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Original Article

Safety Representatives’ Job Crafting in Organizational Interventions: Driver, Counselor, Watchdog, or Abstainer

Authors:

Eyvind Helland ,

Norwegian University of Science and Technology, NO
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Marit Christensen,

Norwegian University of Science and Technology, NO
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Siw Tone Innstrand,

Norwegian University of Science and Technology, NO
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Anne Iversen,

Norwegian University of Science and Technology, NO
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Karina Nielsen

Sheffield University Management School, GB
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Abstract

The Nordic model and organizational research highlight the benefits of employee participation and collaboration between management and employees. Using job crafting theory, this paper studied the roles safety representatives craft for themselves in organizational interventions, the mental models that impact the roles they craft, and the possible consequences these roles have for intervention implementation. The research used a case study design to interview 15 safety representatives of 15 different departments at a university in Norway regarding their role in an organizational intervention. The thematic analysis identified five roles the safety representatives crafted for themselves: 1) Watchdogs safeguarding the work environment, 2) Watchdogs safeguarding the line managers’ implementation, 3) Counsellors to the line manager on how to implement the intervention activities, 4) Drivers who themselves implement the intervention activities, and 5) Abstainers who let the intervention occur without their involvement. The safety representatives’ mental models of their line manager, the work environment, their colleagues, and the intervention itself appeared to affect the roles they crafted. Finally, the different roles safety representatives crafted for themselves seemed to influence the intervention implementation.
How to Cite: Helland, E., Christensen, M., Innstrand, S.T., Iversen, A. and Nielsen, K., 2021. Safety Representatives’ Job Crafting in Organizational Interventions: Driver, Counselor, Watchdog, or Abstainer. Scandinavian Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 6(1), p.6. DOI: http://doi.org/10.16993/sjwop.137
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  Published on 30 Sep 2021
 Accepted on 25 Aug 2021            Submitted on 08 Oct 2020

Introduction

Researchers have established that the processes of organizational interventions, here defined as theory-driven activities intended to enhance employees’ health and well-being (Nielsen & Noblet, 2018), determine their outcomes (e.g., Ipsen et al., 2015; von Thiele Schwarz et al., 2020). Scholars have, for example, found that organizational interventions fail due to poor and partial implementation (Biron et al., 2010). Therefore, it is important to study how organizational interventions in all their complexity can develop employee health and well-being (Nielsen & Miraglia, 2017). Collaboration between line managers and employees is a crucial component of successful organizational intervention processes (Nielsen, 2017). Collaboration between line managers and employees is also internationally relevant, as research suggests it benefits employee health (Egan et al., 2007), organizational commitment, and motivation (Bakan et al., 2004). The Nordic model of working life envisions organizational interventions to be a collaborative effort between line managers and employees, and, in this regard, it casts the safety representative in a central role due to their formal responsibilities concerning safety and health (e.g., the Norwegian Working Environment Act, 2017). There is a lack of knowledge about the role of safety representatives in organizational interventions. To garner further insight into how to implement successful organizational interventions, there is a need to investigate the safety representatives’ role in implementation.

Using job crafting theory (Berg et al., 2010; Wang et al., 2017a; Wrzesniewski & Dutton, 2001) we address this need by researching the roles safety representatives craft for themselves in organizational interventions, mental models (Nielsen & Randall, 2013) that affect the roles they craft, and the possible consequences these roles have in the intervention process. Job crafting theory suggests that employees actively shape their roles by prioritizing tasks and relationships while deprioritizing others (Wrzesniewski & Dutton, 2001) and is highly relevant for organizational intervention processes (Nielsen, 2013). To the best of our knowledge, safety representatives’ job crafting in organizational interventions has not been studied before and may provide an understanding of their role in organizational interventions.

Safety representatives

Safety representatives are employees elected by other employees to represent them with a mandate and formal responsibility in the organizational hierarchy (Working Environment Act, 2017). Their role is to function as a mediator between working environment efforts and the employees’ lived experience of their daily work (Karlsen et al., 2019). As mediators who voice and interpret the employees’ experience, safety representatives have a key role in shaping the work environment (Nielsen & Hohnen, 2014). Safety representatives manifest a form of indirect employee participation by representative participation (Abildgaard et al., 2018). Their task is to safeguard the employees’ work environment and to support their line managers in planning and implementing organizational changes relevant to the work environment, such as organizational interventions (Working Environment Act, 2017).

While regular employees have a duty to cooperate in designing, implementing, and following up on organizational interventions (Working Environment Act, 2017), line managers’ managerial prerogative gives them the right to organize, control, lead, and distribute work within the boundaries of laws and regulations (Norwegian Bar Association, 2000). From this prerogative, line managers decide how to conduct organizational interventions, but they also have a duty to consult the safety representative when planning and implementing them. The formal mandate of safety representatives in relation to regular employees and line managers is therefore quite clear.

Researchers have examined the role of the safety representative in general occupational health and safety matters. They found a significant gap in the line managers’ and safety representatives’ understanding of the safety representative’s role (Hovden et al., 2008). This gap is unfortunate because a shared understanding of an existing situation between line managers and employees is central for creating psychologically healthier workplaces through organizational interventions (Nielsen, 2017). Researchers have also identified that the part-time nature of safety representatives can create challenges to developing shared responsibility for organizational change between line manager and safety representatives (Hasle & Jensen, 2006). Moreover, safety representatives face dilemmas between their legislated mandate and various inconsistent expectations from company policies, management, and employees. These dilemmas result in safety representatives contributing to the work environment efforts to varying degrees (Rasmussen et al., 2014). Knowledge about the roles manifested by safety representatives in organizational interventions and their impact on intervention processes is lacking.

