Work-Life Balance and Safety: Cultural Differences Between North America and Europe

Taking time off to reset benefits employees, but how does encouraging employees to take time off boost a company’s bottom line? The European Union has had it figured out for a while, but American corporate culture is shifting too. Pamala Bobbitt, Director of Product Marketing and Channels at Cority and former EHS manager, explains how work-life balance and holistic, behavior-based safety improve productivity and lead to long-term organizational sustainability. The following is a transcript of the conversation, which you can also hear using the player.

Benskin:

Today we’re joined by Pamala Bobbitt of Cority, an EHSQ software provider. Pam, please start us off by introducing yourself and telling us what you do for Cority.

Bobbitt:

Oh wow, where do I begin? You could say that I’m a chemist who didn’t want to work in a lab. I like to be out and about and talking to people. I grew from a glorified garbage girl, as one of my mentors expanded into EHS. I’ve worked in pharmaceuticals and automotive manufacturing. I was a global compliance officer for a specialty chemical manufacturer and then I entered the software world around a decade ago. Here at Cority, I’m using my experience of having lived the life and been in the shoes, as someone who came over into software ten years ago and didn’t have any idea what SAAS was, or relational databases. Now I understand the power of that, and how technology can really help tell a story. We EHS professionals have always known the value that we bring to an organization, not just to the employees but the overall corporate goals and objectives. Now, at Cority, I’m able to do that by working with customers and partners, and really helping them bring their projects up and get recognition. We help them step behind that screen of EHS being the “police” of the organization and the ones who are always saying no, and we’re saying, “We contribute to the overall corporation and here’s how.”

Benskin:

Absolutely. You hit us with a few different acronyms, and I want to flesh those out for our listeners who aren’t familiar with those.

Can you break down EHS and SAAS for us?

Bobbitt:

I’m laughing a little bit because EHS professionals are always known to be tech-y and throw acronyms around. So, yeah. EHS: environmental health and safety. Depending on where you are and what type of industry you’re in, it may be HES: health, safety and environment. It’s those three pillars coming together to incorporate the overall programs related to employees and the output of whatever your company does. And then, of course, its impact to the environment.

And then SAAS – that’s great. It’s an acronym that a lot of people use differently. It stands for “software as a service.” A lot of people will say, “Okay, cloud or hosted solutions.” It refers to this change from old school technology where everything was internal to our own technology stacks within our organizations. Your IT group had it on their servers. So if you ever used – back in my day – Lotus Notes and Access database, they were on servers within your organization. Now everybody talks about going to the cloud, where you access systems that are not hosted at your facility. They’re hosted on the software company’s servers, wherever they’re located. Hopefully that helps people understand SAAS.

Employee wearing "safety first" shirt
Benskin:

Those were great explanations. I think everybody is familiar with software as a service. We all have those subscriptions, like you explained, but we like to explain those acronyms when they come up. Back to EHS:

What is the importance of EHS in business today?

Bobbitt:

I love that you asked that question, because I think it goes back to what we all know as EHS professionals: our job is to help improve things. It’s not just making sure that our people are safe and we’re going by the rules and regulations. We know that if you do these things in the right way, it can contribute to the bottom line of the organization. Everybody talks about lagging indicators around making sure that your lost time incident rates are below industry standard, and wanting to keep those down, and you hear all these initiatives around zero accidents. That’s great, because we’re talking about making sure employees are safe. Everybody feels better about what they do and the company they work for.

The hidden thing that nobody realizes is that it actually saves the company money and makes them more profitable as well, because it helps cut down on operational expenses. EHS was typically thought of a cost center, but they really bring value to the organization by following these programs, getting a handle on it and really understanding the risk to contribute to the overall performance of the organization, especially companies that are traded on the stock market. Their numbers are better and they’re known to be better invested, which improves their brand reputation. Overall, what we do is very important, not just for keeping our employees and the environment safe but also for our companies.

Benskin:

I’m glad you brought up lagging indicators. That gets thrown around in business a lot. These metrics enable us to track our performance but I think with EHS and a lot of things on the work comp/safety side, we always look for the leading indicators, or the proactive approaches that we can take to mitigating those. It’ll be seen through the metrics on the back end; we always like to push initiatives that proactively help those numbers and boost companies’ profitability.

