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Management, Culture, and Community — Creating an Environment of Well-Being

Robin Nicholas
Robin Nicholas Communications

Originally published: The 1st International Conference on Accident Prevention — Proceedings. Busan, Korea. 2010

Abstract: Management becomes most effective when it celebrates workers’ community, culture, and values. This is an environment of well-being where workers not only survive, but also flourish. By celebrating community, management has the opportunity to bring justice and dignity to the workplace. Traditional top-down management structures create a stratified, vertical structure with managers at the top and workers at the bottom, where polices, regulations, and operations flow downward. However, this same stratified structure — if left solely to itself — risks creating an unsafe workplace. Extensive research has shown that a stratified, top-down structure creates the greatest stress for workers at the bottom due to workers feeling a loss of control. This constant stress triggers hormonal chain reactions of adrenaline and cortisol, which ultimately reduce health and safety and increase accidents and mistakes. The solution to reducing this stress is straightforward — empower the worker community so that workers can provide input and directly contribute to their work environment. Through worker safety champions, worker safety committees, and personal conversations, we can promote worker input and develop a community of well-being where workers can flourish.


All of us are human beings. As a result, all of us have human strengths and human weaknesses. As a species, we love to celebrate our strengths, but are often hesitant to acknowledge our own weaknesses. Yet, our success as humans depends upon fully knowing who we are — our strengths and our weaknesses. But if we do decide to acknowledge our weaknesses, we are faced with a key question: Do we punish each other for the human weaknesses that we all share, or do we support and protect each other from our weaknesses? How we apply this question at work may determine the success of our safety and wellbeing.

Wellbeing — Safety beyond the intellect

In our traditional approach to safety, we consider safety programs, directives, work practices, regulations, equipment, etc. All of these approaches are developed through our mind, logic, and intellect. First, we objectively observe our work and our work practices; then we determine where we are safe and where we are not safe; and finally, we take actions to improve our safety. But is this enough? Our intellectual approach to safety is essential, but it carries a certain risk. Because when we objectify safety, we also risk objectifying workers. Workers become “resources” instead of people.

Reaching our full potential at work requires that workers not be viewed as a resource, but instead workers must be viewed in their entirety. The intellect is appropriate for developing safety programs — but to enact these programs and make them work, the programs need to be engaged and implemented by human beings who are much more than intellect. Each of us is an amazing combination of mind, body, emotions, intuition, relationships, values, and culture; and as a whole person, each of us responds to respect, dignity, personal excellence, and wellbeing at work and throughout our lives.

What if we expand beyond our traditional, intellect-based approach to safety? What if we look at the whole worker — not only their physical safety, but their emotional and psychological safety as well? When we expand to include the whole person, we recognize that none of us are limited to our intellect, and that we are more than a physical body in a physical workplace. [1]

When we support the whole person, we support our entire wellbeing. This goes beyond our state of health and reflects upon our satisfaction with work and our life. Our individual wellbeing does not exist on its own, nor is it isolated within the workplace; but rather it exists within a broader social context. [2] Waddell and Burton define wellbeing as “the subjective state of being healthy, happy, contented, comfortable, and satisfied with one’s life.” [3] Schulte points out that it goes beyond physical health to include dimensions of material, social, emotional (happiness) and personal development. [2] At the Helsinki conference, Towards Better Work and Wellbeing, Räsänen and Anttonen offered a definition that reaches the breadth necessary for this discussion: Wellbeing is the flourishing of employees so that they can achieve their full potential for both their own benefit and that of the organization. [4] Indeed, in order to flourish and reach wellbeing we must expand beyond our intellect and embrace all of who we are.

Safety and management structure

In considering our traditional approach to safety, it is helpful to also consider our traditional organization structure. This structure is often depicted as a pyramid, illustrating a stratified vertical, top-down hierarchy — with management at the top and workers at the bottom. This structure has definite advantages. It can be efficient, clear, and easy to implement. It provides necessary structure and important support for people and their work. Indeed, traditional safety was developed by this hierarchy and therefore depends upon the hierarchy for it to be implemented. However, this stratified structure also carries risks because a large part of it is based upon the downward-flow of controls and directives; it addresses physical safety, but it often does not address the whole worker and their emotional and psychological safety. [1]

The Whitehall II study has looked at the effect of the traditional, stratified organization and management structure upon worker health and wellbeing. This study of British civil servants has been conducted for 20 years with some remarkable results.

What the Whitehall II study revealed was that a stratified, top-down management structure — if left solely unto itself — risks creating an unhealthy workplace, because the lower a person is in the hierarchy, the greater the stress. This means that workers at the bottom feel the greatest amount of stress, and this stress can be constant.

The cause of this stress is two-fold: high demand and low control. [5] High demand is already difficult by itself, but when we have no control over that high demand, it creates the equivalent feeling of being trapped. In the terms of our ancestors, it is like being in a cave with a sabre tooth tiger, but with no weapon and no means to escape.

This greater, constant stress ultimately causes ill health and accidents. This is because chronic stress causes the constant triggering of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. As humans, our stress response was designed for relatively short events that would be resolved by either fighting or running away. Adrenaline and cortisol evolved for these short bursts of activity. But in a modern work situation, stress becomes chronic, triggering chain reactions of constant adrenaline and cortisol production. Constant adrenaline release causes striations to form along the lining of blood vessels, providing locations for the build-up of plaque, hardening of the arteries, and greater risk of heart disease and stroke. The chronic production of cortisol affects the brain causing decreased memory, decreased focus, and possible nerve damage. [6]

Thus, if a worker is required to perform detailed or difficult work in a work environment of high demand and low control, this creates constant stress, which causes the constant production of cortisol. Ultimately, this causes less focus, less memory, and a possible accident. In other words, work conditions of high demand and low control create an unsafe workplace.

