‘Quiet Quitting’ Makes Workplace Safety Even More Difficult
The latest trend in employee disengagement is quiet quitting, which is the currently popular way of describing an employee who does the bare minimum to get the job done without getting fired. It’s not really a new thing at all—we’ve all known people at work who seem to just get by—the last-to-arrive-and-first-to-leave types. What makes the recent reporting on quiet quitting so troubling, though, is how pervasive this do-the-least-possible attitude has become. According to research firm Gallup, more than 50% of the U.S. workplace consists of quiet quitters—employees who say they are not engaged at work.
And that poses a real problem for anybody whose job is heavily reliant on employee engagement, including safety managers.
“Our role as safety professionals isn’t to enforce the rules,” noted Steven Perkins, business unit safety director with consulting firm ERM, at the recent National Safety Council (NSC) Congress & Expo in San Diego. “It’s to drive and influence the behaviors of our workers. It’s not just about getting your workers to act differently. You have to get them to think differently.”
Easier said than done, unfortunately, because the quiet quitting coincides with another troubling trend: employee burnout. According to a study from management consulting firm Eagle Hill Consulting, roughly half (49%) of U.S. employees surveyed say they’re burned out from their jobs. Whether the pandemic is to blame or it’s just helped expose the issue, the burnout is largely due to workloads (too heavy) and staff shortages (not enough help). Which again makes a safety manager’s job just that much more difficult—how do you keep all employees safe from harm when they report to work already stressed out and likely to be tuning you out?
There are no easy answers, but when it comes to engaging with workers, Matthew Botzler, Perkins’ co-presenter at the NSC show and regional HSE manager with chemical producer Johnson Matthey, suggests that “a good leader is someone who motivates you to do your best.” Over the years, Botzler and Perkins have asked numerous people to describe what makes a good leader, and responses include: someone who is approachable, supportive, honest, respectful, patient, asks for feedback, cares about me, and somebody who listens.
“You need to focus on listening to your employees to understand what they’re thinking,” Botzler said. “It’s not about what you say, but about what they hear.”
The continuing challenge for safety leaders, however, isn’t just learning how to manage and motivate workers to “think safety”—they also have to get senior management to “think safety” as well. To put it another way, quiet quitting sometimes occurs within management, too.
Consultant Gary Higbee, another speaker at the NSC show, related a conversation he had early in his career as a safety manager at a large global manufacturer: “My factory manager once told me, ‘I do not want to be the best or the worst. I just want our safety performance at this plant to be near the top—say, the third or fourth among the other factories. That way we’ll get less attention.’”
Higbee, quite understandably, was very disappointed. “No striving for excellence. No attempt at being number one. Just keep us under the radar.” Talk about quiet quitting!
But Higbee didn’t give up, and eventually he persuaded that factory manager that safety performance, backed up by reliable data, is a win-win for managers and employees alike. Too many companies are on a treadmill going nowhere when it comes to managing workplace safety, he noted. “Despite all the advances we’ve seen in processes and technology, workplace fatalities are still increasing. We should be doing better—much better. Just doing more of the same things we’ve been doing all along isn’t going to get the job done.”
As Higbee explained, your safety performance isn’t going to improve until you help convince everybody within an organization—C-level executives, senior managers, line managers and workers—that a safe company translates into better decision-making at every level. Don’t let senior managers or frontline employees retreat into a “quiet quitter” mentality when it comes to safety because, as we all know, there are no shortcuts to safety excellence.