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June 9, 2014

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Employee engagement: The missing links


Employee engagement, health and safety programmes, and reward and recognition schemes are all important elements of an organisation’s high awareness culture towards safety. Richard Byrne argues that to achieve a truly effective safety culture, all three of these elements need to be working in unison.

Have you ever listened to someone talk about their firm’s safety culture and thought: “Wouldn’t it be great if it was like that where I work?” If you have, you’re not alone. But have you ever wondered whether what they have is too good to be true?

Experience shows that many organisations have a high awareness of safety culture but few have a truly effective one. Brian Galonek1, an American behavioural safety specialist, suggests that in order to have an effective safety culture you need to have all three key elements linked and working together, like cogs in a well-oiled machine: employee engagement, health and safety programmes, and reward and recognition schemes [see figure 1].

Figure 1: High awareness cultures and an effective safety culture (1).


If each component works independently there is a 50/50 chance that the programme will work. With two working together a high awareness culture is created. Ideally though, the goal is to have all three working in unison.

Imagine you have a safety programme to reduce slips, trips and falls. In many organisations the safety team will design a number of tools for people to use such as toolbox talks, signage, and articles in the company magazine. By aligning a proportion of a person’s bonus to their achievement in reducing certain events, you can drive focus and awareness, but it is not a sustainable solution.

Sustainability (and a more effective safety culture) only comes when you link both of those elements into employee engagement. In doing so you enable the start of a snowball effect, where improvements begin to gain momentum.

Employee engagement

These days employee engagement has become something of a management term, however, it is a real concept. It’s often described as an employee’s emotional attachment to the organisation they work for, their job and their colleagues. The stronger the attachment, the more willing they are to help achieve the organisation’s goals. 

There is also a direct link between high levels of employee engagement and ‘harder’ business performance indicators. Research2 suggests that where the organisation has a highly engaged workforce, they will also have:

  • 65 per cent less accidents;
  • 30 per cent lower employee turnover;
  • 19 per cent more income;
  • 18 per cent more productivity; and
  • 12 per cent more profitability.

Most importantly, for safety professionals, there is a direct correlation between levels of employee engagement and safe working.

There have been countless studies into this area of working life and there are eight recurring themes or factors as to what drives (or hinders) levels of employee engagement (Table 1).



Trust and integrity

Do you believe your managers and leaders?

Nature of the job

How stimulating is your job?

Line of sight

How does the work you do contribute to the overall success of the organisation?

Career opportunities

Do you believe there are future career opportunities for you?

Pride about the company

How much self-esteem do you feel by being associated with the organisation?

Relationship with colleagues

Do you get on with your peer group?

Employee development

Are you developing new skills?

Employee/line manager relationship

Do you value your relationship with your boss?


Table 1: Eight factors that influence employee engagement3


As an example, customer service is paramount in many industries, particularly within the travel sector.  If you ever travel first class on a long haul flight or on a train and you are offered a cup of tea or coffee, watch what happens€ᆭ

Before pouring, the crew member will consistently place one foot forward, bend their knee and lean onto that leg. This is a safety initiative designed to reduce the risk of them spilling hot liquid onto the customer. This may not seem like anything new —indeed many firms undertake similar initiatives — however, what is interesting, is that they do this every single time they pour a hot drink.

They do this because they receive recognition for delivering outstanding customer service and take tremendous pride in the organisation they work for. It would be unthinkable for them to spill that drink because doing so would mean they had failed to give that customer the best travel experience possible.

Whether the safety initiative is the primary driver here or not does not really matter because all three elements of the model have joined together to improve customer service and safety.

Reward and recognition schemes

Reward and recognition schemes at work go beyond providing a salary. They seek to motivate people to deliver outcomes that help the organisation achieve its overall goals.

People often associate reward and recognition schemes with a monetary value. Such schemes can be useful but they can also drive unhelpful behaviours, for example, an objective to reduce reportable accidents at work by 20 per cent can be achieved by unscrupulous managers simply not reporting accidents.

Bonus schemes can be extremely valuable for both an organisation and the individuals concerned but, arguably, a bigger opportunity is available for organisations by celebrating success without spending lots of money.

Two powerful examples are giving feedback and creating workforce heroes.

Giving feedback

According to the Corporate Leadership Council4, a 39 per cent increase in employee performance can be achieved through fair, accurate and informal feedback from a line manager. This type of feedback can be conveyed simply when a manager walks through the workplace or during a shift changeover.

