Who is responsible for employee health? What are the health effects of flexible working environments? How do companies develop a culture of health awareness?
HR representatives from a range of organisations and fields, businesspeople and health representatives came together at a SYNNECTA round table on March, 30 2017 in order to discuss these and related questions. The location was ideal: the Tajet Garden yoga centre in Cologne provided the perfect atmosphere as well as healthy food, and our positive mood was further boosted by the fine weather.
The danger of self-exploitation
In times of increasing digitalization, flexibilization and agility, managers have less direct influence. Employees need to engage in more self-management. The fear that reduced manager control would result in employees working less proved unfounded. In fact, the opposite is the case. Flexible work places and work times appear to be a motivation for employees to work even more and to ignore their own limits (of resilience and capacity). Hence we are seeing a rising number of cases of mental illness and exhaustion syndrome.
We need new skills
Employees in agile structures need to have new skills that enable them to self-manage whilst remaining aware of their health. In order to take on responsibility, employees need to be informed about health and about the correlations between body, spirit and soul. Working environments without limits require that employees are able to set their own limits. This includes staking out boundaries in the face of demands that are conducive to illness. It is increasingly important to be able to approach lack of clarity, contradictions, critical pressure situations and stress in a constructive manner. »Resilience« is a key skill in a VUCA environment.
This new health skill needs to be developed together now. The organizational conditions offered by a business have to enable flexibility and agility as much as health orientation. Employees can provide input and feedback to enhance this aspect of culture.
The significance of the organisation
Companies can enable health-oriented behaviour among their employees. Doing so involves the transfer of knowledge and information by a range of means, such as, .e.g, training sessions and lectures as well as digital channels (blended learning is gaining ground). Even management that takes a less active role can still motivate employees to act in a manner that does justice to their health, encouraging newly acquired behaviours in daily work routines.
Corporate culture has to go beyond merely permitting »healthy living«, it needs to foster it. We are currently seeing especially positive experiences being made in those teams that integrate new modes of behaviour into their work routines communally. One example are the customer support teams of an insurance group and of an energy supplier. The teams jointly decided on and introduced team rituals. In both cases, the number of incapacity days dropped and the atmosphere at work improved as a result.
Thoughts and ways to an improved organisational safety culture
How can one create and, most importantly, durably establish a successful HSE Culture (health, safety, environment), based on mutual care?
The majority of established HSE Systems use external motivational factors to raise safety related awareness. Employees are influenced »from the outside« thanks to a wide panel of methods such as safety instructions, various protections and safeguards, process briefings, »almost accident announcements«, informational posters and site inspections. Of course, all these measures are invaluable and necessary to ensure a safe working environment. However, implicitly, these measures can provide employees with an exaggerated sense of safety, to the extent that they can forget to take into account the small, but non-negligible, remaining risk factors in their everyday work routine.
An improved, work safety culture is one encouraging initiative regarding safety regulations. Work Safety 2.0. would therefore no longer be the responsibility of management only, but rather all employees. Everyone would continuously and systematically concern themselves with their and others’ safety, as naturally as they would care for their daily personal hygiene.
The path to such a culture goes through an increased sense of individual responsibility and a more self evident relationship to safety.
Individual responsibility is the willingness to vouch for one’s own actions, as well as their consequences, otherwise known as responsibility ethics. The foundation of this concept is the conviction that free, adult humans are responsible beings that are able to show maturity, think and act autonomously, as well as follow instructions. Disposition for personal responsibility involves an individual readiness to take on situations and assignments, an easier feat when employees enjoy the tasks they are given. Therefore, sense endowing work safety measures do not solely involve warnings, appeals and shocking images. We also need a safety culture in which employees are continuously encouraged and valued for their individual efforts regarding safety. The usual »Good job!« won’t suffice here. Close attention needs to be given to small successes and improvements as well.
The majority of onsite accidents are not caused by new recruits, but usually by the most experienced workers. When routine decreases concentration, and when new processes interfere with well-implemented habits, accidents occur. These changes are often noticed by the less experienced employees, but not openly addressed, since they believe the experienced colleague should be »the one who knows best«.
What we therefore need to do:
- Abstain from the »look-away« culture, especially in regards to the more experienced employees (»experts«)
- Open up the current corporate communication culture to create enough space for feedback and welcome questioning
- Listen to the different opinions and perspectives there might be on the topic of corporate safety, in order to approach this complex matter with as many elements as possible, and find alternatives to unsafe behaviour.
- Change from an external to an internal motivation, in which employees themselves act as the drivers of corporate safety, rather than only relying on external directions and guidelines.
This increased care and awareness will not only raise corporate safety to a new level, it will also support other company related themes, such as quality and improvement measures.
The experiences gained from these measures could be put together during projects with the leading companies in terms of corporate safety. Being at the highest safety levels already, they cannot improve the safety conditions by merely copying existing mechanisms, but need tailored solutions to trigger new impulses.