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Employee Engagement, Its Impact on EHS, & What To Do About It 

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As 2020 melted into 2021, employment-related numbers started to reveal an interesting story, businesses were facing a major issue: employee engagement. Whirling around in a cyclone of burnout, stalled career growth, heightened risk, and an old-school approach to the next-gen workforce, the all-time high of employee engagement seen in 2019 has declined and helped fuel the Great Resignation. By the time 2022 rolled around, the plot was crystal clear: employees had a new voice, a bargaining chip at the table, and things were never going to be the same at work. Whether supported via the choice of physical workplace location, the culture within an organization, or access to wellbeing, training, & growth opportunities, employers and employees alike have taken the following to heart, 

There are only three measurements that tell you nearly everything you need to know about your organization’s overall performance: employee engagement, customer satisfaction, and cash flow. It goes without saying that no company, small or large, can win over the long run without energized employees who believe in the mission and understand how to achieve it.” - Jack Welch, former CEO of GE 

Great, but how does this translate into the day-to-day tangibles of work, especially in areas focused in the steadfast Environment, Health, and Safety (EHS) programs as well as the burgeoning ESG & Sustainability ones? Below, we will explore the following questions: 

  • What is employee engagement and why does it matter to EHS programs? 
  • What are the benefits and challenges of different workforce engagement levels? 
  • Where are organizations focusing their employee engagement efforts, specifically within EHS? 
  • What drives employee engagement? 
  • What are some strategies for creating an effective EHS Employee Engagement program? 

What is Employee Engagement and Why Does It Matter To EHS 

If you search, “what is an engaged employee” on any major browser, you might find it described as “someone who is emotionally committed to and enthusiastic about their work, and so takes positive action to further the organization’s values, interests, and goals.” By extension, employee engagement in EHS simply describes a workforce where the organization has specific stated values, interests, and goals pertaining to EHS, and where employees understand those goals and are personally invested in helping the business achieve those goals. It’s highly unlikely that you’d be able to find an organization these days that isn’t talking about the importance of employee engagement. 

And that’s because the evidence supporting the link between higher levels of engagement and better EHS and business outcomes is becoming more irrefutable.

Benefits of High Employee Engagement

Organizations with high employee engagement experience less compliance citations, less attrition, and their stock returns are 3x higher than the market average. In fact, recent studies report that it takes a 20% pay raise to poach an engaged employee while it takes next to nothing to entice a disengaged worker to a new company. And when it comes to workplace incidents, businesses ranking in the top quartile of employee engagement report 70% fewer on-the-job injuries and illnesses than those in the bottom quartile.

Impacts of Low Employee Engagement

Low employee engagement can rock the foundation of any business. Studies have shown that disengaged workers are on average 40% more likely to miss work, 60% more likely to make errors that impact product quality, and 50% more likely to be injured on the job1. Moreover, a disengaged employee is a reflection to customers, vendors, and other stakeholders of what’s going on inside an organization. As Timothy R. Clark, author of The Employee Engagement Mindset, simply puts it, “Highly engaged employees make the customer experience. Disengaged employees break it.

What is the Current State of Employee Engagement in EHS?

Despite its importance, organizations have not seemed to crack the engagement code. Multiple studies in recent years paint a grim picture for organizations. Only 32% of US adults self-identify as “engaged at work”, despite employers collectively investing more than $720 million per year on employee engagement initiatives. Similarly, while 72% of employers report that employee engagement in EHS is a top priority, more than 68% report that the actual level of engagement in their workplaces is no better than moderate8.  

This begs a few questions. Firstly, are organizations focused on the right things that actually boost employee engagement? If not, what should they be focused on? 

In a recent poll conducted by Cority, participants were asked, “What are the biggest barriers your organization is facing with respect to employee engagement in EHS?” The top 3 answers tell an interesting story: 70% of participants cited a lack of understanding of the motivations for engagement, 64% identified time constraints, and 54% reported a lack of senior leadership commitment in engagement activities. It follows that if you don’t understand the basic elements of human motivation, and what motivates your team, it’s exceedingly difficult get senior leadership to commit time and resources toward employee engagement initiatives. 

Recent poll results conducted by Cority: What are the biggest barriers your organization is facing with respect to employee engagement?
Recent poll conducted by Cority on “What are the biggest barriers your organization is facing with respect to employee engagement in EHS?” The top 3 answers – 70% lack of understanding re: moticators, 64% identified time constraints, and 54% reported a lack of senior leadership commitment.

Employee Engagement Is All About Drive.

Let’s return to our first question: Are we focused on the right things to boost employee engagement in EHS? 

In the book, “Drive” author Daniel Pink posits that to build strong engagement in any discipline or endeavor, organizations need only to focus on 3 principles: Purpose, Mastery, and Autonomy. 

Purpose: Understanding Why The Things We do Matter

Most people want their work to have meaning – to know that they are actively contributing to something larger than themselves. According to Pink, it’s not only the organization’s responsibility to set a vision for employees to aspire to, but to show workers how they contribute to the business reaching its goals and achieving its vision through their everyday responsibilities and tasks. 

Once that vision is shared, and employees understand what they are supposed to do, they go out and fulfill those responsibilities. 

