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For employers, there is no priority higher than protecting the safety of our workforce. And this is now more true than ever, as the pandemic has certainly forced many to rethink their lifestyles and recommit to overall well-being.

How safe do you feel at work? Do you feel confident you will end your day as healthy as when you started? Do you feel like your employer is looking out for your safety? Do you feel safe enough to be yourself, and fully contribute around your co-workers and leaders? Unfortunately, many employees are likely unable to confidently answer yes to at least one of these questions.

A recent study by the Canadian Centre for the Purpose of the Corporation (CCPC) found that more than 40 per cent of employees are seriously considering leaving their jobs in 2021. For businesses such as Purolator that hire thousands of new workers every year (more than 3,600 in 2020), this potential talent drain is quite ominous. Labour shortages pre-pandemic were difficult – now these challenges are even tougher. It’s for this reason that companies need to look beyond traditional factors for recruiting and retaining motivated employees. In the future, the winners of the war on talent will be those who hold a purpose beyond the quarterly balance sheet, showing a genuine care for the well-being and safety of their workforce.

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Employers can benefit from these tips to develop and foster workplace values that centre safety.

Recognize that people cannot simply “choose” to be safe

The gold standard for safety management is to simply remove the risk. During the COVID-19 pandemic, this has been the rationale behind staying home and avoiding close contact with others. But for essential employers such as Purolator, who deliver critical health care supplies and other materials across Canada, keeping employees at home is not an option. These employers have had to step up their game to keep people safe in an unsafe world. We have come to recognize that safety is highly complex. The true story of an incident is never simply that someone made a mistake or were careless. Well-executed investigations uncover that most incidents are caused by a variety of factors all coming together at the same time – complacency, fatigue, distraction, lack of training, medical issues or misplaced reward systems that focus on productivity over safety.

Build a culture of safety

A strong corporate culture enables health and safety by setting the stage for a work environment that champions the well-being of employees. Where culture can be of value for attracting talent, it is absolutely critical for retaining those workers – thereby shielding a business from the impending talent drain everyone is talking about of late.

When it comes to safety, employees need to truly believe their leaders and co-workers are genuinely concerned about their overall well-being. Posters and policy documents simply aren’t enough – leaders need to walk the talk every single day. Coaching conversations should not be about how productive an employee is, but rather on how safe and effective the employee’s behaviours are, and why. A good leader seeks to understand what led to the behaviour and addresses the root causes. Is the employee physically and mentally okay? That is the essence of a true “safety culture.”

Safety is equally important for the mind and body

Effective leadership is the keystone behind psychological safety, one of the fastest-emerging pillars of a modern healthy and safe work environment. Psychological safety is about feeling accepted and valued in a way where one’s opinions and contributions matter. Building a psychological safety net in the workplace requires ongoing efforts, particularly by managers, to invite candour, offer recognition and give the opportunity to challenge the status quo. Employees who feel excluded or anxious are much more likely to rush, become complacent, underperform and have workplace conflicts.

Workforces weak on psychological safety often lack the synergies that can come with strong team dynamics, where dissent or playing devil’s advocate can ultimately lead to better decisions. They are also more apt to lose staff.

Regrettably, only 26 per cent of employees reported feeling psychologically safe during the first year of the pandemic. And today, remote workers nervously watch as employers roll out office re-entry plans. In a psychologically safe organization, employees will feel comfortable expressing their thoughts about a return-to-office scenario, outlining preferences around flexibility and details of a hybrid work scenario. This type of open dialogue will prevent managers from being surprised by an exodus of talent following the implementation of post-pandemic work plans.

For senior leaders looking to build a true culture of health and safety, it will require a change in the narrative around safety. Let’s recognize that employees can’t be safe without a significant and pervasive investment from leaders – one that can be felt and trusted by the company’s workforce every day. It will also require a true cultural shift from viewing safety simply as a physical outcome versus a more holistic approach to employee well-being.

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John Ferguson is the president and CEO of Purolator. He is the Leadership Lab columnist for July, 2021.

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about the world of work. Find all Leadership Lab stories at and guidelines for how to contribute to the column here.

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