Frontline workers less able to raise safety concerns, research shows

Experts warn those in operational roles returning to workplaces following the latest government guidance have a weaker employee voice than office staff

Frontline workers feel far less able to voice concerns over health and safety than office-based workers, new research has revealed as people begin to return to work following recent government guidance.

The research found that people in operational roles, including manufacturing and construction, were less likely to have access to channels allowing them to raise issues or discuss concerns.

Following the government announcing a gradual relaxation of lockdown restrictions, including bringing people back to the workplace, the report said these frontline workers were both more likely to be returning to roles where social distancing was difficult, while also the least likely to speak out about health and safety concerns.

“Frontline staff, for most organisations, are likely to be some of the most challenging roles to continue socially distant ways of working, and simultaneously are also the ones most likely to not feel able to speak out,” said Daniel King, professor of organisation studies at Nottingham Business School (NBS) and one of the report’s research leads.

The research, conducted by the Centre of People, Work and Organisational Practice at NBS, in partnership with the CIPD, found that the ‘command and control’ structure of many operational roles led to a “culture of verbal abuse and management structures” which did not allow for employees to raise concerns without fear of reprisals. 

Office-based staff, on the other hand, were more likely to feel confident speaking out and to have access to communication channels such as computer systems, which also supported access to information. Additionally, they were often managed in ways ‘more likely to elicit voice’, the report said.

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“Our research shows that even before the outbreak of the pandemic, these divisions between office-based and operational staff were significant, particularly regarding employee voice,” said King. He added that the outbreak had created new divides over which sectors and professional disciplines were safer and how people travelled to work.

Professor Helen Shipton, director of the Centre of People, Work and Organisational Practice and another lead researcher on the paper, said the coronavirus outbreak had exposed a number of issues – around personal life, health and finances – that many employers had historically been uncomfortable talking to employees about.

“Workers are differentially impacted by shutdown, including their psychological and emotional wellbeing, and cannot just expect to go back to normal without being able to raise concerns about their workplace being Covid-secure,” Shipton said.

Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Alliance Manchester Business School, said the problem was a lack of people skills among managers in technical sectors. “The difficulty is that these sectors such as manufacturing or construction and engineering businesses need a lot more management training and people skill training,” he said.

“When people are promoted to a managerial role, they shouldn't be promoted on technical skill alone. HR should ensure there is parity between their technical skills and their social skills. If they don’t have those skills, HR needs to make sure they get training.”

Rebecca Peters, research adviser at the CIPD, said HR departments needed to support line managers “by reassuring them and developing them to view concerns not as threatening, but as insight and recommendations to improve job quality for employees”. Where possible managers should offer both direct one-on-ones as well as indirect channels – such as employee representatives – as ways staff could raise concerns or ideas, she said.

Duncan Brown, principal associate at the Institute for Employment Studies, said the crisis had highlighted the critical importance of employee voice, “first, in taking your employees with you in difficult situations, but also [in] using their ideas and creativity to navigate unseen circumstances”.

He said: “I really hope one of the lessons of this horrendous virus is that employers recognise the amazing contribution of their key and other workers at all levels, and take their views much more seriously in the future by investing extensively in formal and informal employee communications and involvement channels.” 

The research follows the recent publication of data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) that found male workers in frontline jobs were most at risk of Covid-19-related fatalities. The figures found men in low-skilled elementary occupations were more than twice as likely as those in directorial or managerial positions to have died after contracting coronavirus.  text