Stress in EHS: The struggles of working in health and safety

Underfunded, undervalued, underappreciated. That’s how many EHS managers would describe their teams. These feelings, which exist in all industries, impact career satisfaction and overall longevity for those in the health and safety field.

So, why is there so much stress in EHS? And where does it come from?

Disconnect between policy and practice

Most seasoned EHS pros can tell you about a time when there was a disconnect between their site’s safety policies and practices. Sometimes, these inconsistencies come from challenges with the workforce itself. More often, however, they come from the top.

So many companies tout a “safety is first” policy, but that’s not how they run their operations. In fact, the second you prioritize safety at the expense of productivity, there’s either panic, uproar, or flat-out refusal.

This puts EHS professionals in a tight spot and wears at their motivation over time. Without a consistent application of company policies, it’s nearly impossible to improve outcomes. For many, the stress of health and safety isn’t in the day-to-day interactions with workers—it comes from a lack of support at the top.

Top sources of stress in health and safety

Life in EHS would be easier if everyone within the corporate world understood the value that EHS departments provide. This work often goes unnoticed or unrecognized, making it harder for EHS teams to get the resources they need to succeed. Here are the top sources of stress in health and safety and how they impact performance.

Life and death reality

In many industries, proper execution of health and safety procedures is literally a matter of life and death. These high stakes are enough to keep a safety professional up at night, having nightmares about someone falling off a platform or blowing up the facility.

The thing that sets EHS professionals apart is that their work directly contributes to the wellbeing of their workforce. This pressure, especially when you’re dealing with new or inexperienced workers, creates a lot of stress that other professions don’t have to deal with.

Lack of support

It’s difficult to create a successful EHS program without the support of every department. And getting managers onboard is a major challenge that EHS professionals face.

This is evident in the fact that most EHS managers, at one time or another, have had to fight tooth and nail for a budget increase. If safety is the company’s top priority, then why is it so hard to secure resources?

Another example of this is when operations managers make it difficult to enforce health and safety policies. Oftentimes, safety leaders are seen as “the bad guys” or “the safety police,” a stereotype that’s perpetuated by management’s failure to enforce policies consistently. This lack of support actively works against the EHS department’s success, making it that much harder for the team to reach its goals.

Irrelevant task assignments

One problem many EHS pros deal with is getting assigned completely irrelevant tasks and responsibilities. From building maintenance to vendor management and housekeeping, the list goes on and on.

Many companies mistakenly assume that if there isn’t an immediate safety issue to handle, then the safety team has nothing to do. In fact, there’s likely no incident because the safety team is doing its job. Irrelevant tasks, over time, wear away the EHS professional’s soul and make it more difficult to monitor preventative measures.

Company politics

Another source of stress in health and safety is the fact that too much time is spent playing company politics instead of making improvements. This is especially true of big companies where metrics dominate meeting agendas and anecdotal evidence takes a backseat.

At the end of the day, the safety guy or gal doesn’t care whether the overall TRIR decreased last quarter if there was a serious incident. Playing politics is absolutely the last thing EHS teams want or need to do when they have critical issues to correct.

Compliance management

A major component of health and safety is compliance, which requires a lot of documentation and administrative work. Nothing’s more stressful for compliance than waiting for operations managers and senior leaders to complete their records or fulfill a requirement.

Many EHS pros try to get ahead of the problem by sending out reminders well in advance. But there are always some people who are hard to track down and get within compliance. This process, even if everyone’s easy to work with, can be stressful for any EHS department.

Unrealistic expectations

Professionally, many EHS specialists get stressed about their individual performance. After all, health and safety departments don’t often get the same recognition as other teams within the company. That’s because safety (or lack thereof) is technically a cost, not profit, center.

This means that when EHS pros do well, they instantly get a new set of expectations. The bar is constantly moving, especially when it comes to budget. In the long run, this can be a constant source of stress and discouragement.

Human and organizational performance

Much of the stress in health and safety comes from a lack of understanding. For companies to evolve, they must start listening to their employees and view them as partners in success.

The principles of Human and Organizational Performance (HOP) provide a framework for creating a healthier and much more productive work environment. According to Sam Goodman (A.K.A “The HOP Nerd”):

“Rather than viewing people as the problem and attempting to cure our work worlds of events and problems by seeking to cure people of their humanity, HOP teaches us to embrace our fellow humans, to defer to their expertise, to learn from them, to seek to understand, and to understand that their “know-how” and knowledge is vital to the success of our organizations.”

If companies took this approach, how might they be able to transform job satisfaction among their EHS teams and their frontline workers?