Although news of major layoffs and high unemployment rates has tapered off as the economy has recovered from the 2008 recession, there are still some residual reminders of those dark days. One of the most significant is the feeling of most Americans (63 percent) that overall job security has declined since the late 1980’s, and that the likelihood of losing a job at some point during your career is fairly high. At the same time, most individuals (88 percent) feel relatively secure in their current positions, albeit with the understanding that things can change at any time, and they could be out of a job. And of course, there are those who feel as if they are in danger of losing their jobs soon, whether due to performance issues or factors that are out of their control.
Job insecurity affects both individuals and businesses alike. Not knowing whether you’ll be employed or not a few weeks or months down the road is stressful, and that stress can in turn affect performance and overall productivity. What many don’t realize, though, is that workplace safety is also at risk when employees fear unemployment.
Stress and Safety
When most of us think about workplace safety, we tend to focus on physical safety measures, such as wearing protective gear, fall prevention, following proper procedures, etc. Yet workplace safety also refers to the mental health of employees, and the effects that stress can have on their ability to work. Simply put, stressed employees, including those who are worried about job security, tend to put safety on the back burner, sacrificing safety in favor of productivity.
At least that was one finding in a study by University of Washington Psychology Professor Tahira M. Probst. According to Professor Probst’s 2013 research, when employees suspect they are about to be laid off, regardless of the legitimacy of those fears, they tend to pay less attention to workplace safety. Stress often leads to distraction, as well as sleep disturbances, which, when combined with the desire to work harder and be as productive as possible to avoid getting a pink slip, can increase the likelihood of an accident or injury. Further compounding the problem, Professor Probst noted, is the fact that employees who are involved in a workplace safety incident are less likely to report the incident for fear of retaliation. Therefore, accidents tend to be underreported when employees feel threatened, and potentially dangerous situations go uncorrected.
Professor Probst’s findings are supported by other research. Texas A&M Management Professor Wendy Boswell published a study in the journal Personnel Psychology that revealed the effects of job insecurity on employee’s willingness to address their own stress. According to Professor Boswell, who surveyed more than 600 employees of a Texas-based energy company, employees who fear layoffs are less likely to take advantage of support services like employee assistance programs, or even take advantage of the time off that they have earned. Professor Boswell notes that employees fear being seen as less productive or loyal to the company when they seek counseling or take a vacation — and that doing so puts them first in line for the chopping block. That’s almost never the case, but such dedication to one’s employer at the expense of your own health and well-being can be disastrous to workplace safety.
Not only are tired and stressed employees a problem for workplace safety, but the perception of production being more important than everything else can also lead to accidents. When employees feel like their jobs are in danger, that feeling often goes together with an assumption that production is more important than safety and quality. This often leads to employees putting a priority on meeting quotas, rather than working safely.
Ensuring a Safe Workplace
While there’s no doubt of a connection between job insecurity and workplace accidents or unsafe conditions, there is also a connection between employees who feel secure and accident reduction. In an earlier study in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, Professor Tahira Probst reported that employees who feel secure in their positions are more likely to actively seek out safety knowledge and comply with the safety rules of the workplace.
The question, then, is not only how to ensure safety, but also how to create an environment in which employees feel secure in their jobs. Some career counselors and economic experts note that the idea of job security itself is a myth, and that the burden is on employees to continue to build their skills and their network while employed, to create a safety net should they be laid off. That is certainly valid, but occupational health and safety experts also put the onus on employers to foster safe workplaces, and that means helping employees feel secure in their jobs.
To this end, managers should establish a policy of open and honest communication with their teams. One of the most common factors in employees’ insecurity is change; even minor changes can have workers questioning their role in the organization. Managers need to communicate honestly, and often, explaining exactly what they know and when they know it. This doesn’t mean making promises that you cannot keep, but if there are no imminent plan for layoffs, tell people. Otherwise, the likelihood of rumors increases, and breakroom whisperings can have more impact on a team than just about anything. Managers must keep their finger on the pulse of what’s happening among their teams, remembering that perception is reality and even a hint of future layoffs can cause problems.
Employers also need to put a priority on stress management and reduction among employees. Making EAP programs available, as well as other mental health resources, is only the beginning; employees should be encouraged to take advantage of these programs. Create an environment that values work-life balance; presenteeism, in which employees are physically present at work but mentally or emotionally elsewhere, is a serious issue that needs to be addressed. Supporting a balanced approach will help ensure happier employees, as well as increase productivity and improve safety.
Job insecurity is unlikely to disappear any time soon. Changes in the global economic market, advanced technology, and political changes at home and abroad will undoubtedly change the way — and where — we work in the future. However, by understanding the effects that job insecurity can have on employees, and taking steps to alleviate those worries, employers can reduce the likelihood of workplace accidents, thereby saving money and creating a more productive workforce.