Future Focus: Feeling Safe

By Jennifer Schramm May 1, 2004
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May 2004 HR MagazineHR will have to consider the implications of employees' heightend concern for feeling safe at work.

The latest research by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) on job satisfaction shows a major, unexpected increase among employees in the importance of “feeling safe at work.”

Although feeling safe was not a leading concern for workers surveyed two years ago, it’s now at or near the top of the list for employees in almost every demographic and industry category, according to the results of the 2004 SHRM Job Satisfaction Survey. It is the No. 1 issue for women, and for older workers it is tied for first place with concern about benefits. Overall, feeling safe at work was ranked as a “very important factor” in job satisfaction by 62 percent of all employees surveyed this year, up from around 36 percent in 2002.

The surge in the importance of feeling safe at work stands out because the principal issues regarding job satisfaction generally change little from survey to survey—moving up or down one or two notches in the rankings but not spiking in just two years. The most important issues generally include job security, benefits, work/life balance, compensation, and communication with senior management and supervisors.

Reasons for the increased importance of feeling safe are difficult to pinpoint, so it’s not easy to estimate how critical this issue will be in relation to job satisfaction in the future. If the increases are tied to terrorism and prospects of terror attacks, it would seem that concerns about feeling safe would have spiked soon after Sept. 11, 2001, rather than a couple of years later. On the other hand, news coverage of security alerts at home and ongoing conflicts and terrorist attacks abroad could have had a cumulative effect on the level of concern.

Examining the latest survey’s results according to business sectors shows that safety concerns have become much more important in educational services, manufacturing and transportation. While concern about safety in transportation is understandable, the other two sectors would not appear to be targets for terrorists.

Even if employees’ increased safety concerns are related more to issues such as workplace violence and accidents, the reasons for the sharp increase still remain unclear. Possibly some employees think their employers have reduced investment in safety as a way to cut costs during the economic downturn. Or perhaps, in an atmosphere of increased news media coverage of safety and security issues, workers may have raised their expectations of the steps their employers should be taking to promote workplace safety.

And with fewer workers doing more work, there may be some perceived safety implications, particularly in sectors such as transportation and manufacturing, where fatigue-related accidents are most dangerous.

Although workplace safety jumped in importance for employees, it didn’t do the same among HR professionals responding to the survey. HR respondents said they thought feeling safe at work was only slightly more important as a job satisfaction factor this year than it was two years ago, and they thought it was low in employees’ ranking of their priorities.

Such findings suggest that HR practitioners will need to re-evaluate the strategic importance they place on workplace safety because it is shaping up to be one of the most important factors in employees’ job satisfaction. And as a result, it will be important for recruitment and retention strategies overall.

Jennifer Schramm is manager of the Workplace Trends and Forecasting program at SHRM.

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