Man at Desk
Bobbitt:

I’ve seen that over the past 18 months to two years. I’ve had the luxury of being able to work in Europe for the past five years and I’ve been back almost two years. I’ve seen that shift where people are really starting to place more importance on those leading indicators, whereas historically everybody was focusing on the lagging indicators. That’s fine, because you have goals and objectives, and you have to look at those, but it’s kind of reactive. Let’s be proactive. I’ve seen a shift, but I’ve also heard that there are some hurdles that we still have with communication and getting the importance of these leading indicators like safety culture and training, onto the sea level. But it’s great to see that shift in increasing importance of those.

Benskin:

It’s interesting you brought up your opportunity to work in Europe. I recently got back from a conference and one of the sessions I was in talked about looking at safety practices globally rather than just in the U.S. Since you’ve had that experience in Europe:

How do global companies’ safety approaches compare to what you see here in the U.S.?

Bobbitt:

It’s so different. It was a little bit of a breath of fresh air. Having worked in the U.S. for so long, EHS was always perceived as the people who tell us no, the cost center; we only do things because we have to do them. It was not forward-looking. Europe is totally different. Europe looks at things holistically as what’s for the overall good, not necessarily because they’re driven by regulation. They do it because it’s the right thing to do. It’s a whole different concept, which is coming over to the U.S.

Maybe I’m just getting more visibility now that I’ve seen it firsthand over in Europe and then come back. But I do think there’s a shift. I don’t know if it’s because there are more global organizations or increased information sharing. Previously, even global organizations were segmented. We do things one way in North America, and it’s different in Europe. I think there’s more collaboration and sharing in general, so people are starting to say, “Yeah, you’re right, that is the right thing to do.” It’s really great – I think Europe was more advanced on those leading indicators than North America typically had been.

Benskin:

I hear it so often here in the U.S. that a lot of people look at safety and regulations as this forced initiative rather than a culture. It’s interesting that you say that about Europe. Do you think that the business leaders, owners, managers – do you think they have just a cultural difference in the way they approach business to the U.S.?

Could cultural differences be why they’re more proactive in their approach?

Bobbitt:

I could tell you my opinion, having been raised as a very American workaholic. I had a father who taught me that work is very important; you put all you have into that. Which I love – I love my work and what I do. But I think that work-life balance is totally different in that cultural element that you mentioned. Work-life balance is different in Europe. I think that, to me, is what I perceive as the difference. You know, you can look at the vacation time in Europe vs. in North America, and look at that related to absenteeism in Europe vs. North America. There’s less absenteeism in Europe because they have more time to take a break. I think it’s cultural, and it’s not just how they run their businesses, it’s the overall culture of how they are, which influences the business.

Benskin:

Those are good points. It seems like there has been that shift with the businesses I’ve spoken to over the past few years. You brought up work-life balance. I think there has been that shift. I know MEM in particular really focuses on that personal life balance. We really emphasize that. I think there are a lot of businesses starting to adopt that: offering more paid leave; actually encouraging you to take it. Rather than how it used to be – they’d put it on paper and give you the time off, but really, it was kind of this shiny object that you never really got to take. You stacked it up and you had six weeks of vacation, but you knew you couldn’t really take that vacation because you had to be here working. It’s good to see that cultural shift because I think, to our point when talking about fatigue, it plays a big role in that. We feel like we have to be in the workplace eight hours a day, five days a week, or more. I think that emphasis on being at work and not taking that personal time for yourself, for your health and wellbeing, really plays an important factor in the workplace.

Bobbitt:
Employee polishing countertop

It does, and you’re right that companies are really seeing that, pushing it and translating it to, “It’s okay to take that time off. Don’t feel guilty for it.” As an American, when I went to Europe and had six weeks of vacation, I was like “What do I do with this?”

I lived in a country that mandated – it was a law – that one of your vacations must be no less than two weeks.

You’re forced by the government to take at least one vacation that’s no less than two weeks off, which is unheard of in the States. If you take two weeks off, everybody’s like, “Wow, what did you do to get that?” So, I think it’s that mindset shift too, because I felt guilty. It’s that guilt of being away from work. That’s shifting and after I came back I thought, “Wait, was I crazy not taking all of my six weeks?”