Mental models

The processual dimensions that affect the outcomes of organizational interventions can be categorized into (1) the design and implementation of the intervention, (2) the context of the intervention, and (3) the mental models participants have of their work context and the intervention (Nielsen & Randall, 2013). Research has paid considerable attention to the design, implementation, and context of organizational interventions (e.g., Biron et al., 2010; Nielsen & Abildgaard, 2013). Mental models, which have also received some scholarly focus, determine how participants understand and practice their formal roles in relation to their intervention and context (Nielsen & Randall, 2013). For instance, researchers have explored line managers’ perceptions of employee readiness for change (Christensen et al., 2019; Ipsen et al., 2015), employees’ experiences with work environment surveys (Nielsen et al., 2014), and the interplay between sensemaking and material artefacts of both employees and line managers (Abildgaard & Nielsen, 2018). The safety representatives’ mental models about their work context and the intervention are likely to impact the roles they craft in organizational interventions, which will influence the intervention process.

Job crafting theory

Job crafting is defined as “the physical and cognitive changes individuals make in the task or relational boundaries of their work” (Wrzesniewski & Dutton, 2001, p. 179). Job crafting theory emphasizes how employees actively shape the social interactions and tasks of their jobs by prioritizing some work tasks and social relationships and deprioritizing others. It is a social constructivist perspective, as it underlines how employees psychologically build their experience from elements in their social context. According to job crafting, social interactions at work define employees’ roles in the workplace. Work roles (such as the role of safety representatives) are not fully decided by formal responsibilities; employees have some freedom to define their roles (Wrzesniewski & Dutton, 2001). By engaging in job crafting, employees position themselves to alter the boundaries of their tasks and relationships at work. It is possible to change task boundaries by adjusting what and how job activities are engaged in and by cognitively reframing how employees understand the tasks. Likewise, it is possible to change relational boundaries by choosing who to interact with while performing the job. The modifications employees make to these boundaries shape the social environment and job design (Wrzesniewski & Dutton, 2001).

Furthermore, the employees’ context is essential in framing the limits and possibilities for job crafting (Wrzesniewski & Dutton, 2001). The employees’ degree of job autonomy is especially important, as it marks the boundaries within which employees may craft their jobs (Wrzesniewski & Dutton, 2001). Employees’ ability to job craft is determined by where they are in the organizational hierarchy, which can create constraints that pertain to the job role itself, and a lack of decisional power compared to the line manager (Berg et al., 2010). Moreover, the behaviors of line managers are closely tied to job crafting (Wang et al., 2017a). For instance, line managers who make it clear that change is welcome encourage employees to engage in job crafting (Wang et al., 2017b). Thus, although job crafting refers to proactive employees who shape their roles, contextual factors, such as job autonomy, role constraints, possession of power, and line managers’ actions, all influence the motivation, ability, and type of job crafting in which employees engage.

From job crafting theory, it follows that safety representatives craft the content of their role in organizational interventions by altering the boundaries of their tasks and relationships through prioritizing or deprioritizing tasks and social interactions. These boundary alterations occur in a context, and what that context offers influences their mental models and subsequently the roles they shape for themselves throughout the intervention. Organizational interventions bring changes to the organization of work that involve setting novel priorities, modifying roles, and renegotiating relations between organizational actors, for instance, the relationships between line managers and safety representatives (Seo et al., 2004). Thus, safety representatives use job crafting throughout an organizational intervention to create and practice their roles. Based on their mental models, they position themselves and interpret their roles in different ways; they use job crafting to fit the role of the safety representative to their image of what a safety representative should do within the confines of their context. The diversity of the safety representatives’ positioning and interpretation will, in turn, affect the intervention implementation in distinct ways, creating different intervention implementations.

Research questions

The research questions of this paper are

RQ1: What roles do safety representatives craft for themselves in organizational interventions?

RQ2: What mental models of context and intervention impact the roles they craft?

RQ3: What possible consequences do the roles safety representatives craft have for intervention implementation?

To answer these questions, we analyze the tasks and relationships safety representatives prioritize or deprioritize (Wrzesniewski & Dutton, 2001) throughout an organizational intervention.

Methods

Design

We investigate the research questions using a case study design, which offers holistic and detailed first-person information about complex behavior systems (Tellis, 1997), such as organizational interventions. We conducted the research in conformity with four recommended stages for case studies (Tellis, 1997). The first stage consists of designing the study; the second stage is implementing the study. The third stage analyzes the evidence; the fourth and final stage establishes the study’s conclusions.

In designing the study, we decided to interview individuals who had been safety representatives in departments of a sizable university in Norway immediately after the implementation of an organizational intervention. This university had a rectorate and departments from multiple faculties of the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. The sizes of the departments ranged from 20 to 150 employees. The departments employed department heads; whereas, the employees elected the safety representatives from a pool consisting of administrative staff and scientific staff. To interview the safety representatives, we created a semi-structured interview guide based on a process evaluation checklist (Nielsen & Randall, 2013). The process evaluation checklist provides a structure that conforms with how the organization implemented the intervention (i.e., preparation, screening, action planning, implementation, and evaluation). Moreover, it gives insight into mental models, roles, and prioritizations of safety representatives that answer questions about the roles they crafted for themselves throughout the intervention. The interviews were planned to be transcribed verbatim and analyzed with thematic analysis (Clarke et al., 2015). This research follows ethical requirements, as approved by the Norwegian Centre for Research Data. To protect their anonymity, we used pseudonyms for the safety representatives.

