HR: stop idealising safety cultures & start designing safety experiences

HR: stop idealising safety cultures & start designing safety experiences

In future-focused organisations, people and culture leaders are beginning to play a more active role in delivering safety outcomes, according to Jen Jackson, who says this change involves a significant shift from the way many businesses currently approach the concept of safety culture

It’s a familiar sight: a boardroom filled with well-intentioned senior leaders fixated on a powerpoint presentation; red, amber and green painting a very clear picture. For all the systems and processes, the training and messaging – injuries are occurring. For all the good intentions – it’s obvious there’s a safety problem. The typical solution at many organisations is to implement a safety culture program. And it’s no wonder.

For decades culture was seen as a differentiator of high-performing organisations; the fix for all manner of issues, from engagement to performance. It’s a reasonable assumption that safety could also be improved by taking a cultural approach.

Yet the problem with the notion of a safety culture lies in the language. By labeling it this way, we identify it as unique. It’s not a cultural problem, it’s a safety culture problem – as if the two were entirely separate.

The organisation’s vision, mission and values shape employee behaviours and build cultural foundations. Introducing another cultural entity only adds a layer of complexity and confusion; a new set of values and behaviours, with additional communication to help people understand them. The result tends to be an incongruent clash of behaviours, rules, values, messaging and catch cries.

Fundamentally, though, safety is no different to any other aspect of work. Whether it’s onboarding, performance, learning and development, or wellness – safety is simply another experience; and an integral part of the overall employee experience.

Far from existing in isolation, safety metrics are directly linked to business metrics. In addition to an obvious correlation with productivity, sick pay and compensation costs, it also impacts aspects of people and culture, including absenteeism, presenteeism, turnover and retention, attraction, team morale and employer brand.

“People and culture professionals are ideal candidates to contribute towards a better safety experience”

New Zealand’s Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment cites safety programs as a catalyst for better collaboration between frontline and upper management. And a study by Medibank Private found the healthiest employees in the sample were three times more productive than the least healthy.

A meta-evaluation conducted by Larry Chapman found workplace health and wellbeing programs decrease absenteeism by an average of 25.3 per cent, workers compensation costs by 40.7 per cent, disability management costs by 24.2 per cent, and saves $5.81 for every $1 invested in employee health and wellbeing.

Environment, health and safety even contributes to a strong employer brand. In a discussion about a poor corporate social responsibility image (including workplace health and safety), former CEO of BHP Billiton Chris Goodyear stated: “there is no doubt our profitability would be hampered and shareholder value destroyed… It’s a powerful competitive differentiator. It has the potential to establish us as the company of choice, giving us better access to markets, natural resources and the best and brightest employees.”

The shift toward integrated employee experiences
The past few years have seen a shift in focus from culture to experiences. A recent global study by Deloitte University Press found almost 80 per cent of executives rated employee experience as important or very important. This parallels a rise in the number of People and Culture departments rebranding as Employee Experience.

Increasingly, culture, along with other lagging indicators, is being seen as an outcome-driven by antecedents and behaviours. And just as the value of a great customer or user experience is well-proven, new research is revealing the benefits of a great employee experience.

It’s a logical transition. Humans are experiential, living life as a series of moments, perceived positively, negatively or neutrally, and merged together to create memories and narratives. In this way, the employee experience is the story people recall and retell about their day, week, month, year and career.

“The safety experience should be built on the values of the organisation, evolving them where necessary, rather than creating an entirely new set of safety-specific values”

Increasingly, organisations are working towards delivering coherent experiences through all stages of the employee lifecycle – a focus that brings together multiple functions (in this case, safety and people and culture).

Like any other workplace experience, by mapping the various touchpoints and interactions – the moments that matter – we gain an understanding of how people experience safety day-to-day. By improving key moments, removing friction and increasing engagement, safety becomes an integral part of the way people work, where everyone takes responsibility for their own and others’ wellbeing.

The importance of human
People and culture professionals are ideal candidates to contribute towards a better safety experience. Not only are they in a position to act as a catalyst for collaboration between safety and senior leaders, they’re also able to leverage comprehensive knowledge of employees and existing cultural elements.

The safety experience should be built on the values of the organisation, evolving them where necessary, rather than creating an entirely new set of safety-specific values.

Communication is also crucial, and benefits from cross-functional contribution. Rather than sporadic, reactive, safety-specific messaging following an incident or event, safety should be woven into regular communication.

Like any effective communication, messaging should consider people’s inherent preferences. These include using narratives to increase connection, emotions as a catalyst for behaviour change, and curiosity to inspire active learning. Complex systems and processes should be simplified and visualised to reduce cognitive load and increase comprehension.

By shifting from a culture-based approach to an experience-led solution, people and culture plays a valuable role in improving safety, while also shaping a better employee experience.

Image source: Depositphotos