Safeguard magazine recently wanted to know more about which values properly embed health and safety in the workplace. They put it to us that “the necessary precondition for genuine worker involvement in health and safety is trust”. Sure, I thought, trust is important. But trust doesn’t appear out of thin air! And sometimes, blind trust can be a barrier to a deeper and more honest workplace culture. Below is my full response.
Trust is a necessary precondition for genuine worker involvement in health and safety, but not the only one. Systems, structures and a supportive environment are needed to promote engagement with working people. Everyone needs to make an active effort to learn the skills of genuine dialogue, and refrain from imposing decisions on an unwilling workforce. These skills cannot be assumed as innate.
Management style is both hugely important for the performance of an organisation and also the most critical factor for how employees’ feel about work. Unfortunately, the value of good management is usually underappreciated in New Zealand organisations. Too many Kiwi managers have undeveloped management skills, and adopt a top-down style derived from an old fashioned concept of the master servant relationship.
This approach has been exacerbated over the past three decades by an intensification of measurement-based systems, leading to micro-management and a reduction in employee discretion and autonomy. New trends, like the use of artificial intelligence to monitor employees’ every keystroke look set to further undermine positive working relationships based on real human interaction.
A controlling management style is bad for business because it saps goodwill and buy in from the workforce. It produces negative psychosocial health outcomes like stress and anxiety. Employers have a responsibility to protect the workforce from harm, including occupational disease caused by excessive stress.
An open management style that is responsive to worker feedback and wellbeing encourages early reporting of small problems before they become serious risks. It’s cheaper and safer to intervene early if there is a physical or social risk in an organisation – but the person who notices it needs to know their point of view is welcome and that they will be taken seriously in order for them to speak up.
The CTU has consistently identified our culture of work and the style of management as a real challenge for New Zealand firms to improve their health and safety record. Health and safety is an inseparable part of the wider workplace culture. Working people report to us brief moments where managers ask them for ideas and try to engage on health and safety, before going back to giving orders. Holding a morning toolbox meeting on health and safety is only going to be effective if open engagement is continued through normal operations in the rest of the day.
Participation needs to be authentic to really work. Some paternalistic management styles may appear kind, but rather than encouraging staff to speak up, managers will only end up hearing what they want to hear. Sometimes it’s better to upset the applecart if it gets to the necessary truth. Staff will engage honestly when they know they can support each other, collectively identify issues and present their honest views constructively.
Management can promote trust and engagement by being open to unionisation and developing a respectful relationship with unionised staff. When staff join together in union it’s an opportunity for management to tap into their workforce’s collective experience to improve the organisation. Accepting that working people should be able to discuss, debate and sometimes even push back without a punitive response is fundamental for a high performing workplace. This is something staff can bring to the table effectively when they work in union. We can only achieve genuine participation when employees feel empowered to speak up.
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