In implementing the study, we first emailed 150 individuals from all of the university’s departments who were safety representatives during the organizational intervention, providing information about the research and informing them that they might be invited by phone to participate in the study. Next, we phoned 35 safety representatives, of which 15 agreed to participate in the interviews. Fifteen interviews complies with the number recommended for thematic analysis (Clarke et al., 2015). Moreover, by the fifteenth interview, we deemed it unlikely that additional data collection, by the principle of saturation, would provide novel and crucial information (Charmaz, 2006). The authors of this paper or a student conducted the interviews in the safety representatives’ offices. The interviews were recorded and transcribed verbatim. Of the 15 safety representatives, there were 8 men and 7 women, all from different departments. Three safety representatives worked in humanities departments, one in a social sciences department, five in natural sciences departments, and six in administrative departments. We interviewed them about the most recent intervention cycle, as their departments had conducted two cycles of the same organizational intervention before the current one.

Using the semi-structured interview guide, we asked about their experiences, thoughts, and behaviors as safety representatives throughout the intervention process. We asked about their roles, motivations, contextual influences, and the intervention design in (1) the preparation phase (example questions: “Were you motivated to participate in the intervention? Is there something about the process that did not motivate you?”); (2) the screening phase (example question: “Did you do anything to motivate your colleagues for completing the survey?”); (3) the action planning phase (example question: “Was there, in this phase, any cooperation between you and the line manager?”); (4) the implementation phase (example question: “Were you involved in implementing the action plans? How?”); (5) the evaluation phase (example question: “Were you involved in the process evaluation?”); and (6) the intervention at large (example question: “What was your role as a safety representative in the ARK intervention?”).

This study’s organizational intervention

The intervention, named ARK (Norwegian acronym for “Working environment and working climate surveys”) Intervention Program (Innstrand & Christensen, 2020), was a reoccurring (a new cycle every two or three years) organizational intervention tailored for knowledge-intensive work environments. The ARK Intervention Program had undergone two cycles of intervention before the cycle this paper studied. All the departments of a Norwegian university implemented the ARK Intervention Program, and the university established a steering group to guide the university and oversee its implementation. The ARK Intervention Program was a tool for leaders to (1) create action plans for work environment improvement/conservation based on job resources and job demands and (2) meet national legislation to systematically manage psychosocial risks and promote health and well-being (Innstrand et al., 2015). These aims were to be achieved by being anchored in the Nordic tripartite model’s principles of employee influence and participation (the Norwegian Working Environment Act, 2017), for instance, through contributions of safety representatives. This bottom-up approach to organizational interventions concurs with recommendations in the literature (Nielsen & Noblet, 2018). The organizational intervention of this study followed five phases of organizational interventions (Nielsen et al., 2010): preparation, screening, action planning, implementation, and evaluation.

The preparation phase

In the preparation phase, the safety representative and the line manager together completed and delivered a report (i.e., “Factsheet I”) to HR and senior management. In departments with more than one safety representative, the main safety representative or a safety representative chosen by the main safety representative completed the report in collaboration with the line manager. The report included structural facts about the department, such as number of tenured staff and staff on short-term contracts, and an evaluation of the action plans from the last intervention cycle. Furthermore, senior management and HR recommended that line managers plan the intervention and highlight the intervention’s importance and opportunity for employee involvement as well as communicate its purpose and vision. Senior management and HR encouraged the line managers to ensure a high survey response rate by openly discussing the survey (i.e., its questions and theoretical foundation) and emphasizing the survey’s anonymity. To support the line managers, some members of senior management and HR arranged a competition (with cake as the reward) for the highest survey response rate, and the line managers could enroll their departments to participate. Senior management and HR encouraged the line managers and the safety representatives to consider whether the safety representative should be involved in motivating the employees to complete the survey.

The screening phase

In the screening phase, senior management invited and reminded employees via email to complete a survey (available in English and Norwegian) regarding psychosocial work environment experiences. Senior management and HR also recommended that line managers encourage employees to complete the survey. The distributed questionnaire was the Knowledge-Intensive Work Environment Survey Target (KIWEST), a validated questionnaire tailor-made for academia, which covered psychosocial risk factors (Innstrand et al., 2015). HR analyzed the confidential and anonymized survey results and provided them to line managers, who presented the results to employees in the action planning phase.

The action planning phase

In the action planning phase, the line managers and safety representatives used a checklist provided by HR to plan survey feedback and action planning meetings with employees. The checklist guided the safety representatives and line managers to discuss the survey results and relevant matters, determine how to develop the action plans, and decide how to implement the action plans. The checklist also encouraged line managers to review the survey results, assess risks, discuss relevant issues, define roles, decide the composition of groups to develop actions, and outline a schedule for developing and implementing actions. The checklist also contained a meeting framework, which, among general guidelines, recommended inviting all employees, that the meeting should last approximately three hours, that it should decide how to distribute the results, and refreshments and food should be provided. At the meeting, the line managers presented the results and interpretations of the survey and facilitated employee-driven development of action plans. HR provided template PowerPoint slides to present at the meeting. The slides contained the theoretical underpinnings of the intervention and the department’s survey results compared to the average university department. The slides encouraged employees to discuss positive and negative items from the presentation of the results and to select three areas for conservation and three areas for improvement (for more information, see Innstrand & Christensen, 2020). In the aftermath of the action planning meeting, senior management and HR encouraged line managers to create an action plan consisting of the developed actions in dialogue with their safety representatives. The action plan formalized who was responsible for implementing the action plans and contained a schedule for their implementation.

