may speak up in a pre-task briefing to raise a concern about the day’s activities.
An engaged worker will look for proactive, discretionary and meaningful ways of supporting the organisation.[9,10] They might take a new starter under their wing, challenge a colleague who is behaving inappropriately or assist someone who is struggling with a task.
These are all examples of ‘citizenship behaviours’ and might go under the radar in many organisations. Research shows that as well as being more likely to engage in citizenship behaviours, engaged workers will also perform their core duties to a higher standard.[8,9,10] Engagement has therefore been linked with reduced turnover and absenteeism and improved productivity and profits. Improved compliance with safe systems of work has also been seen as a behavioural manifestation of engagement.[12,13] It would be reasonable to expect engaged workers to use involvement mechanisms, e.g. making suggestions, more frequently and diligently.
Various studies have trawled through the (sometimes conflicting) evidence to identify the factors which are influential in engaging workers;[15,16,17]
- transformational leadership;
- fair pay and decent working conditions;
- caring for the wellbeing of workers;
- trusting workers and being trustworthy;
- giving workers tasks that they find personally meaningful;
- giving workers the tools and resources they need to perform their work;
- giving feedback and use of rewards and recognition;
- l providing workers with development opportunities.
Earlier in this article, some of these factors were seen to help promote worker involvement. However, this list has introduced a range of other practices that sit squarely with the human resources function in most organisations. For example, the development of workers might be driven by an organisation’s training needs analysis and the supervision and appraisal processes.
Employee assistance programmes, wellbeing schemes and flexible working arrangements are just some of the steps employers take to go that extra mile and demonstrate that they care for worker wellbeing.
This indicates that while a health and safety practitioner could design and spearhead schemes to involve workers in health and safety, effective worker engagement is far broader and requires a much more concerted effort throughout an organisation (and particularly by the HR function).
From theory to practice
If we want to understand how best to design and implement an intervention we need to have some sort of theoretical model that connects what we do with the outcomes we want or observe.
There are a number of theories that are used to explain engagement, but one of the most simple and intuitive is known as Social Exchange Theory (SET). SET has been around since the mid-1960s, and is based on the principle that humans are hard-wired to repay their social debts.[18,19] If someone does something nice for us, we feel obliged to do something nice in return. This then makes it more likely the other party will be kind again in the future.
Over time this give-and-take develops into a trusting relationship in which both parties are confident that the contributions of one party will be matched by the efforts of the other.
Human civilisation relies on this ‘norm of reciprocity’. There would be nothing holding tribes together if people just went around taking what they wanted with no obligation to give something back. You also see this in the animal kingdom; even meerkats display these behaviours.
To work effectively, these social exchanges rely on people giving back something that the other party values. If a lactose-intolerant fitness fanatic has gone out of their way to give me a long coaching session, they wouldn’t be pleased if I offered them a massive dairy cream cake by way of thanks.
Social Exchange Theory at work
We hire people as carpenters, nurses, cleaners etc. and pay them for their labour. There is an implicit expectation that workers will have reasonable working conditions and the resources needed to do their jobs. If pay, conditions or resources are perceived to be inadequate then (unless there is some other sort of compensation) workers will probably only expend the minimal amount of effort needed to perform their core duties.
Workers might believe that getting involved in safety (reporting hazards for example) is going above and beyond the strict requirements of the formal contract, despite what their job descriptions say. Depending on their own personal values and attitudes, workers may or may not make some efforts to get involved in safety.
If, however, the employer is perceived to be fulfilling and exceeding their side of the formal contract, many workers will feel obliged to reciprocate. They will look for opportunities to pay back their employer in a way which the employer is likely to value. They might volunteer for unpopular assignments, act as a positive ambassador for the company or put in extra hours at work.[10,20]
If the employer has demonstrated that they genuinely care about health and safety, then investing mental, emotional and physical resources into improving health and safety performance becomes another legitimate method of reciprocating. Workers might then, for example, be more likely to volunteer to be a first aider or fire warden. They may be less likely to walk away from a hazard.
Worker involvement schemes help to channel workers’ willingness to contribute to health and safety in ways which the organisation finds helpful and easy to manage and measure. However, if we want workers to diligently use those schemes, they need to be engaged. In addition, involvement schemes only promote and capture a small number of the behaviours that an engaged worker might perform.
