How Culture Influences Health & Safety

2nd June 2022

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What kind of legacy will you leave? 

When it came to probing his audience to think beyond themselves, Health and Safety Advisor at Tainui Group Holdings, Benjamin Hemi, delivered a spectacular address at the Safeguard National Health and Safety Conference late last year. His insightful speech, peppered with the occasional self-deprecating line or classic Dad joke, was both engaging and educational. His message was simple. How much do we know about the people behind the people that we work with?

Hemi’s speech emphasised the overrepresentation of Māori in incidents despite the underrepresentation of Māori in the workforce altogether. Bearing this in mind, Hemi presented an insight into the Māori worldview and how we can incorporate key concepts into New Zealand workplaces. He drew upon his Māori heritage, explaining how to connect and engage Māori staff in the workplace. 

When it comes to health and safety, no stone should be left unturned when it comes to understanding your people - where they come from, who they are, and what makes them tick. The better we understand our people, the stronger our relationships become and the greater engagement becomes with our health and safety systems. 


It all starts with a simple question.

Hemi opened his address with a simple question that got us thinking. 

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Before exploring cultural differences, we should all strive - as leaders in this space - to care. The primary function of an effective leader is one who genuinely cares about their team and works to guide each person to their fullest potential. 

One of the fundamental messages from Hemi’s speech was how interpersonal connection and genuine care is a cornerstone of Māori culture, and something we can all incorporate in our workplaces. Before we get carried away with box-ticking compliance or espousing our well-intentioned health and safety regulations, we should first seek to understand our coworkers, demonstrating genuine care. 


Cultural differences can be determining factors for decreased workplace wellbeing

The next factor that we need to consider as leaders are the broad differences from culture to culture and remind ourselves about how these can contribute to various sources of stress, or a distracted worker. 

Psychologists and sociologists often class cultures into two broad categories: individualistic or collectivist. Like many indigenous or Eastern cultures, Māori culture is considered collectivist, rather than individualistic.

While all cultures celebrate family - as humans rely on social circles for emotional and physical survival - collectivist cultures often define the individual by their relationships with other people. In contrast, those who are part of individualistic cultures tend to describe themselves by means of individual achievement - their job title, their individual personality traits and more. In collectivist cultures, identity is often defined by roles in the community or family - father, mother, aunt etc. Certainly, no culture type is inherently better or worse than the other - each has different strengths and weaknesses and can learn from the other.

These cultural differences are useful for any health and safety leader to bear in mind. In New Zealand, we often tend to adopt a Western, individualistic approach when it comes to managing people. When we examine wellbeing, we often only think about the individual themselves, and their own stress. 

Considering both the Māori and collectivist worldview helps us ask bigger questions - is this worker’s wellbeing compromised because their family member is struggling? Does this worker struggle with a greater stress load because of their perceived responsibility as a member of their community? While each individual situation will differ, remembering that our people are part of larger communities is essential to understanding wellbeing and any potential root causes of major life stressors. 

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Māori voices need amplifying

Hemi’s speech highlighted the need for New Zealand health and safety leadership to have a greater focus on creating strong Māori engagement. Unfortunately, the statistics paint a difficult picture: Māori are 44% more likely to be injured in the workplace than any other group, despite only representing 17% of the New Zealand workforce. 

These numbers sternly point to a gaping issue that demands more attention and thought from all of us. As Hemi reinforced in his powerful address, we need to give Māori workers the space to contribute their understanding of health and safety to help uplift Māori workers and turn these numbers around.

Hemi explained how the underlying principle of community is central to Māori wellbeing. For example, in a traditional home, there may be a father, mother and children. In Māori homes, however, marriage not only creates families but also connects tribes, expanding the individuals’ communities. In turn, this affects things like annual leave allocation - for funerals or events concerning the marae, as the individual is part of a wider community, beyond the immediate family.

These small differences can have large implications in the workplace, emphasising how critical it is that we elevate Māori voices in leadership positions to tackle those statistics. 

Three concepts to encapsulate a Māori worldview

Hemi alluded to three definite concepts that encapsulate a Māori worldview in relation to the workplace. 


    1. Kaitiakitanga - guardianship and conservation

What kind of guardian are you?  What’s your role as a guardian? Respecting the environment, considering yourself as guardian of the land. Take a moment to think about what we’re going to do before we do it. 

When it comes to relationships, we have to look at our relationship to the world around us, as well as other people. We have a responsibility to respect the resources we use and ensure that we use them at a sustainable rate. 


    2. Whakawhangauna - connection and the process of establishing relationships 

A relationship is not based upon the length of time you’ve spent together, it’s based on the connections you’ve built. Each relationship we have, or interaction we enjoy is an opportunity to learn about people and who they are. 

Hemi outlined a simple piece of advice: just sit and listen to people. Often, lending an ear is the best way to make people feel valued and heard, and consequently breeds stronger inter-personal connections across the board. 

Specifically, with health and safety, Hemi suggests an easy question. Ask those involved, “What do you think you can do to make sure that will never happen again?”

Taking time out to listen to people is a fundamental building block for relationships. It’s essential that we make a concerted effort to reach out to people in our wider team and listen to them, actively demonstrating that they have a shoulder to lean on. 

  2.     3. Manaakitanga - kindness and generosity that comes from people who genuinely care

This value is all about doing little things to build up trust and respect. As Hemi bluntly put it - “Manaakitanga is about giving a shit!” 

This value encourages us specifically to reflect on our actions. 

Not only is connecting and listening to people an important part of relationships, but we’d all do well to remember that small acts of kindness and overall generosity go a long way. Even a simple word of encouragement or acknowledgement of a job well done is an easy way to extend aroha to those around you. If you see a colleague struggling with a job, offer a helping hand (or even just shout them a coffee!). 

We can show appreciation and support through action because- as the old adage goes - action speaks louder than words. 

These three core Māori values are a useful foundation for developing a strong culture, especially one that uplifts and celebrates Māori voices. If we embody a community-focused culture that prizes relationships above output, we’ll reap the rewards of changing those statistics. 


Final Words:

When we put caring at the heart of business, we build genuine relationships with all of those around us. 

Without a doubt, that's the first step to tackling the staggering statistics that Hemi outlined at Safeguard. Looking each other - in the eye - and taking a genuine interest in how things are really going. 

Taking the time to understand our colleagues, where they've hailed from and what their cultural background means in terms of individual wellbeing and workplace performance is how we can learn and improve, collectively.

We asked you once, now we'll ask you again: 

What kind of legacy will you leave?


  1. Want to know more about how to create a better health and safety culture? View ecoPortal smarter safety videos.  ecoPortal health and safety software can also help your business. Try a demo or get in touch with the team at ecoPortal.

Jessica Strick

Marketing Copywriter

Jess loves being part of the brainstorming, researching and creating scene at ecoPortal.

In her spare time, she’s either spending hours on her Kindle, discussing the ethics of social media, or training for pole vault.

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