The implementation phase

In the implementation phase, senior management and HR allocated the responsibility for implementing action plans to line managers. In addition, senior management and HR encouraged safety representatives to ask and monitor their line managers regarding the implementation status of the action plans.

The evaluation phase

In the evaluation phase, line managers and their safety representatives delivered a report (i.e., “Factsheet II”) to HR and senior management that was a general evaluation of the intervention process. This report presented how employees received the survey results, how many attended the survey feedback session, and why there might have been low survey feedback and action planning attendance. Moreover, they asked the line managers and the safety representatives to describe how the action plans were developed. Further, they asked the line managers and safety representatives to report which working conditions their employees wanted to conserve and which they wanted to improve, what action plans employees agreed to implement, and the date for implementation. The line managers and safety representatives rated their intervention experience in general using a Likert scale ranging from “very good” to “poor.” They also responded to two questions that asked what they experienced as most positive and most negative about the intervention. Finally, the line managers and safety representatives reported what they believed could have improved the intervention. Figure 1 illustrates the intervention’s phases and the safety representatives’ prescribed steps.

Figure 1 

The safety representatives’ prescribed steps throughout the organizational intervention’s phases.

Data analysis

To investigate the types of roles the 15 safety representatives crafted for themselves in the organizational intervention, we transcribed the interviews verbatim, analyzed the evidence, and developed conclusions with deductive thematic analysis (Clarke et al., 2015). Deductive thematic analysis constructs themes from a theoretical basis. Thus, we analyzed the safety representatives’ account of how they prioritized and deprioritized their tasks and social relationships (i.e. their job crafting) (Berg et al., 2010; Wang et al., 2017a; Wrzesniewski & Dutton, 2001) in the five phases of the intervention. Thematic analysis has the following six phases (Clarke et al., 2015): familiarization, creating codes, searching for themes, reviewing themes, naming and defining themes, and writing the manuscript.

The main author first read the interviews twice to become familiar with the data. A co-author also read the interviews to ensure that the thematic analysis was based on the interview data. The main author then used Microsoft Word to create initial codes from meaningful data excerpts pertinent to the research questions. We grouped these initial codes with a preliminary coding structure based on both the interview guide and the research questions. Short codes data excerpts relevant for safety representatives’ job crafting (Berg et al., 2010; Wang et al., 2017a; Wrzesniewski & Dutton, 2001) of their roles (i.e., prioritizing and/or deprioritizing of tasks and relationships) were sorted to the referenced intervention phase (e.g., the screening phase) with data excerpts placed in comments. Based on these codes and again using Microsoft Word, the main author searched for and suggested preliminary and plausible thematic patterns answering the research questions. The authors then reviewed and revised these preliminary themes in relation to the research question, “What roles do safety representatives craft for themselves in organizational interventions?” We accomplished this by investigating the fit between the coded data and the data set and inspecting whether the themes could be defined. Finally, to establish the study’s conclusions and while writing the manuscript, the final themes were named and defined as they linked to safety representatives’ job crafting in organizational interventions. We finalized the themes while writing the paper because it provided a dynamic approach that enabled the integration of insights among the authors while writing and discussing the paper. We identified five themes of safety representative job crafting. The names and definitions of the themes reflect their central organizing concept, and quotations from the data provide validation (Clarke et al., 2015). The analysis of the research questions of “What are the mental models of context and intervention that impact the roles they craft?” and “What possible consequences do the roles safety representatives craft have for intervention implementation?” was finalized based on the five identified themes. The authors deliberated the results of this study throughout the analysis and writing process, using meetings, emails, and a workshop.

Results

The analysis shows the five roles safety representatives crafted for themselves, the mental models of context and intervention affecting the roles they craft, and the possible consequences the different types of job crafting have for intervention implementation. The analysis identified five overarching themes of roles safety representatives crafted in the organizational intervention: “watchdog of the work environment,” “watchdog of the intervention,” “counsellor,” “driver,” and “abstainer.” One safety representative mainly crafted a role as a watchdog of the work environment, two safety representatives primarily crafted their roles as watchdogs of the intervention, six safety representatives mostly crafted their roles as counselors, two safety representatives largely crafted their role as drivers, and four safety representatives mainly crafted their role as abstainers. It is important to note that the five themes are not mutually exclusive for the same safety representative; they represent the main form of job crafting in which they engaged. Depending on the context, the same safety representative could manifest different roles of job crafting at different phases of the organizational intervention or even during the same intervention activity.

The following sections present an analysis of the generated themes intertwined with an analysis of the impacting mental models; an analysis of the possible consequences for the intervention implementation follows each. Figure 2 shows a visual summary of the identified themes, the mental models of context and intervention that appear to inform them, and the possible consequences for the intervention implementation. Table 1 provides the thematic analysis results and contains representative quotes from the interviews to support the analysis. The analysis also includes other supporting quotes from the interviews. An italic font emphasizes the themes.

Figure 2 

Safety representatives’ mental models, types of crafted roles, and possible consequences for intervention implementation.

Table 1

The safety representatives’ job crafting types in the organizational intervention.