In a nutshell, engaging workers in health and safety starts by genuinely caring for their welfare and the quality of their working life, while also demonstrating that efforts to improve health and safety performance are valued. Engaging workers is very different from simply involving them.
Questions for self-reflection
We would like to leave you with some questions to ask about your own organisation.
- If you operate engagement schemes, are they based around caring for employees or are they principally creating communication mechanisms between management and workers?
- In your organisation, would the health and safety function be able to influence HR practices?
- Are supervisors and managers selected and trained to ensure they have effective soft skills?
- Do you have ways of capturing examples of workers taking informal action to improve health and safety (perhaps something like a ‘nominate a colleague’ award)?
- Are health and safety inspections and tours simply looking for safe/ unsafe conditions (or compliances/noncompliances) or are they probing into the quality of working relationships and working conditions?
Nick Bell runs his own risk consultancy. Dr Peter Sykes is a principal lecturer and Dr Colin Powell is a member of the academic team at the Cardiff School of Health Sciences, Cardiff Metropolitan University.
- Lucy, D; Tamkin, P; Tyers, C; Hicks, B (2011): Leadership and worker involvement on the Olympic Park, RR 986. HSE Books.
- Poxon, B; Coupar, W; Findlay, J; Luckhurst, D; Stevens, R; Webster, J (2007): Using soft people skills to improve worker involvement in health and safety RR580, HSE Books.
- Bolt, H; Haslam, R; Gibb, A; Waterson, P (2012). Pre-conditioning for success: Characteristics and factors ensuring a safe build for the Olympic Park . HSE Books.
- Healey. N; Sugden, C (2012): Safety Culture on the Olympic Park . RR942. HSE Books.
- Lunt, J; Bates, S; Bennett, V; Hopkinson, J (2008): Behaviour change and worker engagement practices within the construction sector. RR60. HSE Books: HMSO.
- Truss, C; Shantz, A; Soane, E; Alfes, K; Delbridge, R (2013): ‘Employee engagement, organisational performance and individual wellbeing: exploring the evidence, developing the theory’. The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 24(14), 2657-2669.
- Fidderman, H; McDonnell, K (2010): Worker involvement in health and safety: what works? Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents.
- Shuck, B; Wollard, K (2010): ‘Employee engagement and HRD: A seminal review of the foundations’. Human Resource Development Review. 9(1), 89-110.
- Soane, E; Truss, C; Alfes, K; Shantz, A; Rees, C; Gatenby, M (2012): ‘Development and application of a new measure of employee engagement: The ISA Engagement Scale’. Human Resource Development International. 15(5), 529-547.
- Saks, A (2006): ‘Antecedents and consequences of employee engagement’. Journal of management Psychology. 21(7), 600-619.
- Organ, D (1988): Organizational Citizenship Behaviour: The Good Soldier Syndrome. Lexington: Lexington Books.
- Nahrgang, J; Morgeson, F; Hofmann, D (2010) ‘Safety at work: A metaanalytic investigation of the link between job demands, job resources, burnout, engagement and safety outcomes’. Journal of Applied Psychology. 71-94
- Wachter, J; Yorio, P (2014): ‘A system of safety management practices and worker engagement for reducing and preventing accidents: An empirical and theoretical investigation’. Accident Analysis and Prevention. 68, 117-130.
- MacLeod, D; Clarke, N (2009): Engaging for success: Enhancing performance through employee engagement. Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
- Wollard, K; Shuck, B (2011): ‘Antecedents to employee engagement: A structured review of the literature’. Advances in Developing Human Resources. 13(4). 429-446.
- Macey, W; Schneider, B (2008): ‘The meaning of employee engagement’. Industrial and Organisational Psychology. 1, 3-30.
- Shuck, B; Herd, A (2012) ‘Employee engagement and leadership: Exploring the convergence of two frameworks and implications for leadership development in HRD’. Human Resource Development Review, 11(2), 156-181.
- Gruman, J; Saks, A (2011): ‘Performance management and employee engagement’. Human Resource Management Review, 21, 123-136.
- Cropanzano, R; Mitchell, M (2005) ‘Social Exchange Theory: An interdisciplinary review’. Journal of Management, 31(6), 874-900.
- Ashforth, B; Humphrey, R (1995): ‘Emotion in the workplace: A reappraisal’. Human Relations, 48(2), 97-126.
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