Elevating Employee Wellbeing

This is a guest post from our partner Georgia Tech Professional Education (GTPE).

SHES team photo

Prioritizing empathy and communication will help you connect to the needs and perspectives of your workforce.

About three years after the onset of Covid-19, the pandemic’s far-reaching effects continue to alter the way we approach work. Almost overnight, Covid changed the way both employees and employers view work, and as a result, new needs and expectations for employee well-being emerged. For companies striving for stability amidst an uncertain economy and historically low unemployment, ensuring employee well-being is a critical necessity.

“Getting and keeping employees could be more difficult for companies, as there is no surge of applicants coming to the rescue,” says Paul Todd, group manager for operational excellence at Georgia Tech’s Georgia Manufacturing Extension Partnership. “Demographic trends and immigration policies combined with robust manufacturing growth will continue to put a premium on good people. To attract and retain those people, the successful employer must be the preferred choice in terms of culture, opportunity, compensation, and benefits.”

Understanding Your Workforce

To care for employees well, it’s important for organizations to understand and empathize with their individual feelings, needs, and perspectives.

“Over the past few years, people have experienced change in varying levels on a variety of different fronts. From Covid, to financial, health, and societal, everything has changed,” explains Hilarie Warren, director of Georgia Tech’s OSHA Training Institute.

“The lens that we need to look through when considering how people can arrive at work and give their best centers around knowing we’re not all the same.”

Covid-19 added a layer of complexity to workplace safety while also introducing a mass increase of remote work into the equation. With 66% of the U.S. workforce utilizing remote work at least part of the time, employers have to consider a new range of questions for workplace health and satisfaction, while remembering that everyone has a unique set of preferences and needs.

To think inclusively, proactivity is key. By frequently asking for employee feedback, companies can adjust to meet employee expectations before they rise to a breaking point.

“In today’s workplace environment, the ability to give and receive feedback is key to interpersonal and organizational effectiveness,” says LaTrese Ferguson, director of Workplace Learning and Professional Development at Georgia Tech Professional Education (GTPE). Doing this is not only an effective workplace best practice but also contributes to employee well-being in itself by demonstrating that employee voices are being heard.

In order for this to happen successfully, however, organizations are required to cultivate conditions of psychological safety.

“In a psychologically safe environment community members feel comfortable speaking up and bringing their whole selves to work without fear of judgment or punishment,” says Ferguson.

“People are encouraged to ask questions, provide disconfirming information, and offer innovative ideas without fear of negative consequences. Organizations have to make this a priority and take deliberate actions to cultivate this way of being into the day-to-day practices of the organization.”

Communication in the Future of Work

Creating and reinforcing an inclusive and empathetic culture is the first step to promoting employees’ well-being. With the knowledge that their organization cares about their well-being, employees feel safer and more content in their workplace.

However, particularly in distributed workforces, the successful alignment around goals and priorities depends on clarity. As employee needs have shifted and increased, effective communication is all the more imperative. A recent survey of manufacturing and warehouse employees asked respondents for the most effective ways that employers can improve workplace safety, and three out of the four top recommendations centered on speedy, transparent, comprehensive communication. With ever-advancing technology and noise, however, effective communication requires a thoughtful approach.

“Considering our post-pandemic era, effective communication is more of a challenge now than ever, even with our advanced collaboration tools and technology,” says Chris Carter, academic program director for project management at GTPE.

As experts estimate up to 70% of communication is nonverbal, virtual meetings, email, and chat are simply not enough to build deep, shared understanding.

“While it might not seem modern, embracing in-person, face-to-face communication practices often produces more meaningful results,” says Carter.

When in-person contexts are not an option, such as for large-scale announcements, organizations can still accomplish clarity by meeting their audiences’ expectations for timeliness and content. When communication is a priority, organizations can increase stability, trust, and productivity among employees.