Type of job crafting (Themes) Representative data (Data extracts)

Watchdog of the work environment [My role was to] be there from the beginning and to fill the [factsheets] with the line manager. (…) And if you get any [results] that you get a low score on, the safety representative should get involved. [14SR]
Watchdog of the intervention I observed that [management] took it seriously the entire time (…) [My role in the intervention process] was to make sure that everything was done correctly, mostly being a watchdog. [13SR]
Counselor [The line manager and I] had some conversations [before the intervention] (…) about the [intervention] process. How to implement it and what is best for this section. (…) [My role] is to be there for the employees, on that side, right? (…) [We] went through the main things about the results with the line manager in advance. And then we saw some tendencies: “What can we point to and what can we not point to?” So, we had some bullet points ready in advance [of the survey feedback meeting]. (…) After the [action planning meeting], [the line manager and I] wrote the [action plans] down and looked over them; that it is these we should have as action plans. [12SR]
Driver My role in the intervention (pause). I think it was necessary that someone was pushing (…) Someone must be the responsible party here, and I got all the information. I was talking to other people. I was talking to other safety representatives. It depends maybe on which way… I have been safety representative for a very long time, so I feel safe; no one threatens me, if you understand. And if I talk, people listen. So, that maybe is the difference between safety representatives, which have been there for one year, I have been here for 5/6 years. So, I feel safe. [4SR]
Abstainer I got an email [from the line manager]: “We have to do [the factsheet],” and then I got a new e-mail that the office manager had already done this. So, [my line manager] just came by and we looked at it for just one minute, the factsheet. So, it was really not participating I would say, it was more like: “Okay, I will check out that you were here.” (…) I do not think that my role [in the intervention] was what it was supposed to be. [I was] just a tick-point. And I did not like that. (…) It says: “Work on this together with your leader,” and that did not happen. [8SR]

Watchdog of the work environment

The safety representatives best described as watchdogs of the work environment crafted a role in which they involved themselves in implementing intervention activities depending on the perceived quality of the work environment. These safety representatives worked with the line manager in the preparation phase of the intervention, participated in the obligatory activities, and prioritized following up on implementing intervention activities only if the survey results revealed a problem with the work environment. Thus, their mental models of the work environment appeared to play a significant role for these safety representatives. They saw it as their role to get involved in the intervention only if they believed the work environment was poor or heading in a negative direction. Implicit in this type of job crafting is a mental model of the line manager as someone who invites the safety representative to attend meetings and preparations for the intervention and its activities.

Possible consequences

The watchdogs of the work environment were concerned that focusing on problems where none were believed to exist would create problems the intervention intended to remedy. Thus, a possible consequence for the intervention implementation is that it comes to a halt after the development of action plans because watchdogs of the work environment will not prioritize the tasks and relationships that ensure their implementation if the work environment is considered unproblematic:

We did not follow up on [implementing the developed action plans] as there were no problems [with the work environment]. You do not look for problems. You know what I mean? If you do not have a problem, you do not look for it. [14 SR]

Watchdog of the intervention

The safety representatives identified as watchdogs of the intervention crafted a role for themselves in which they observed and safeguarded that the intervention implementation was in good shape. They crafted roles that prioritized following up on the implementation of the intervention activities, often by monitoring that the line manager followed up implementing the intervention activities according to plan. However, the watchdogs of the intervention also prioritized following up on the employees’ efforts in the intervention:

[I] tried to help the employees develop good actions. That’s my focus, that the actions should be something that feels relevant and that we actually want to do. (…) I’m not sure it should be a lot more than that because health and safety at work is really legally the responsibility of the manager. So, my job is to alert management when something is wrong and demand that they fix it. [2SR]

Differing from the watchdogs of the work environment, their mental models of the work environment’s quality appeared irrelevant for whether the watchdogs of the intervention prioritized following up on the implementation of intervention activities. They prioritized those tasks and relationships regardless of context. In common with the watchdogs of the work environment, the watchdogs of the intervention had a mental model of a line manager who invites them to meetings and preparations for the intervention activities.

Possible consequences

Having safety representatives craft their role as a watchdog of the intervention may ensure that line managers and employees implement the intervention activities (e.g., the action plans), irrespective of their mental models of work environment quality: “Make sure the action plans do not become forgotten in a drawer” [13SR]. In comparison, having safety representatives craft their roles as watchdog of the work environment presents a risk to keeping up the intervention implementation momentum (e.g., by not implementing the developed action plans) when they perceive the work environment to be of good quality.

Counselor

A third role safety representatives crafted was as a counselor, someone who actively represents the employees’ interests in discussions with their line manager about implementing intervention activities. In contrast with the watchdogs, the counselors actively engaged in how the line manager implemented the intervention activities. Thus, they prioritized both the task of counseling and their relationship with the line manager. In general, they counseled their line managers on implementing the intervention activities before they began, how to interpret the survey results, and which action plans to implement. Some who crafted a role as counselor also took it upon themselves to summarize and mediate the feedback from the groups at the action development meetings for the line manager: 7SR said, “I was the one who sort of compressed the different feedback from the groups, and I very much relied on what they had written.” In common with the watchdogs of the work environment and the watchdogs of the intervention, the counselors have a mental model of a line manager who invites them to participate in meetings where they can counsel the line manager on how to implement the intervention.

Possible consequences

A consequence for the intervention implementation was that it was shaped by the employees’ work environment interests, as interpreted by the safety representative. Thus, the line managers got input from an employee representative’s standpoint regarding how to constructively implement the intervention activities. This included, for instance, how to interpret the survey results and what action plans to implement.

Driver

A fourth way safety representatives crafted their role was as a driver. The drivers crafted their role as someone who implements the intervention activities. The drivers “pushed” the implementation by making it a priority to directly address and motivate the employees to participate throughout the intervention process and by taking responsibility for its completion. They did so by ensuring the employees completed the survey, leading the action planning meeting, and implementing the action plans themselves. The safety representatives’ mental models of context enabled them to prioritize the tasks and social relationships that crafting a role as a driver seemed to require. First, the line manager seemed to have abdicated responsibility for implementing the intervention, a role the safety representative thought needed filling. Second, having the trust and respect of colleagues was necessary to feel “safe” to drive the implementation of the intervention.

