How Increasing Employee Engagement Improves Your Environmental Health and Safety Efforts

EHS team meeting
Using transformational leadership skills as a manager in environmental health and safety has been proven to increase employee engagement and organizational performance.

If you’re an environmental health and safety professional, achieving a high degree of employee engagement can be important for achieving functional excellence. This can also be essential for generating widespread support for your organization’s overall goals.

Most people today highly value the concept of health and safety in the workplace, especially since a safe setting benefits them personally, as well as professionally. But whether your employees actually go the extra step to implement best safety practices on the job on a regular basis may come down to how evolved you are as a leader, according to Richard D. Fulwiler, ScD, CIH, FAIHA, President of Transformational Leadership Associates and retired Director of Health and Safety Worldwide for Procter & Gamble.

Fulwiler and Louis J. DiBerardinis, MS, CIH, CSP, Director of Environment, Health and Safety at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), are co-directors of Management and Leadership Skills for Environmental Health and Safety Professionals at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. This program helps environmental health and safety professionals with a wide range of experiences to build their leadership capacity by finding new ways to better engage their teams in order to improve their organization’s overall performance.

Exploring the Difference between Managers and Leaders in Environmental Health and Safety

Both Fulwiler and DiBerardinis agree that the most effective environmental health and safety professionals share an important trait: the ability to demonstrate that they care about their workers’ well-being, which is essential to gaining their trust. One way they accomplish this tall order is by treating employees as real people—not just as someone who contributes to the company’s bottom line—in order to achieve their genuine buy-in for the organization’s work.

In fact, being able to generate an investment from employees is the mark of a true leader, DiBerardinis says. “Managers do things right, while leaders do the right thing,” he explains, elaborating on this subtle—but important—difference. He points out that the goal of most managers is to focus on the logistics and metrics, while leaders are typically the ones who connect the company’s mission to the well-being of those performing the work, in order to make a more personal connection.

“Good leaders also create trust and credibility where people believe in what they are doing, and in what the organization is doing,” he says. This enables them to evoke an emotional connection in workers that will make them feel more invested in the outcome.

Good leaders create trust and credibility where people believe in what they are doing, and in what the organization is doing.

Deeper Investment Is Tied to Employee Engagement

It’s this investment that can make a huge difference. According to a recent Gallup Poll, only slightly more than 30 percent of respondents are actively engaged in the workplace, leaving 70 percent either not engaged or even worse, dysfunctional. Further, an engaged workforce (where the workers are involved, committed, and enthusiastic about their work) is linked to positive business outcomes, according to the study authors. Previous versions of this poll have also revealed the connection between engagement and safety, Fulwiler says. For instance, engaged workers are more aware of their surroundings and best practices around safety, and are more likely to take steps to protect their co-workers.

Fulwiler points out that all of these benefits speak to the potential that exists. With only about one-third of the workforce currently engaged, this means there are two-thirds who can increase their engagement. It’s this opportunity for improvement that drives his efforts to help health and safety professionals be more proactive.

Why Transformational Leadership Matters in Environmental Health and Safety

“Here’s another way to look at the scenario,” Fulwiler says. “Managers are transactional. They think that you do this for me and I will pay you for that,” he explains. They are focused on how many items are produced, if the work is done on time, and if it is done on budget. “But strong leaders are transformational, looking beyond the logistics to envision the ideal workforce and to inspire workers to help them achieve it,” he says.

Throughout the course of his career, Fulwiler points out that he has seen how powerful generating such engagement can be. No matter what the setting, when you help people be more invested in their work, they respond by putting their “hearts and heads in the game.”  Since engaged workers typically care more about what they are doing and take more pride in their work, this attention to detail will reduce accidents on the job, thus creating a safer and more productive workplace.

“If you are engaged in anything, regardless of what it is, you will be more effective,” he stresses. To this end, he recommends that environmental health and safety workers build on their strong technical aptitude by also adopting some “soft skills” that can help them go from simply managing their workers, or focusing on the bottom line, to being an impactful leader who effectively inspires employees to help achieve the company’s broader strategic vision.

Engaged workers are more aware of their surroundings and best practices around safety, and are more likely to take steps to protect their co-workers.

Five Skills to Improve Your Leadership for Employee Engagement

Here are five skills DiBerardinis and Fulwiler recommend that, when paired with your technical knowledge, can help you be more transformational in your approach to environmental health and safety in any setting, and ultimately improve the engagement of your employees:

  • Listening: This is the most important skill for anyone to have, and it underlies everything else. Good listening involves paying attention to meaning and feelings, not just facts. It also requires demonstrating empathy.
  • Communicating: Effective communication requires finding a common language to share your messages so they will resonate. Also, make sure communication is a two-way street, so employees will feel safe engaging in a dialogue with you. Communication skills are also important for negotiating and resolving conflicts.
  • Caring: Demonstrate your genuine concern for others. Be open to their needs and concerns and make sure these elements factor into your efforts.
  • Collegiality: Treat everyone equally regardless of their role in the company hierarchy. Be approachable and relatable so everyone feels comfortable.
  • Engaging: Find a way to connect personally with your co-workers, and demonstrate how their needs fit within your organization’s broader goals. By finding common ground, you can motivate them in new ways and demonstrate how their contribution is a meaningful part of the bigger picture.

By developing transformational leadership skills to supplement your technical knowledge, you can ultimately make a stronger connection with your employees; and this can go a long way toward helping your workplace achieve health and safety excellence.

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health offers Management and Leadership Skills for Environmental Health and Safety Professionals, an  program designed to Enhance EHS management and leadership skills for team guidance, decision-making, stakeholder engagement, and driving change.