IR experts from across industries discuss how safety at work deeply impacts employees’ motivation and productivity.
People spend a large part of their day at their workplaces. In fact, an average person spends 90,000 hours at work over their lifetime. Naturally, with a significant share of one’s precious lifetime being spent at the workplace, safety and wellbeing must be of prime concern to organisations. However, disturbingly, for many organisations, safety remains a mere compliance rather than a prime concern.
One of the sessions at The Happiness Conclave 2.0, held in Mumbai this year was focussed on ‘Tangible Vs Intangible: Safety over Rewards’ where leaders from across industries discussed safety at the workplace as being of utmost importance in keeping the employees motivated and productive. The panel consisted of Ganesh Chandan, CHRO, Greaves Cotton; Ravi Mishra, regional HR head, South Asia and Middle East, Birla Carbon; Mangesh Bhide, technology HR head, Reliance Jio Infocomm; and Arvind Usretay, director–rewards, Willis Towers Watson.
Usretay, who was the moderator, initiated the session with a brief introduction of the panellists and then elaborated on the format of discussion before requesting Chandan to share his opening comments first.
“What bothers me the most is the attitude of the managers and the organisations in dealing with the safety issues at the workplace.”
Chandan said that during his stints at various manufacturing and industrial setups, he had come across many industrial accidents, both fatal and non-fatal. “In such situations, what bothers me the most is the attitude of the managers and the organisations in dealing with the safety issues at the workplace.” He voiced his concern over the fact that most organisations develop systems to deal with the consequences of such instances, instead of putting in place systems to prevent them proactively.
Moreover, the victims in such cases are always people from the bottom of the pyramid, mostly the poor contract labourers. While organisations simply try to hush up matters when it comes to workplace accidents or fatalities, what bothers most is how organisations really view and perceive them; their attitude and reactions towards them really needs to change.
Talking further of physical safety, Chandan elaborated on the aspect of ensuring safety of women at the workplace, especially in organisations that have manufacturing setups in remote locations.
In addition, “There’s also the psychological safety aspect that manifests in many ways. Apart from dealing with harassment at the workplace, there’s case for non-sexual harassment as well,” he said. For instance, not allowing or supporting women to speak freely during meetings is a case of non-sexual harassment, he explained.
Also, during times when there’s increasing focus on high-performance culture as organisations go through ups and downs, and there is an increasing pressure to cut costs or downsize, organisations take random knee-jerk decisions. They fail to consider the consequences the employees may have to face later. Therefore, in many organisations, people are insecure about their job tenure or future in the company.
“Anything that involves human life or endangers it, whether it is a product or a service, needs to be carefully addressed, efficiently practised and ensured day in and day out.”
Providing a new angle to the discussion, Mishra explained how safety and happiness are interrelated. Safety ensures happiness, and happiness—personal or professional— also leads to a safer environment. At times, owing to various pressures and tensions, people take extreme decisions that may impact their lives. Mishra shared a recent incident of an employee in Vellore, who committed suicide just a week before his retirement citing abusive behaviour from peers as the reason. However, it was discovered later that he took the extreme step to ensure that his job gets transferred to his jobless son.
Emphasising the fact that it is important for organisations to know their employees, Mishra said, “Similar to the concept of KYC (Know Your Customer), as part of the HR function, we need to make efforts to know our employees and their state of mind.” He further shared that if train drivers, pilots or other professionals are stressed, they may not be able to perform as desired and in turn may impact both productivity and their own and customers’ safety. That is how, happiness supplements safety and vice versa.
Having shared the concept of KYE (Know Your Employee), Mishra elaborated that if a manager is stressed in his personal life and doesn’t attend well to his duties on the shop floor, the chances of accidents increase further, and hence, it is important that HR tries to understand the pain points of employees making direct connections with them at the workplace.
(L_R: Mangesh Bhude, Ravi Mishra, Ganesh Chandan & Arvind Usretay)
Taking the discussion ahead, Bhide condemned the attack by the Shiv Sena MP on the Air India employee, as he said, “While we are talking about robots working with us are we really considering about the safety of humans themselves as individuals irrespective of gender.”
He then talked about situations all of us may have faced at some point in time in our careers when we felt vulnerable. Raising a voice against such irregularities in the company, he said, “Are we not threatened enough when the manager casually says, ‘we’ll see about it during your appraisal’, ‘you were too vocal in the meeting, let’s have a conversation’, and so on.”
“While we are also talking about working with machines, it cannot be simply about carrying out safety just for the sake of statutory requirements,” Bhide opined.