Possible consequences

The consequence for the intervention implementation of safety representatives crafting their role as drivers appeared to be an employee-driven implementation of intervention activities. The drivers discussed and encouraged the employees to answer the survey, planned the survey feedback meeting with the line manager, presented the survey results to the employees, and made sure the action plans were implemented:

I motivated the people to answer the questions, and we talked a lot about it. During this process, when we got the [survey], we could see how many had answered and everything, so I just asked: “Have you answered, have you answered? It’s important that you do.” (…) we are three safety representatives. So, we sat with the managers here and we presented some … we presented everything, but we decided first what … which topics were lower or higher than two years ago and what we thought was the thing we had to [focus on] (…) One other safety representative here, he made the presentation [of the survey results] and everything. (…) I was leading [the action plan development] (…) I am going to follow up [the implementation of the action plans]. [4SR]

While having safety representatives who craft their role as drivers seemed to make the intervention implementation more bottom-up, some safety representatives reported dissatisfaction with doing something they did not view as their mandate. They had a mental model wherein the line manager had abdicated responsibility, and they thought it was “wrong” that safety representatives were to do something they neither had the responsibility nor the authority to do. They wanted to craft a role as a watchdog or counselor but ended up as a driver. Without a formal mandate, a possible risk to the intervention implementation of having safety representatives craft a driving role, therefore, appears to be a resentful implementation of intervention activities:

[Management] leaves responsibility (…) to the safety representative [for the intervention]. (…) I think the managers, institute managers, and the deans, those who have the formal responsibilities, you should start with them. Send them on a course or whatever, but they should run the whole survey. They should be the ones with the whip: “Answer now!” Not us. [The safety representative is] supposed to just follow and see that things are happening. If it is not happening, then you must report it to a higher level. But now we are running the business, and that is wrong because we don’t have any authority, and we don’t have any responsibility either, so this is a major problem. [1SR]

Abstainer

The fifth and final way safety representatives crafted their role we termed abstainers. These safety representatives let the intervention occur without taking the initiative to involve themselves in its implementation. Mental models of context appeared to be crucial for safety representatives crafting roles as abstainers. They may have wanted to craft their role as a counselor but felt unable to do so in a context where the line manager did not invite them to the intervention implementation. Thus, they believed their line manager relegated them to a formal “tick-point” instead of enabling them to craft a role as a counselor who cooperates and provides insights into the intervention implementation from an employee representative’s perspective. Moreover, some of the abstainers said they were unclear about what their role was supposed to be. They pointed to a mental model of the intervention as a reason for their unclarity: a lack of training and instruction for how to be a safety representative in the organizational intervention.

Possible consequences

A possible consequence of safety representatives crafting a role as an abstainer in an organizational intervention is that the intervention implementation was not informed by someone representing the employees’ work environment interests. This renders its implementation more top-down, as in driven and informed mostly by the line manager. As these safety representatives do not monitor the line manager’s implementation, there is also an increased risk that the intervention activities are not implemented by the line manager. The abstainers do not strictly represent a form of job crafting, as they did not actively shape their work situation. The abstainers are nonetheless included as a theme because they provide important insight into how mental models of context and intervention affect safety representatives’ role and the possible consequences for the intervention implementation.

Discussion

Using job crafting theory (Berg et al., 2010; Wang et al., 2017a; Wrzesniewski & Dutton, 2001), the analysis of these results show the different roles safety representatives may craft for themselves in organizational interventions (i.e., as watchdogs, counsellors, drivers, and/or abstainers). The analysis also indicates that safety representatives’ mental models of context (i.e., the line managers’ invitation of their contributions or not, the work environment’s perceived quality, and the employees’ trust and respect for them) and of the intervention itself (i.e., lack or presence of proper training in the preparation phase) influence the roles they craft. Finally, the analysis illustrates the possible consequences the different roles safety representatives may craft for themselves have for the intervention implementation. This paper’s analysis thus provides deeper insight into what occurs in organizational intervention processes (Nielsen & Miraglia, 2017).

The intervention process (i.e., the intervention design and implementation, the context of the intervention, and participants’ mental models of context and intervention) determines the outcomes of organizational interventions (Nielsen & Randall, 2013), as many studies can support (e.g., Cox et al., 2014; Ipsen et al., 2015). Researchers have, for instance, found that organizational interventions break due to partial and poor implementation (Biron et al., 2010). The findings of this study suggest that the different roles safety representatives craft are likely to influence intervention implementation in distinct ways, which is likely to inform the organizational outcomes.

The safety representatives who craft roles as watchdogs of the intervention monitor whether line managers implement the various intervention activities, thus appearing to ensure an outcome that the line managers implement and complete the intervention. The safety representatives who craft roles as counselors counsel their line managers on how to effectively and constructively implement the intervention. Therefore, the counselors may ensure an organizational outcome influenced by indirect employee participation (Abildgaard et al., 2018). Instead of seeing the intervention implemented by line managers, the safety representatives who craft roles as drivers take ownership of the organizational intervention by implementing and completing it. The “rivers are thus likely to create an organizational outcome mostly determined by the safety representative, which perhaps can be considered direct employee determination.

