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Do women feel safe at work?

“It really comes down to the company’s culture”

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Photo: Missouri Department of Transportation Flickr

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What can leaders do?

Leslie B. Hammer is the co-director of the Oregon Healthy Workforce Center – a NIOSH-funded Total Worker Health Center of Excellence – and a professor at the Oregon Institute of Occupational Health Sciences at Oregon Health and Science University.

In an October post on NIOSH’s Science Blog, Hammer and three of her colleagues discuss a trio of web-based TWH training programs that promote supportive leadership behaviors that can enhance employee health and well-being while driving organizational improvements.

They note that job stressors such as interpersonal conflict, lack of supervisor support, low job control, task overload and work-family imbalance can have an adverse effect on workers’ health as well as their ability to function on and off the job. For women, additional job stress is common.

“Women tend to have additional stressors related to the types of work they’re engaging in,” Hammer said, referring to those in industries in which women are underrepresented. “Women also have stressors related to sexual harassment moreso than men. Women are also typically experiencing higher levels of work-life stress.

“Because women are the ones to bear children, they are also the ones to experience stress due to various types of pregnancy discrimination at work.”

This can include, in some cases, pregnant workers being denied opportunities or having to accept a different role. After the birth of a child, caregiving becomes a major factor. For some women, they’re managing the care of children and aging parents, along with work, which can lead to safety and health concerns.

Woman working

Photos: Missouri Department of Transportation Flickr

“The stress that people experience in trying to manage work and non-work does spill over and does impact safety,” Hammer said. “It impacts safety behaviors. It impacts safety compliance. It impacts the ability to focus on the job because people get caught up in their non-work stress.”

OHWC has developed multiple one-hour online training courses for leaders with the aim of improving outcomes for workers, thus reducing job stress.

“Employees who view their supervisors, organization or both as being supportive of family priorities report experiencing significantly less work-family conflict, greater job satisfaction and increased organizational commitment,” Hammer and her co-authors write.

One of the training courses, known as the Safety & Health Improvement Program, is aimed at teaching supervisors how to provide emotional and instrumental support for safety communication and work-life balance challenges. Hammer says supervisors and managers can serve as “linking pins” to improve worker safety, health and well-being.

For more information on the program, visit yourworkpath.com/ship.

Where can workers turn?

When they experience safety and health issues on the job, female employees should seek out a supportive leader. “We always advise women to talk to their employer, talk to their supervisor or their union representative,” Randall said.

Of course, that’s not always as easy as it sounds.

“It really comes down to the company’s culture,” she said. “Is it a worker-friendly environment where a woman can feel free and safe to come forward and report her concerns?”

After such concerns are reported, the next step is paramount for employers and managers. “It’s not just that the person feels confident to speak up,” Kagerer said, “but then what happens when they do? Positions of authority must respond. There has to be a path and a mechanism to respond to those concerns. When concerns are not immediately addressed, the intended culture of an organization begins to unravel.”

The impact of COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged employment throughout various industries. And women who left the workforce over the past two years or so have been slow to return, experts say. In its “Women in the Workplace 2021” report, global management consulting firm McKinsey & Co. states that the “gap in burnout between women and men has almost doubled.” In addition, 33% of women said that in the past year they had considered leaving the workforce or downshifting their career – up from 25% a few months after the onset of the pandemic.

Experts point to the need to care for children and aging parents among the chief reasons for this decision.

“It’s not just the women who dropped out of the workforce that had the stressors,” said Leslie B. Hammer, co-director of the Oregon Healthy Workforce Center and a professor at the Oregon Institute of Occupational Health Sciences at Oregon Health and Science University. “It’s also the women who stayed in the workforce. What’s really bothered me during this whole time is parents and caregivers have basically been expected to not miss a beat at work.”

She added that some women worked from home while helping their children with virtual schoolwork, while others brought aging parents or family members into their home during the public health crisis. “People have been managing all of these multiple demands while work hasn’t let up for most,” she said.

Tricia Kagerer, executive vice president of risk management for Dallas-based Jordan Foster Construction, said she worries that this dilemma could reemerge for women in the workforce.

“Unless we take action, we’re going to be in the exact same situation during the next crisis,” she said. “We’re at a pivotal moment in time where the C-suite needs to be considering important initiatives to create inclusive workplaces.”

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