Remember that in most cases people only talk about safety in a negative way e.g. “put your PPE on, we’ve had an accident.” Instigating positive feedback will enhance a company’s safety culture.

Workforce heroes

Every organisation has unsung heroes. People who just get on with their job and do it well, every day. They tend not to be recognised because they don’t draw any attention to themselves. Putting the spotlight on these people and promoting what they do is hugely powerful, not only to help motivate them, but also others like them in the organisation.

Lots of firms are starting to do this. There was a recent example of a dairy in Wales who displayed a small photo of one of their employees on their milk bottle labels with an explanation of how he helped the milk get from the cow to the customer. The individual concerned worked in the dispatch fridge. From experience, these places are cold, typically windowless with stark artificial light — tough places to work. But being recognised as an integral part of the product, will have motivated the employee hugely.

This same theory can also be applied to our safety outlook. For example, if your monthly safety briefing is on manual handling techniques find a worker who hasn’t had any manual handling accidents, and always uses the right techniques, and promote them as a role model of the way it should be done, in other words make them a workforce hero.  Experience shows that peer-to-peer communication is more effective than a manager telling you what to do.

In the real world

Case study A: High awareness – more engagement needed

A newly appointed safety manager inherited a team of safety professionals who had worked extremely hard over a number of years to try and improve safety, yet the new manager noticed that their was a disconnection between the team’s view of how effective they thought the organisations safety culture was and the reality.

The manager challenged them to go ‘undercover’ on a Saturday morning to stores in another region, and pose as someone attempting to gain a job at the firm’s head office.  Once inside the store, they explained the situation and asked staff a few questions about safety – basic information that could be taken from the company’s website. The firm had a safety brand or slogan, which they enquired about. They were dismayed by the response they received:

Store staff: Everyone from head office talks about safety and we’ve got a store objective about reducing manual handling accidents, but they don’t really mean it.

Safety Professional: Really, what makes you say that?

Store Staff: If they were serious about it, they’d do something more than just send us pages and pages of checklists and briefing documents.

While the safety team and the organisation had done well to develop a high awareness culture, there was obviously a missing link: employee engagement. This was the part that would turn the high awareness culture into an effective safety culture.

If the store staff really felt an attachment to what the firm was trying to do for safety, they would have responded in a far more positive way and it is this positivity that would eventually ‘kick-start’ sustained improvements within the organisation’s safety outlook.

Case study B: High awareness – more reward needed

A large services provider has a number of ‘implant sites’, these are locations situated on a customer’s site and those working there (typically one or two employees) spend the majority of their time servicing that particular customer.

At one site the employees followed the safety rules and were extremely committed and passionate about the firm they worked for. The area manager was concerned, however, that the workers didn’t fully realise that working safely was really important because of the reduced supervision levels associated with that particular operating model.

The area manager returned to the site and talked to the team about the importance of the firm keeping the contract they were working on because it was key to the area’s overall profitability. They talked through how they could make sure that they retained the business and the actions that the front line team could take to support that. 

Over a period of months the feel of the team changed. They were working safely, completing paperwork correctly and keeping the work area tidy because, ultimately, they believed it was the right thing to do.

The learning point here is that the safety rules were right, and safety improved, despite the limited supervision, because the area manager and the safety professional involved, tapped into the employees’ attachment to the organisation and improved their attitude towards safety.


The challenge for us as safety professionals, particularly in the current climate where organisations are looking more intently at value for money, is as follows:

1.     Look at what sort of culture your organisation really has. It is a high awareness or an effective safety culture.  If it’s the former, some of the tools and techniques discussed can help address that.

2.     Think more creatively about how to improve safety culture and performance.  Having good health and safety policies and programmes are important but so is linking health and safety into other areas of the organisational life in order to make changes longer lasting and sustainable.


1. Galonek, B. (2011): The Hidden Connection between Engagement and Safety: Discover the path to a Safer and Healthier Workforce. Available at:

2. Blackhouse, J. (2010): Employee Engagement — The Business Case. Unpublished Presentation to ATS Euromaster’s senior management team.

3. Soldati, P. (2007). Employee Engagement: what exactly is it?  Available at:

4. Corporate Leadership Council. (2005).  Managing for High Performance and Retention — A HR toolkit for supporting the line manager. Corporate Executive Board: London.


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