In common for watchdogs of the intervention, counsellors, and drivers, implementing action plans in the implementation phase appears to be a benefit, either by ensuring that line managers implement the action plans, counseling line managers on implementing the actions plans, or implementing the action plans themselves. In this regard, the safety representatives who craft roles as watchdog of the work environment or abstainers appear to be exceptions. The watchdogs of the work environment monitor the line managers’ intervention implementation of actions only if they perceive that the work environment is of poor quality. Thus, if these safety representatives perceive a work environment of good quality, the intervention appears vulnerable for not being completed, rendering an intervention without concrete outcomes. Moreover, the abstainers let the intervention be implemented without any of their input, thus risking unimplemented intervention activities.

The results also reinforce the importance of intervention participants’ mental models of their context and the intervention (Nielsen & Randall, 2013). Previous research has found that participants’ mental models affect their understanding and practice of roles in organizational interventions (e.g., Christensen et al., 2019; Ipsen et al., 2015). Echoing job crafting theory’s link between context and job crafting (Berg et al., 2010; Wang et al., 2017a; Wrzesniewski & Dutton, 2001), this paper adds to the literature by showcasing the centrality of the safety representatives’ mental models of context in how they craft their formal roles throughout concrete organizational interventions. The safety representatives’ mental models of their work environment appear to be a prominent contextual feature affecting their role. If the work environment is perceived to require improvement, the safety representatives seem more inclined to position themselves to closely follow up on the implementation of intervention activities. This could be by crafting a role that ensures the line manager implements the intervention activities and/or by proactively providing counsel to line managers on how to implement the intervention activities.

Moreover, in line with the importance of leadership for job crafting (Wang et al., 2017a), the safety representatives’ mental models of their line manager seem especially important for their job crafting. When the line manager does not seem to involve the safety representative in planning or implementing the intervention activities, the safety representatives appear less motivated to craft a role that contributes to the intervention implementation. This could be by feeling unable to craft a role in which the safety representative counsels the line manager on implementing the intervention. Conversely, if the safety representatives experience the line manager involving them, they also feel enabled to craft a counseling role for their line manager.

In situations where line managers do not invite safety representatives to arenas in which they can craft roles, the lack of autonomy hindered job crafting (Wrzesniewski & Dutton, 2001). Job autonomy appears to play a distinct role when safety representatives perceive that the line manager abdicates responsibility to drive the intervention and safety representatives feel trusted and respected by colleagues. With job autonomy, line manager abdication of responsibility, and respect from colleagues, safety representatives have the freedom and legitimacy to fill the void left by the line manager by crafting a central role in which they drive intervention activities, such as encouraging survey completion, running the action plan meeting, and implementing the action plans.

These findings point to a conundrum between safety representatives’ legislative mandate and management’s expectations, which may lead to their differing levels of involvement in organizational interventions (Rasmussen et al., 2014), and the relationship between structural location and job crafting (Berg et al., 2010). Although line managers have a duty to consult safety representatives (Working Environment Act, 2017), they still have a managerial prerogative (Norwegian Bar Association, 2000), while safety representatives do not. These regulatory facts suggest that safety representatives who drive the intervention go beyond their legislated mandate. As the participants of this study can attest, this may engender resentment among the driving safety representatives when combined with a perception that their line managers have abdicated their responsibility to drive the intervention. Nevertheless, the findings of this study indicate that safety representatives might drive organizational interventions, but this role should not be a result of line manager abdication, which does not bring a good intervention implementation. Instead, it is possible to envision a different situation in which the intervention positions safety representatives to be co-drivers who collaborate with line managers from start to finish. A solution in the spirit of the Nordic model’s emphasis on employee co-determination in work environment matters (e.g., Working Environment Act, 2017), but that likely requires increasing the amount of time (Hasle & Jensen, 2006) safety representatives have for executing their role.

The importance of mental models of context for safety representatives’ job crafting in organizational interventions thus points to a need for contextual awareness by all participants. An improved intervention process creates improved outcomes (Nielsen & Randall, 2013), and managing mental models of context is crucial. Therefore, senior management, HR, line managers, and regular employees should all be conscious of their influence on the safety representatives’ ability to craft a role conducive to an intervention process wherein intervention activities are planned and implemented, from start to finish, through a collaborative effort between line managers and safety representatives. This argument echoes the collaborative tradition of the Nordic work-life context but is also highly pertinent internationally, as research shows that collaboration between management and employees is beneficial for employee health (Egan et al., 2007), motivation, commitment (Bakan et al., 2004), and constructive organizational intervention processes (Nielsen et al., 2010).

Judging by the findings of this paper, organizational interventions are likely to benefit from collaboration between safety representatives and line managers. Such collaboration creates an intervention implementation in which activities are implemented with the employees’ interests in mind as well as the interests of management. As the outcomes of an organizational intervention depend on the quality of the intervention process (Nielsen & Randall, 2013), generating contexts in which safety representatives can craft productive roles may increase the chances of success. Management should clarify the role of management and the role of the safety representative in the organizational intervention to create a shared understanding of the situation (Nielsen, 2017). Management should also enable safety representative co-determination and participation in planning and implementing intervention activities; whereas, employees should be conscious of how their behaviors may or may not signal trust and respect to the safety representative they elected.