The New Work-Life Balance

Another important aspect of employee well-being is flexibility. After Covid introduced remote work into the workplace, the topic of work-life balance, specifically regarding work location policy, has been thrust center stage. In a 2022 Forbes study, respondents revealed that “work-life balance” was the second most important priority in their jobs, following closely behind financial stability.

There are benefits to both remote work and in-office work, and employees have different opinions on which is better. A survey by Harvard Business Review found that, on average, managers tend to think employees are slightly more productive in the office, while individual contributors responded that they are more productive at home. In another survey by Pew Research, 64% of respondents who have transitioned to working from home since Covid say they now can now balance work with their personal life more easily. While at the same time, 60% now feel more disconnected from their co-workers.

Considering both pros and cons of remote and in-office work, organizations will need to take creative, flexible approaches to effectively support employee wellbeing. Whether that’s a hybrid model, a shorter workweek, or another solution, clear communication on the rationale behind the approach is essential to ensuring employee buy-in and satisfaction.

“If we’re pushing for hybrid or full return to work, the ‘why’ has to be explained and reasoned empathetically,” says Warren.

“If companies are not prepared to explain the benefits both to the organization and the individual worker, they’re going to a hard time selling return to work.”

Across all aspects of employee wellbeing, expectations have changed dramatically over the past few years, reminding us that the social contract between employers and employees is an ever-shifting ideal. To care for employees well, organizations must remain vigilant.

“When you’re actively prioritizing safety—figuring out the root cause of an accident or risk and taking action to change the system to mitigate or prevent it—employees read that as a level of psychological safety,” says Warren. “Moving beyond finger pointing and instead investing in real, effective solutions provides long-term payoffs for both employees and organizations.”

Faith Allem – A Professional’s Journey through Manufacturing and Safety Training

Creating a Culture of Success – Committing to Quality and Safety Education

Faith Allem, quality and safety compliance leader at Hitachi T&D Solutions, Inc. in Suwanee, Georgia, has been taking training classes at Georgia Tech for 20 years. She started her journey in quality and ISO auditing, working at Georgia Power in quality management. She then went to Hitachi where she expanded into safety and health management as her 14-year career evolved.

“Georgia Tech has been my go-to in professional education. The courses have helped me gain the knowledge to advance the quality and safety programs for the companies I have worked for and proven that when safety is invested in and not treated as an afterthought, it directly and positively affects business performance.”

Faith has been successful driving improvement through her commitment to quality and safety. She credits her training and enthusiastic instructors, like Craig Cochran, project manager for the Georgia Manufacturing Extension Partnership (GAMEP) (who she has known for 20 years), with keeping the classes engaging and relevant.

According to Faith, “You can learn regulations and requirements anywhere, but at Georgia Tech the classes are really interactive. Not only are you learning the requirements, but you are also working on how to apply them to real life business situations. This class structure builds confidence and relationships because you can ask the expert instructors for advice right in the moment.”

In this interview, Faith reflects on her training experience and how it has helped shape her career.

Investing in Career Growth with Georgia Tech Training

After taking 10 quality and ISO focused courses at Georgia Tech, what did you expect to gain by enrolling in the safety & health certificate program and did it meet your expectations?

I knew that Georgia Tech offered a Manufacturing Leadership Certificate program, but I wanted to build on my quality training, and taking safety classes was a natural fit. Earning my Safety and Health Management Certificate allowed me to expand my compliance knowledge, apply what I learned to improve current processes, and show upper management that there is value in building more robust safety programs and investing in training like this.

What did you find most valuable about your quality and safety training journey?

The instructors have an enthusiasm that keeps you engaged and excited about the subject matter that’s being taught. They are supportive and continue to be my go-to resource even outside of the classroom. I was very impressed that during COVID the Georgia Tech team did not stop. They were creative and inventive when pivoting to remote offerings and utilizing web based learning platforms to keep the classes interactive and interesting. This allowed me to keep going and finish my certificate on time.

How have you applied what you have learned in your current position?

