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February 27, 2014

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Culture club: employee engagement is still underrated


Samantha Johnson, OHSAS 18001 assessor at NQA

Every workplace has a culture and these cultures directly affect the employees and manifest themselves in behaviours and attitudes.

There is nothing new or revolutionary about this statement. Yet the issue of workplace culture and the resulting behaviours and attitudes is one which is consistently underestimated and overlooked in the health and safety profession. This is despite the fact that organisations achieve and maintain all round best performance when employees are happy and healthy. For this to be achieved, the workplace culture needs to be one of openness; open communication at all levels, low levels of pressure and stress and fear is non-existent.

A culture of a business is dictated by senior figures. However, it is rare that a senior management team will sit down and decided on a company’s culture. Instead it is the behaviours and attitudes of these people that filter down the hierarchy to lower grade employees that set the culture.

It is no secret that British businesses have not had an easy time in the past six years. Budgets have had to be cut, redundancies made and all decisions are being scrutinised like never before. As one would expect this has had a knock on effect in terms of how senior management behave, consequently pressure levels throughout all of UK plc have increased.

In pressurised workplaces employees can be found to be taking short cuts with a view of increasing productivity levels. These corners are all too frequently health and safety related as the safety-macho attitudes come into play and workers  believe that without health and safety ‘barriers’ they can get more done. These corners can range from not wearing a high-visibility vest whilst in the distribution centre to the much more concerning absence of the use of safety guards when operating machinery. When cutting corners becomes part of normal everyday behaviour it is highly likely that it is condoned by senior management which says they are more concerned about profits over people.  

Stress in the workplace is now identified by the Health and Safety Executive as a workplace risk. This is often most prevalent in middle management. This is the group of employees who find themselves stuck in the middle; they have to cut costs but at the same time increase output levels. Due to the stigmas around mental health it is common for employees to hide their stress levels which is why it is crucial for health and safety professionals to be aware of the culture their colleagues are working in.

Employee participation is key to building a culture conducive to having a safe working environment as well as a successful business. Employees need to feel engaged in order for them to care. A key way of putting this into practice is through near miss reporting, a vital component of any health and safety management system. Too frequently near miss reporting is dismissed with a shrug of the shoulders or a non-genuine response, worse still, some companies fail to acknowledge it in any way. Common sense says that if employees believe nothing is being done with the information they pass on, then they will stop passing it on as they see it as a waste of time. Consequently they will become completely disinterested.

In some workplaces, the culture is the complete opposite of disinterest, the problem instead is that health and safety is taken too seriously and becomes a barrier to work getting done. A health and safety management system is about facilitating work being done safely, not stopping it. This type of culture is just as detrimental to an effective health and safety management system as the aforementioned issues.

One person cannot be expected to change the entire culture of an organisation, especially in one with a strict and rigid hierarchy. I understand the frustrations of in-house health and safety professionals when they find themselves acting as the lone voice trying to promote change but for credibility purposes they cannot give up. There is also the issue that frequently when working with one company for several years an employee often does not see the wood for the trees and therefore struggles to identify issues, let alone solve these issues before they become serious problems. This is where building a solid relationship with your OHSAS assessor comes to fruition as often it takes the help of an external person to identify where there is an issue.

Health and safety professionals should not forget that for senior decision makers in any company, the main focus to keep the company afloat and profitable, after all what’s the point in having safe and healthy employees if their jobs are at risk. However, there is an argument that can help health and safety professionals in terms of engaging senior decision makers in a programme of culture change: employees who feel safe, healthy and happy are more productive and enthusiastic and that can only be a positive in terms of ensuring the company remains profitable.  

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alex howard
alex howard
10 years ago

I agree with all of this Samantha! Engaging with personnel is crucial. It’s part of the culture. Not only do I see benefits from engaging with my own personnel, I engage with none – uk personnel who don’t have a good grasp of english (Polish, Rumanian, Punjabi and Twii) – and they don’t even work for the same company as me! Safety reps on site also did an IOSH course on engagement. As you say; “employees who feel safe, healthy and happy are more productive and enthusiastic and that can only be a positive in terms of ensuring the company… Read more »