The findings of this paper thus reinforce the importance of context in setting boundaries for job crafting (Berg et al., 2010; Wang et al., 2017a; Wrzesniewski & Dutton, 2001). The findings also suggest that the safety representative can take on a type of leadership role to drive and ensure the intervention’s implementation. For instance, the safety representatives crafting their role as drivers did so in a context where their line manager did not take responsibility for implementation. These safety representatives had the option to let the intervention go unimplemented, but instead they took it upon themselves to implement the intervention in their line managers’ place. In contrast, other safety representatives’ context appeared to define their role fully, letting the intervention occur without their contributions. Although an understandable course of action, in terms of time management (Hasle & Jensen, 2006) and because the line managers did not invite them, these safety representatives also had the option to cite the intervention’s intentions and legislation (Working Environment Act, 2017) to demand their contributions be integrated into the intervention process. Nevertheless, it is important to consider how the line managers’ managerial prerogative to lead, control, decide, and organize (Norwegian Bar Association, 2000) creates formal boundaries that should make everyone be cautious about how much leadership to expect from safety representatives.

In addition to context, the intervention design is also important for the intervention process (Nielsen & Randall, 2013). For instance, the preparation phase familiarizes the participants with the measures of the organizational intervention (Nielsen et al., 2010). Besides showcasing the importance of having a safety representative involved in the intervention activities, the findings of this paper suggest that training safety representatives in the preparation phase may help in reaping the benefits safety representatives can offer in an organizational intervention. Instead of individual interpretations of how formal and broad mandates translate to a concrete organizational intervention, safety representatives may, in the preparation phase, go through training in how to fruitfully craft roles appropriate for their situation. In this training, the safety representatives can learn the benefits of crafting roles that go above and beyond the traditional stance in which they reactively safeguard the work environment and the organizational intervention implementation. Training may inform and encourage safety representative to attend to the positive aspects of the working environment and how the organizational intervention may preserve these positive aspects. Training may also help safety representatives understand the possibilities and positives of an approach in which they support their line managers in the implementation of intervention activities. Perhaps optimally in terms of employee co-determination and participation, safety representatives may learn to co-drive the organizational intervention with the line manager, given that they have enough time to do so (Hasle & Jensen, 2006).

Limitations

There are four criteria for validity in qualitative research (Yardley, 2015): sensitivity to context, commitment and rigor, coherence and transparency, and impact and importance. This study shows sensitivity to the context of research and theory when generating the research question, as it poses a previously unaddressed research question, building on prior research and theory. Regarding commitment and rigor, the sample size of this study satisfies the recommended number of informants for thematic analysis (Clarke et al., 2015). However, a systematic bias may stem from those who opted to participate in this study, as only 15 out of 35 phoned safety representatives volunteered to participate. This may have created a skewed analysis regarding whether the interviewed safety representatives speak for a sufficient variety of perspectives on the topic, challenging commitment and rigor (Yardley, 2015). Nevertheless, the safety representatives worked in different departments: administration, natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities. In addition, we suggest that the research achieved saturation, as similar themes emerged in our different interviews (Charmaz, 2006).

This research attempts to achieve coherence by trying to conduct the study in a way that coheres as a whole, where there is a match between the data interpretation, the research question, the theoretical procedure, and the methods conducted (Yardley, 2015). Furthermore, we achieve transparency, as the paper contributes a specific account of how the codes and themes were generated based on the data (Yardley, 2015). Relatedly, the authors of this paper were active in the research process (i.e., by creating the premises and generating the themes); this might pose a potential limitation having to do with intersubjective reliability (Clarke et al., 2015). Nevertheless, we created the interview guide based on recommendations of past intervention research (Nielsen & Randall, 2013). Furthermore, a third party conducted some of the interviews, and research questions structured the analysis, making evaluations of validity transparent and readily available for everyone.

Impact and importance were goals of this study, showcasing how safety representatives make substantial contributions to organizational interventions, and ensuring its successful implementation. Closely related is external validity, which could potentially pose a limitation as well. Scholars have argued that findings in qualitative research can never be generalized from one context to another (Guba & Lincoln, 1989). However, other scholars have argued that the aim of qualitative research is not generalizability in a quantitative and statistical sense, but rather to provide insights for different yet similar contexts (Yardley, 2015). Organizational interventions have proved to be important in other organizations than academia, for instance at blue collar workplaces (Nielsen et al., 2014). Thus, the findings of this study may arguably provide valuable insights for practitioners implementing, and scholars researching, organizational interventions in other work contexts.

Conclusion

This study adds to the organizational intervention literature by adding knowledge about the types of roles job-crafted by safety representatives in organizational intervention processes. Influenced by mental models of intervention design (i.e., training) and context (i.e., work environment, line manager, and colleagues), the safety representatives crafted roles in which they safeguarded the work environment (i.e., watchdog of the work environment), safeguarded the intervention implementation (i.e., watchdog of the intervention), counseled line managers on how to implement the intervention activities (i.e., counselor), drove the implementation of the organizational intervention (i.e., driver), and/or let the intervention occur without their input (i.e., abstainer). Job crafting by safety representatives appeared to influence the intervention implementation by ensuring or not ensuring the implementation of the intervention activities (e.g., implementing action plans in the implementation phase). However, this study does not directly investigate safety representatives’ influence on the outcomes of organizational interventions. Thus, to ascertain this influence more conclusively, future researchers may deploy a design wherein they study the effects of safety representatives’ job crafting on the outcomes of organizational interventions.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Jessica Lane for conducting interviews for this study.

Competing Interests

The authors have no competing interests to declare.

Author Contributions

  • Eyvind Helland wrote the paper, conducted interviews, and conceived, designed and performed the analysis.
  • Marit Christensen contributed with idea and writing the paper, conducted interviews, and conceived and designed the analysis.
  • Siw Tone Innstrand contributed to writing the paper and conceived and designed the analysis.
  • Anne Iversen contributed to writing the paper and conceived and designed the analysis.
  • Karina Nielsen contributed to writing the paper and conceived and designed the analysis.

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