It’s then the organization’s role to create feedback loops that serve 2 key purposes:  

  1. Provide a medium for managers to offer performance feedback, letting the employees know how they are doing in meeting their responsibilities, its impact on those larger goals, and how they can continuously improve.
  2. Offer employees the opportunity to share information with management about challenges, barriers, errors, etc., – anything that’s getting in their way, so that the company can help remove those obstacles that are impeding the employees from fulfilling their duties.

Mastery: Getting Better at the Things that Matter

For employees to effectively support the organization’s vision and goals, they must develop the competencies and skills needed to fulfil their tasks and responsibilities. In essence, Mastery is about providing employees with the chance to “grow and develop”, through opportunities to leverage and apply skills in their work. 

Autonomy: Allowing Employees to Make Decisions and Take Action 

Autonomy is about giving people the freedom to make decisions and take action in the way they see best fit to fulfill their responsibilities and advance the purpose of the company. 

It’s really where purpose and mastery intersect – that people know what they need to do, that they have the skills and ability to do it, and then they are given the autonomy to figure out how best to do it. Autonomy is critical because it works hand-in-hand with accountability.   

Applying Purpose, Mastery, & Autonomy to Build Employee Engagement in EHS

Employees need to feel like they matter, that there is a purpose to what they are doing, that they have mastery of the skills to do it, and the autonomy to make decisions about their work within the expected scope of their position. How can organizations apply the ideas of Purpose, Mastery & Autonomy to EHS employee engagement? 

Employee Purpose in EHS Programs

Purpose starts with an organization setting its vision, establishing goals and objectives in support of that vision, and socializing that vision to the workforce. Most companies do this already for EHS, by developing and publishing their EHS policies and targets. And with interest in ESG growing, more organizations are beginning to develop their sustainability agenda and goals. 

After developing the vision, leadership and managers need to show employees how what they do (every day) supports that vision. Unfortunately, for many businesses, this step is often forgotten. While companies often leverage formal training to communicate the connection between tasks and vision, outlining how everyday work aligns to vision via the job description is a simple change that supports purpose. 

Feedback loops are also of utmost importance, both top-down, bottom-up, and lateral within the organization. From an EHS perspective, this might involve: 

  • Management giving direct feedback and/or sharing EHS information in employee meetings 
  • Posting/sharing EHS results and metrics, etc. 
  • Workers sharing ideas and concerns to management via incident reporting 
  • Employee meetings 
  • Sharing lessons learned with peers 

 

The simple motion of feedback loops coupled with the establishment of shared goals, which are easily tracked, ensures a collective understanding of the direction and performance of EHS programs. Add in accessible mobility, addressing both barriers to communication and ease of use, and BI and analytics features, and purpose is now well within grasp of more employees. 

Employee Mastery in EHS Programs

Mastery is about supporting employees to grow their skills and understanding of the things that matter. In other words, developing the skills and competencies needed to get better at meeting the EHS responsibilities. Providing opportunities for EHS training is critical to building mastery (research by eLearningindustry.com shows eLearning content boosts knowledge retention by up to 60 percent) and is a foundational element in both the employee’s and organization’s growth. 

Give employees the chance to job-shadow or access to performance coaching that provides opportunities to regularly apply and refine the skills they’ve learned. In addition to more traditional coursework training, give workers opportunities to participate in different projects or events that will give them new skills and/or allow them to apply and refine skills and knowledge they’ve already acquired. 

Employee Autonomy in EHS Programs

To build the autonomy that helps drive EHS engagement, look for opportunities for employees to make decisions and take action at their discretion and also provide avenues to feel ‘heard’, proactively identify areas of opportunity, or propose innovations and new/better ways to completing EHS tasks or managing risks. This might involve: 

  • Supporting employees in making informed decisions on managing risk in the field, through tools like risk assessments and post-task learning reviews
  • Opportunities for employees to explore and initiate employee-led improvement projects, like implementing an employee-led recycling program or sustainability initiative. 

In Closing: 5 Takeaways for Creating an Effective EHS Employee Engagement Program 

Engaged employees stick around, they are more productive and less prone to incidents. Moreover, employees are 6X more likely to be engaged with a strong sense of belonging that is supported by the trifecta of purpose, mastery, and autonomy. So, back to our line of questions around improving employee engagement, “what should we focus on?” To that, we offer the following 5 takeaways:  

  1. Set & Communicate the Vision – Explain how specific activities impact goals and create feedback channels in the form of KPIs, recognition, reports, and retrospectives 
  2. Empower everyone – Provide the right data to the right people at the right time to make thoughtful decisions and as a result giving workers ownership for managing their programs and specifically, their EHS risks 
  3. Activate Employees – Make engagement, a sense of belonging, and meaningful work a part of your culture so that employees are both inspired and know how to get involved 
  4. Learning & Development – Provide growth through learning for your workforce, tailor learning paths to individual employee needs, and lean on lessons from experts who have walked in your shoes 
  5. Get the right technology – Use technology that is easily accessible (e.g. it’s mobile and cloud-based) to manage and transfer data to the right people anywhere they work 

 

Increasing employee engagement is critical to the success of the organization, but with the right strategy, tools, and expertise in place, it does not need to be daunting. 

Dive deeper into employee engagement and download our eBook, “Light the Fire Within: How to Build Stronger Employee Engagement for Safety 

 

Sources 

  1. Fabius, R., et al. 2013. The link between workforce health and safety and the health of the bottom line. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. 55(9): 993-1000
  2. Source: EHS Daily Advisor (2013)