The first thing I did was institute proactive planning with my teams. I used the tools from my different classes to create safety kits, incident/accident forms, and a dedicated company website to reinforce good safety behavior among employees. To get everyone on board and invested in the outcome of our new program, I created incentive programs with different types of rewards to reinforce practicing good safety behavior. As a result, we have improved the quality and safety of our current systems and it has changed the company culture. Over the past six years, we have seen a dramatic reduction in customer complaints, safety related accidents, and loss cost. Just one year under my leadership, our safety risk assessment investigation findings are down over 80 percent. I think this shows that a continued commitment to self-development leads to positive outcomes personally and professionally. This program has not only contributed to my own self-growth, but to my team and company as well. It all comes full circle.

In your opinion, what does it take to be successful in the manufacturing and safety field?

Management support is critical. The more I learn, the more knowledge I can bring back, share with the team, and help them to develop and improve on our current systems. This shows value to our upper management and creates an inclusive environment where continuous improvement and safety is everyone’s responsibility. We really care about every person’s safety. It’s not just checking off the requirement box and moving on. It’s about taking that requirement and making it work for your company.

Georgia Tech’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership (GaMEP) and Safety, Health, and Environmental teams have been instrumental in helping Faith on her training journey to sustain a highly effective culture of continuous improvement with outstanding safety results. Looking forward she is excited to embark on behavioral safety training, and continuing to refresh her quality skills.

If you have any safety needs or questions, please reach out to one of our experts for a consultation. Sign up for our Safety Connect newsletter to receive the latest updates and tips on how to keep your company safe.

To learn more about the GaMEP program, please contact your Region Manager for more information.

Hear Me Out: Creating and Maintaining a Safe Place to Work

Two men wearing PPE in a manufacturing plant.

Every year approximately 30 million workers experience hazardous noise exposure on the job. Over 9 million are at risk for severe hearing loss from occupational exposure to noise, which remains a persistent cause of employee illness in the workplace, and can even put you at risk for heart disease.

Noise-induced hearing loss is one of the most common occupational diseases and is the second most self-reported occupational illness or injury.*

Many manufacturing processes, machinery, and equipment produce high noise levels, which can lead to hearing problems. For reference, a normal conversation is typically about 60 dB, cars and trucks range around 70 to 90 dB, and sirens and airplanes can reach 120 dB or more. Anything over 70-80 dB is considered unhealthy.

Estimates suggest that roughly a third of people in Europe and the US are regularly exposed to unhealthy levels of noise, and numerous studies link chronic exposure to environmental noise like traffic and airplanes to a greater risk of high cholesterol, elevated blood pressure, and increased stress.+

Providing proper Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and worksite health and wellness programs that target noise-exposed workers are several ways you can help employees feel safer. However, manufacturers also need to make sure their company complies with the OSHA regulation for noise hazards to maintain a safe working environment and avoid paying heavy penalties for serious violations.

Here are three ways that we can help identify and manage potential hazards within your facility:

  1. Get Educated – Register for our Introduction to Noise Evaluation and Control Course offered several times a year in-person or online as a self-guided class with live office hours.
  2. Be Proactive – Schedule a Free Safety Consultation with our experts. We will conduct noise monitoring at your facility to determine what actions are needed to protect your employees and keep you in compliance with the OSHA regulation.
  3. Think Long Term – Whether you are creating a safety plan, scaling up production or reassessing the plant floor layout, utilizing the 5s and 6s principles of Sort, Set in Order, Shine, Standardize, and Sustain (and Safety), you can strategically turn work areas into clean, organized, and safe spaces.

For more information on Georgia Manufacturing Extension Partnership, please visit gamep.org. To learn more about our safety training and services for manufacturers visit oshainfo.gatech.edu and sign up for our Safety Connect Newlsetter.

*Us, Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, OSHA Regional Instruction, Regional Emphasis Program (REP) for Noise Hazards, 2019

+Hansen, C., 2021, Why noise pollution is bad for your heart, https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20210315-why-noise-pollution-is-bad-for-your-heart