Benskin:

Absolutely. And I know a lot of people are like me: even when you take vacation, we’re so connected through technology. I’ve got my work email on my phone. It pops up push notifications every time I get an email. Even when you try and take PTO, in the back of your head, you’re always thinking about it. You’re always aware of it. Often we do that even when we’re on our vacation: an email pops up and just out of habit, we jump right in there to our work email and start doing work again. I have heard that from others. I actually have some friends who are from Europe originally, and in their home country they also have that forced leave and it’s a couple of weeks. The company would actually give them a sort of stipend. They saved up their bonus and they’d give it to them right before that two-week vacation. They really promoted that with their employees. That was a different concept to me. We don’t think about that here in the U.S.

Bobbitt:

And it’s great; I learned there’s a reason for that two weeks, because I was forced to take it. The first time I took it, I was like “whoa,” because it takes that long, because we’re so engaged with technology and because all of us have work email on our personal phones. As a society we’re so tied to those devices that it takes you two weeks. A week to step away, and then you have a week to really enjoy being away. It takes that transition time. That’s why they do the two weeks: transition off from your work brain to your relaxed brain and then you actually get to relax for a week. I will tell you, coming back from a two-week vacation, I felt more refreshed and revived. I was ready. New ideas came up more readily because of that break.

Benskin:

It’s almost a reinvigoration for employees. You hit on it, it always takes a certain period to turn our brains off of the work function. It’s almost like a detox from work. I think if you go through that detox phase and check out, you definitely do reengage with the business a lot more, and you’re more apt to really push harder when you do get back. You touched on it right there. It’s putting that emphasis on valuing the employee, not just as an asset to your bottom line or company profitability, but valuing them knowing that they have families at home and other responsibilities outside of the workplace. It’s always refreshing to me to hear that from so many people in the industry. It goes back to the culture shift that we talked about. The overarching look at employees.

Those European values and the way they do business are starting to bleed into the way we conduct business here in the U.S. and it’s definitely a positive impact.

Bobbitt:

I do too, and I think there are initiatives out there in business overall like risk management. We hear “operational excellence” and that leads to visibility for sustainability. A lot of people think that sustainability is all about the environment and things like that. That’s just part of it. Sustainability is ensuring that you do for your organization all of these different elements to ensure that you’re going to be around for a long time. Look at Hostess Cakes. They didn’t change things for the future and look forward to ensure their longevity, which had a huge impact on a lot of people directly and indirectly. Because of visibility in the media, people are asking for it, which is great. They’re realizing that it matters.

Brand reputation is one of the largest risks any organization has.

Think about the brand reputation every time we see an incident where fatigue plays a role. Any time we hear about the emotional strain, it affects the reputation of the organization that was involved. I think you’re absolutely right that safety culture is on the rise. It’s because people are realizing the value. Behavior-based safety is something that’s been around for a long time, but a lot of people said it wasn’t effective.

At a conference last fall, I heard from a company that talked about their success with behavior-based safety. They’d tried some initiatives a couple of times with less success, and the third time they tried it, they tied it back to families. They had a program that talked about safety at work and at home, and they had programs that went all the way down to children. For example, employees could take a little safety video and show it to their kids, on topics like wearing your helmet and not talking to strangers. Those kinds of things. The employees were like, “Wow, they really care about my kids.” It had more impact, and more people contributed to the program, so it took off. They realized that safety does carry over into the home. The introduction of ISO 45001 helped elevate that too by tying EHS programs to overall corporate goals and objectives. It increased visibility that these things are important.

Benskin:

Back to sustainability: Not only do employees feel more valued, they saw that emotional tie-in with their family, and how much the workplace cared about their entire family, not just them. Long term, I’d think that if you take kids who are brought up in that type of an environment where they’ve had those messages ingrained from a young age, it has to bode well when they reach adulthood and enter the workforce.

I’d imagine that those lessons they learned as a kid are going to play into their role in the workforce.

