During a lunch hour at a safety conference, I overheard a group of attendees discussing the importance of worker morale in managing safety results by reducing accidents, injuries, and losses. There is no question in my mind that employee morale does, in fact, play a role in assisting an organization in achieving good-to-outstanding safety results among all the other key performance management metrics.
The interesting question is just how does a company define employee morale and measure it so as to get the appropriate people working on enhancing it, and what role can the safety practitioner play to that end?
Morale and Safety
Workplaces with appropriate, active, and visible "safety leadership" generally tend to have fewer accidents, injuries, and losses. Such workplaces are often rated by workers as preferred places to work. Fewer accidents and injuries tend to create a workforce with higher job satisfaction. All things being equal, higher job satisfaction generally tends to improve the work climate and is just as important as hazard reduction in controlling workers compensation claims. The workers with greater job satisfaction are more productive, involved, and supportive of organizational goals, as well as have lower absenteeism and are less likely to change jobs. Conversely, poor safety management to some extent can negatively influence worker morale.
Superior safety performance reduces workers compensation costs, which in turn improves a company's bottom line. Higher employee job satisfaction and improved morale enhance productivity, efficiency, and business value. When the workforce feels able to trust management and other employees, the organization is seen as a good place to work. When the workforce perceives the work climate as being repressive or unfair, negative feelings about the organization can arise. This invariably leads to higher turnover as well as making it difficult to recruit and keep competent people. All of this is especially true of "high-risk" industries, which include construction.
The parts of the conversation I overheard had some good understanding as well as some not-so-good understanding of morale. There were also some good ideas and some not-so-good ideas about how to go about accomplishing this with the workforce. This lack of clarity and specificity is rather common in safety because some people try to use tools and techniques that seem to work in other situations but not be quite "right" for application or use in situations involving safety and its management.
What exactly is morale? Various sources define or describe it as the emotions, attitude, satisfaction, and overall outlook of employees during their time in a workplace environment. It also refers to the enthusiasm, discipline, emotional, or mental condition with respect to cheerfulness, confidence, zeal, etc., especially when able to solve problems, gain knowledge, and accomplish goals. There are many definitions for morale, one of the better ones is: "Morale is the extent and degree to which an employee exhibits a positive or motivated mental state. It can manifest itself in the exhibiting of pride in the organization, its values, vision, goals, and a sense of shared purpose. Having faith in its leadership with, and loyalty to, others in the organization."
Employees who are happy and positive at work are said to have positive or high employee morale. Morale is the outcome of employee satisfaction. Employees become satisfied with their jobs for a number of interlinked elements that are organizational factors, work environment, and setting, as well as job factors.
Workers get paid a fair wage with reasonable benefits.
They feel secure in their job.
The organization's values are similar to the employee's values.
The work environment is positive, fair, and rewarding.
They have a constructive and trusting relationship with their supervisor.
They feel accepted by their coworkers.
There is open and constructive communication.
They are empowered, enabled, and supported in meeting expectations.
The work is interesting and challenging, and performance goals are reasonable.
They are treated equitably and fairly.
They are appreciated and valued.
There is potential for growth and advancement.
Except for the organizational factors, the employee's immediate supervisors have a considerable impact over virtually all of the other factors listed. So, organizations need to enlighten supervisors to all the means and methods under their control with which to affect worker job satisfaction, thereby increasing their morale. This will lead to higher productivity, greater work output, better quality, and improved safety.
Employees may exhibit satisfaction or dissatisfaction with their job, their supervisor, or the organization as a whole. Employees have a general expectation of certain aspects concerning their employment. For greater detail in this area, see the research done by Frederick Herzberg and the two-factor theory. Employees expect a fair wage reflective of their efforts, reasonable benefits, a safe work environment, and to be treated equitably. This falls within the purview of the organization.
If these minimum elements are not present, then they will become dissatisfied and probably will change jobs when other opportunities arise. If these minimum elements are present (provided by the organization), then they will be neither satisfied nor dissatisfied, as they expect this as compensation for their efforts. For employees to become satisfied, they need to feel appreciated, respected, trusted, empowered, and recognized and be given opportunities for growth and promotion. These are primarily controlled by the supervisor and are a function of that person's leadership style as well as in their interaction and treatment of the employee.
Obviously, employee morale is germane to a great number of organizational functions as well as outcomes. That being the case, then the important question is how does an organization go about achieving high levels of employee morale so as to reap the benefits of outstanding operational as well as organizational performance? Unfortunately, many organizations seem to have a knack of somehow demoralizing and demotivating their employees (see research done by Dr. David Sirota and the Three Factor Theory of Motivation).
The research conducted by Dr. Sirota involved over 4 million workers. He found that virtually every newly hired worker started off with high motivation and good morale. But generally, organizations unwittingly over time demotivate and demoralize them. This can be due to inherent dysfunctions brought on by misaligned policies, procedures, and practices that create complexity, dysfunction, barriers, and confusion in the work environment. Some of the demotivating factors include the following.
The organization should focus on what they think is important and ignore what may be important to the employee.
The supervisor's leadership style may not be acceptable.
The supervisor is perceived as untrustworthy, inconsiderate, unfair, etc.
There may be a lack of support, inadequate information or resources, and unrealistic goals.
The supervisor plays an incredibly important role in creating a positive work environment. Devise an enabling, trusting, and constructive relationship to enhance the building of employee morale. The supervisor must be supportive and provide coaching, as well as facilitating the achievement of the employee's goals in concert with appreciation and recognition. Such a work environment will lead the workforce to feel good about their accomplishment of goals, leading to greater engagement and job satisfaction.
