Are We Looking at Safety From the Wrong Angle?
Having worked with many industry groups over the past 25 years as an association chief executive and more recently, as an entrepreneur in the marketing-communications arena, I’m fortunate to have been exposed to dozens of industries. Some included industrial manufacturing and distribution, financial, aviation, utilities, healthcare, chemical, and construction. All share a common goal: keep employees safe, healthy, and productive so the company excels.
There are countless programs in place to learn and reinforce safety education: seminars, presentations, videos, delivered both online and in-person. (Disclaimer: our company provides many of these deliverables for our clients.) Many are effective, and yes, these efforts save lives and keep people safe. However, every year there are still thousands of deaths and millions of injuries due to occupational accidents. And this has a tremendous impact on business: according to J. Paul Leigh, Center for Healthcare Policy and Research and Department of Public Health Sciences, UC Davis Medical School, approximately a quarter of a trillion dollars is spent on workplace injuries and illnesses annually, larger than the cost of treating cancer.
Something more, something different is clearly needed. Employee engagement is already at an all-time low; somewhere around 70% of workers are disengaged from their work in general, including training aspects. And Millennials, who are even less enthusiastic about traditional teaching methods than previous generations, will comprise 75% of the workforce by 2025. Yet, Millennials are not going to all show up ten years from now, they are already becoming the majority of today’s workforce. So what does this mean for the workplace environment in regards to the success of safety programs?
It means something has to change, and soon. Workplace complacency and disengagement is a recipe for disaster.
Recently, I read a psychology brief describing the differences between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. Through extrinsic motivation, we perform a specific behavior or task, or engage in an activity, to earn a reward or avoid punishment. Examples include competing in a contest to win an award; studying hard to get good grades; keeping curfew to avoid being grounded. But what happens when the behaviors or tasks are the same day-in and day-out and we still get the carrot, regardless of our effort? The carrot is a little less sexy over time, and achievement is a little more difficult to attain. Maybe this is behind some of the lack of engagement we see in the workplace?
On the other hand, with intrinsic motivation, we perform an action or behavior because we enjoy the activity itself. We’re not doing it because we’ll be rewarded if we do, or punished if we don’t, but rather we do it simply because we enjoy the activity.
In the publication, “Making Learning Fun: A Taxonomy of Intrinsic Motivations for Learning,” authors Thomas W. Malone (Xerox Palo Alto Research Center and MIT) and Mark R. Lepper (Stanford University) define an activity to be intrinsically motivating if “people engage in it for its own sake, rather than in order to receive some external reward or avoid some external punishment. We use the words fun, interesting, captivating, enjoyable, and intrinsically motivating all more or less interchangeably to describe such activities.”
Malone and Lepper point out that there are numerous factors that can increase intrinsic motivation:
Each of these factors are personal and have very little to do with the carrot on the stick, if at all. In fact, they speak more to a common activity the majority of our population does: video gaming.
Statistics show that nearly 60% of us play electronic games on a daily basis, almost evenly split male versus female. The average age of a gamer in 2015 is 31. In addition, 74% of K-8 teachers are using digital games in the classroom. Perhaps it’s time to embrace this technology in the workplace, for the benefits could be astounding.
Intrinsic motivation is the key to better safety in the workplace, and for that matter, probably everything else. If an activity incorporated some element of intrinsic motivation to the existing extrinsic approach, eyes may open a little wide given the personal connection to the task at hand. Could the missing element be video games? I believe it’s worth a try to keep the workplace safer for all.