Bobbitt:

Sure. It does. It’s so funny because I think about that in the context of nudge theory. You’re grooming the workforce of tomorrow at a young age to make sure it’s an important part. I think we lost that safety culture a little bit in the States in the late 80s and early 90s, but I think it’s back, and it’s because we’ve changed as a society. I’m laughing because I have teenage girls and they’re attached to their phones, as teenagers are. I’m very adamant about walking and texting, so I’m always telling them it’s not safe. I noticed recently when I was with my girls at a fair, and their friends had started texting, my daughters told them, “No, you can’t walk and text, that’s unsafe.” It was a proud mom moment. Maybe they groan at me when I say it to them, but that moment showed me that they did understand why it was unsafe and that carried through.

Benskin:

That is a proud mom moment. You’re dealing with teenagers who aren’t driving yet, but you instill that texting and walking isn’t safe, so hopefully that carries over when they get their licenses and enter the roadway with all the other drivers. That’ll mitigate some of the distracted driving. They’ll take that lesson about texting and walking, and apply that to texting and driving. That’s such a hot-topic issue in the U.S.

Bobbitt:

Yeah, we can hope. I have one starting her permit, so I’m the nervous copilot lately.

Benskin:

Absolutely; I feel your pain. Good luck with that. We’ve covered quite a bit today, a lot of different things, all great information. For the business that maybe hasn’t thought about this and how it applies to their business, what’s the first step to get into a healthier work environment? Eliminating or decreasing the risks that fatigue has.

How can businesses move the needle on workplace safety?

Bobbitt:

Wow, let’s see. I think one is to do a little bit of research. There’s so much great stuff – that’s the power of having access to data. There are so many great studies, and if you go to conferences, there are a lot of talks about this topic. Understand some options, and understand your business. What works for one business may not work for another. I’d come up with top five ideas to try. Don’t bite off more than you can chew for the pilot. Do a little study, and bring in your peers so it’s not just you in EHS. If you’re in manufacturing, involve operations. If you’re in logistics, bring in the person responsible for federal motor carrier safety. Think about who else within your organization would be part of this, and then outline the pros and cons. Also, make sure that you can tie it in to the emotional piece that we talked about earlier. And then take that pilot.

Readibands [that track sleep patterns and fatigue levels] are awesome. They’re inexpensive, pretty powerful, and you get results very quickly. Each day employees can see that, so there’s a lot of impact. You want to try something that will actually tie in and you can show clear results. You have to tie it to dollars for the higher-ups. Tie it to dollars, and tie it to the emotional element of the people participating. Try something you can evangelize and go from there. Then, you’re going to have your other four ideas. You’ll spark so much and people are going to participate. Make sure that you have clear success criteria. Do something low budget; there are a lot of things that you can do. Bring in other departments, and don’t forget the emotional attachment.

Benskin:

That’s great advice for all businesses. On the WorkSAFE Podcast we always like to end with a safety tip; something that’s close to your heart. It doesn’t have to be related to what we’ve discussed today.

If you could give our listeners a quick safety tip, what would you share?

Bobbitt:

Oh, gosh! I have tons! We talked about texting and walking, which is one of my safety pet peeves. This time of year, with the heat and sun, I’m a big water fanatic. I’ll tie it into fatigue here: don’t underestimate dehydration and fatigue. Dehydration can directly impact and increase fatigue. If you’re tired and you’re dehydrated, your thinking processes are really impaired. This time of year, don’t just think about water because it’s hot out; think about the impact on your brain and cognitive thinking related to fatigue.

I know here in Missouri, heat index is supposed to be up over 100 degrees. Dehydration happens very quickly in that type of environment, so that’s always good advice for those working out in the heat.

Schatz employees using equipment
Benskin:

Pam, thank you so much for joining us today. We covered a lot of valuable information that I think a lot of business owners maybe haven’t thought about before. And maybe they can start to think about implementing these programs and ideas into their own businesses, and at the end of the day, decrease those risks to their employees.

Bobbitt:

Thank you again. I’ve had a blast, so it’s my pleasure.


Thank you to Pam for sharing her expertise on the podcast. Check out our other WorkSAFE Podcast episodes, and subscribe for more workplace safety stories and insight.

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