Morale Improvement Factors
To effectively and holistically address employee morale, one has to look at the various aspects that have an effect on it. These then become the basis for an organization-wide improvement initiative. The key aspects involve the following.
The organizational factors
This deals with the effect the organizational culture has on the employee's expected actions and behavior while working there. This includes such things as values, norms, beliefs, etc. that set the ambiance of the work environment.
The basic recompense that the employee expects to receive from the organization for their performance and efforts.
The management factors
This represents the policies, practices, and procedures devised by management to direct and control the action and performance of the employee's day-to-day activities.
These shape the employee's perceived boundaries on their ability to excel in their jobs, achieve goals, aspirations, growth, and their career outcomes.
The supervision factors—these probably are the ones that have the greatest effect on the employee's actions, behavior, and outcomes. This includes both the human and administrative aspects of the relationship.
The areas of supervisory impact on the employee's work environment include a trusting relationship, honest and open communication, mentorship, friendly relationships, respect, honest constructive feedback, active listening, empowerment, the giving of some level of autonomy, and acceptance of employee's comments, suggestions, and ideas.
The employee reaction shaped by the supervisor's management style as well as interaction with the other employees will foster a positive perception of the work environment. The employee will feel valued, respected, and good about themselves and will have a positive outlook on their growth opportunities.
The other employees' factors
This includes the interpersonal relationship between the employee and others, how well they get along at work, if there is mutual trust and respect, a willingness to help and/or support each other, etc.
These shape the employee's sense of belonging and acceptance by peers. It also allows the employee to assess the accuracy of their assessment of supervision or the organization at large by sharing information and thoughts.
The job factors
This involves task design as well as demand. These factors represent the basic elements of the work, such as the availability of relevant and timely information, required resources, achievable production goals, sufficient time to be able to safely complete the task, etc.
A match between the task demand and the employee's capabilities is necessary.
There is a link between the supervisor factors and the other employee factors when the employee works as part of a crew or team. In such a situation, the work design and how well the interaction of the crew members fit the performance of the work can potentially cause pressures, conflict, or anxiety relating to the performance of the task or the crew interaction. This can then result in increasing or decreasing an individual worker's morale, leading to deficient performance or potential for errors that may lead to lower quality or an accident.
Morale Improvement Strategy
Research on shaping or affecting morale indicates that the formative issues are varied and complex. Morale is influenced by a number of factors that can influence the employee emotionally as well as cognitively. It is a fact that high job satisfaction is crucial to fostering high morale. Research found that workers with previous positive job experience are inclined to more quickly become satisfied in a new position, and negative past experience will hinder achieving early satisfaction in a new position. Organizations should ensure that supervisors are aware of this factor when dealing with newly hired workers.
The organization's policies, practices, and procedures, as well as management's expectations and actions, can create a culture that is open and friendly or restrictive and forbidding. This then shapes the worksite's characteristics, sets the project tone, and goes a long way toward influencing an employee's overall perception of the workplace.
Another important factor is the organization of the job, including associated tasks, duties, responsibilities, working conditions, and requirements, in order to achieve organizational and individual objectives.
Job design also defines the methods to be used in carrying out the job, relating to techniques, system's processes, and procedures, as well as establishing the relationships that should exist between the jobholder, superior, subordinates, and peers.
Job demand provides information on the necessary skills and competence required to effectively and efficiently perform the task. Ultimately, job demand attempts to create an alignment between the job requirements and available human resource skills, capabilities, and attributes.
The jobs should be designed in such a way so as to motivate employees to execute tasks in the best possible manner. The design of the job has a significant influence on productivity and job satisfaction. Poorly designed jobs often result in decreased productivity and boredom, leading to such negative outcomes as inattention, errors, poor quality, and increased chances of accidents, injuries, and losses.
The most discernible factor influencing employee morale is the day-to-day interaction with their supervisor and the quality of that relationship. The supervisor needs to communicate openly and sympathetically, be attentive, show concern, listen carefully, be friendly, and have an open-door policy. Supervisors utilizing the democratic style of leadership rather than the autocratic one were generally more effective in fostering high morale. Allowing employees to "safely" express their opinion, respectfully taking their input into consideration, and allowing some autonomy in their prosecution of the work went a long way in building job satisfaction. Such a leader-member exchange generated higher production with better quality, increased productivity, reduced work-related risk, and greatly improved morale.
One might ordinarily hear morale-improving suggestions listing such things as showing appreciation, recognizing workers for a job well done, thanking them for utilizing some aspects of some training material provided, or utilizing any of the suggested means or method as garnering worker appreciation or making them more contented with management or their work. These do work to some degree. It is important to understand that if the abovementioned core factors are in play, then the appreciative statement will to some degree increase job satisfaction. But, if the inverse of the above core factors applies, then morale will be low, and the appreciative statements may have a minor effect on improving the low morale. But, in reality, the appreciative statements alone may be interpreted as insincere, making them ineffective and almost useless.
The examples discussed above tend to be more important in fostering job satisfaction, which leads to high morale, than some of the typical interventions, such as providing a lunch cook-off once or twice during the life of the job or handing out dollar bills to one or two workers during a monthly site tour. Morale building factors should be perceived as genuine, meaningful, and given soon after noteworthy achievements.
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