Talking of the Air India incident again, Usretay shared that there have been a lot of other similar cases at hospitals with doctors being assaulted or abused by outsiders. “Whatever may be the reason to instigate such behaviours, these are unwanted. This brings to light certain things organisations need to be mindful about. It’s not only about employee safety, are employers also responsible for safety of clients and customers?” he asked the panel.
“I have been a part of some post-event investigations and I see it as a cold-blooded murder when a 21-year old contract labourer loses his life in an accident on the shop-floor and managers or top-management shirk it off as a case of human error.”
He then quoted, Emmanuel David, director- Tata Management Training Centre, TMTC. David had shared with Usretay an incident from his experience at British Gas, while he was in Surat, leading the gas distribution for the city. It was a time when the city was heavily flooded. So much so that it could have impacted customers’ safety as there could have been gas leakages due to damage to the pipelines by the flood. However, the employees ensured that they waded through the waters to check the connections ensuring safety of each customer. That spelled the loyalty of a brand and its employees towards ensuring the safety of its customers.
Also, talking of workplace safety standards, Usretay raised a few more questions, “What about the cops on the roads? What kind of workplace safety standards do they experience? What about the safety of inmates in prison?”
“Another way safety manifests is in the products a company produces,” he added. For instance, Usretay shared that the automobile company, Volvo, is so focussed on safety that their website says ‘safety is a science-based religion for them’ and one of the projects called ‘Vision 2020’, which they are currently working on, is to eliminate all kinds of deaths in their cars in the next five years. The same level of commitment to ensuring safety exists for their employees as well, at the workplace.
Usretay asked Bhide about safety measures for their employees and whether it’s an afterthought or a reactive response. In a simple yet strong response Bhide said “Anything that involves human life or endangers it, whether it is a product or a service, needs to be carefully addressed, efficiently practised and ensured day in and day out.”
Usretay then asked Mishra, “How can organisations ensure that safety manuals don’t remain merely manuals, but become living documents?”
Mishra said, “Even in the current times, safety in most organisations is simply a compliance activity with mock drills, and so on, played out but not followed truthfully.” Sharing his thoughts on factory accidents or deaths, he said, “I have been a part of some post-event investigations and I see it as a cold-blooded murder when a 21-year old contract labourer loses his life in an accident on the shop-floor and managers or top-management shirk it off as a case of human error.”
“Volvo, is so focussed on safety that their website says ‘safety is a science-based religion for them’ and one of the projects called ‘Vision 2020’, which they are currently working on, is to eliminate all kinds of deaths in their cars in the next five years. The same level of commitment to ensuring safety exists for their employees as well, at the workplace.”
Mishra stated that the only way to prevent such cases begins at the top-management, with their conviction to not let such things happen at the workplace. “Until the top management believes in doing so, and takes strict measures, such as firing the responsible managers after an incident, things will not change,” he said.
Further, sharing the example of common business practices, such as pizza delivery in 30 minutes, Mishra explained that this is a case of missing out on employee perspective and scapegoating them with impractical targets or objectives, in turn risking their safety. “Such practices are also leading to corporate cowboy-hood that is now sponsored and celebrated in organisations. Whoever delivers results by hook or crook, irrespective of conduct or morality, will be appraised. Such a value system will not help in the longer run,” added Bhide.
Chandan went on to say that, “However unfortunate it may be, the bitter truth is that we in India really don’t value human life. Even in cases of street accidents, we are all in so much of a hurry to reach our destinations that, we don’t even bother to look, let alone help.”
Similarly, in organisations, he shared that there is a kind of caste system that persists. They value employees at a senior level, while on the other hand, even if 10 contract labourers die, the organisation is more likely to be worried about only the process clearance rather than visiting the casualty’s family. On the other hand, in the case of senior employees, the organisation is likely to make every effort to ensure that the patients and the families are comfortable.
Furthermore, the panel agreed that owing to a high-performing culture, organisations turn a blind eye towards irregularities in people, who may be achieving targets. They do not have the guts to say that they are ready to lose their best revenue-earning manager on the grounds of unacceptable behaviour.
According to Chandan, just as there are stipulated behaviours that could define sexual harassment at the workplace, organisations should list out other kinds of unacceptable behaviours that can make people suffer at work.
“The day you are able to value every single human life in the organisation; implement all the physical safety measures in its true spirit; and take a tough stand differentiating good behaviour and bad behaviour, you will be able to make workplaces safer in the true sense,” concluded Chandan.