Motivating Health and Safety – is it all about money?

Back when I was a public employee working on promoting health and safety, a truth we took to be self-evident (and evidence-based nonetheless) was that success in workplace health and safety must start with the commitment of management at the top of the organization. Consequently, a major pre-occupation was how to motivate employers to demonstrate a sincere commitment to health and safety. (Talk of motivation in health and safety customarily focuses on motivation of employees; to my way of thinking, this puts the cart before the horse — if management is motivated, the motivation of employees will follow.)

Hence, we did some research on what motivates employers to care about health and safety. Results showed that employer motivation falls into three general categories: social (also called moral), legal and financial. The prevailing wisdom was that financial motivation was paramount: if we could only demonstrate to employers the benefits of health and safety to the bottom line, the scales would fall from their eyes and their workplaces would be transformed. Lots of resources are available to help calculate the financial costs and benefits of health and safety, and many incentive programs are designed to enhance these economic rewards. (Contact me if you want me to point you to some of these resources.)

Without denying the power of finances to motivate executives, I have long felt that social or moral motivation tends to be undervalued. So I take notice of those pundits who turn the prevailing economic wisdom on its head. Behavioral economics has lots to say on the topic of how our choices often fly in the face of conventional economic theory that posits humans to be strictly rational benefit-maximizers. (See work by Daniel Ariely and Richard Thaler.) Two popular speakers on the current circuit are Clay Shirky and Daniel Pink –both spoke last year at the RSA in London, and their complete talks are available as podcasts here.

Pink is focused on motivation, but largely of employees – Shirky comes at the topic tangentially as a corollary of cognitive surplus. But they both cited the same example that I think is relevant to my topic: the story of daycare centres in Israel that had a problem with parents picking up their kids late. To try to correct this problem, the centres imposed a fine for late pick-ups. The result? The rate of late pick-ups tripled! The reason, Pink and Shirky speculate, is that the parents’ concern for the daycare staff and the desire not to inconvenience them by making them stay late evaporated when the late pick-ups became a commodity that could be paid for.

This reminded me of interviews I conducted with high OHS-performing employers, in an effort to gather data on the financial benefits of good OHS performance. The employers maintained they did not track data that directly correlated health and safety with financial performance, because for them health and safety was a matter of concern for their employees and not motivated by cost-cutting.

The highlight of the daycare centre example is that the rate of late pick-ups stayed high even after the fine was removed. Hence this is not simply a story of contrasting motivators – it is also a cautionary tale of the danger of transforming social concern into an economic concern. Having done so, we may not be able to recover what we lose.

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