The consequences of workplace stress are extensive. The American Stress Institute estimates that 60-80% of all accidents are caused by workplace stress. [7] In addition, workplace stress costs 10% of the Gross National Product in the United States, due to increased accidents and decreased productivity. [8]

Safety, wellbeing, and the brain

In order for us to flourish, we must understand ourselves and how we respond to work both consciously and unconsciously. We must engage all of ourselves — including our human strengths and weaknesses. As an example, let us consider the human brain and how it affects our response to safety. For this discussion, we can look at the brain in two parts: the outer brain and the inner brain. The outer brain is the cortex where we are conscious, performing functions of rational thought, long-term plans, and choices. This is the part of the brain that traditional safety attempts to engage through its programs, trainings, and work practices. The inner brain is where we have our core responses. In particular, the amygdala is the alarm bell in the brain that protects us. When it perceives danger, the amygdala prepares us to either fight or run away. Its response is unconscious, instinctive, automatic, and instantaneous — sometimes taking less than a second. The amygdala can respond before we even know what we are responding to. It works to protect all of our human safety — our psychological, emotional, and physical safety. [9]

The amygdala will respond to a variety of potential threats, including high demand, lack of control, unpredictability, an angry supervisor, conflicting goals, the threat of job-loss, the potential loss of income, and unsafe work conditions. All of these are potential dangers that trigger an immediate response to survive. Here, all forms of survival are simply…survival. The ability to prioritize survival comes from the rational cortex, and this process takes more time. Because of this, the immediate emotional threat of a supervisor yelling at a worker over-rides the potential and more distant threat of a possible, future accident. Thus, an emotionally negative environment creates an unsafe workplace. [1]

Here is another example. A worker has a job with a set scope of work, a set budget, and a set deadline — all because that is what it takes to do the job correctly. Then the project grows and grows until the scope of work has doubled. However, the deadline and the budget remain the same. The amygdala responds to this as a potential danger, because failure to meet the deadline could mean the loss of a job or a loss of income. The highest priority for survival is now focused upon the deadline, not upon a possible, future accident. Under these unrealistic conditions, the work demands create an unsafe workplace.

Safety and culture

Though we have traditionally addressed safety through the intellect and the objective world, the challenge now is to also address safety through the subjective world and discover our human connections. This subjective world is where we reside as human beings in our relationships, culture, and community.

The Whitehall II study describes the two-pronged source of stress for workers as high demand with low control. However, control may be a difficult concept to agree upon in a work environment. But at the very least, workers can be given greater influence within their work environment. Workers can bring their expertise, as well as their personal knowledge and culture to their work.

Each of us is the unique expression of our culture. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) defines culture as “… the set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of society or a social group, and…it encompasses, in addition to art and literature, lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions and beliefs.” [10] Perhaps Mkhize offers a simpler description, “As human beings, we cannot act without employing background knowledge — that knowledge that informs our decisions. Some call it Culture.” [11] Though it may not be easy to identify this background knowledge, it remains integral to each of us; it is intrinsic, experienced, and often non-verbal. Strengthened by our culture and personal knowledge, we come together and interact to form relationships and communities.

Safety — Building relationships and community

When we build relationships, we build a workplace environment where workers influence their work. The building of relationships is crucial. Chinnock tells us, “The intangibles of trust …and…friendships can be more potent than logic and more compelling than evidence.” [12] Safety is an intensely social process that depends upon relationships. It relies upon vibrant partnerships, collaborations, and above all personal contact between the people who create safety programs and the people that use them.

As relationships grow, communities can arise from the common ground of shared culture, personal knowledge, and values that individuals carry with them. Community often begins as a sense of place at home or at work. But for many people, community grows beyond location to include relationships where people come together for face-to-face encounters. This sense of community eventually grows into a way-of-life — with attitudes, practices, and traditions that people hold as common values, where people come together to engage each other and seek out their common experiences. Community as a way-of-life is not static — it is alive and dynamic. It grows and changes as people learn and grow, expanding their understanding of themselves and the world in which they live. [13] When the workplace becomes community as a way-of-life, we have the opportunity to discover the creative relationships that evolve into and are the foundation of safety and wellbeing.

At each workplace, relationships and community can develop through a variety of dynamics: (1) worker safety champions can represent and protect workers by promoting safety and providing the essential communication of worker needs to supervisors and managers; (2) worker safety committees can work with management to reach creative solutions that protect workers and promote wellbeing; (3) informal, personal manager visits with individual workers can open meaningful conversations to identify needs and explore new solutions; and (4) the most important way to develop relationships and community is to simply talk to each other. One-on-one conversations are the best way to demonstrate that everyone is taking care of each other. [14]

In the stress environment of high demand and low control, it becomes our job to increase worker influence. When we seek workers’ input, knowledge, and values, workers can experience a sense of control within their work and environment. With this dynamic, interactions increase, and stress decreases. Relationships develop, trust develops, and a work community develops. The result: people take care of each other, and management and community are balanced.

We often speak in terms of developing a safety culture. The difficulty lies in our having created a totally objectified work environment that is relegated solely to our intellect and our objective models of management structures, human behaviours, safety statistics, etc. It is not that we lack a safety culture — we have simply shut out the safety culture that already exists. Our safety culture already resides in our families, our communities, and our villages and towns. We already have a culture with the personal knowledge and values of taking care of each other. So, we do not need to create a safety culture — it already exists and surrounds us — we simply need to let it in.

New paradigm for management, community and wellbeing

Essentially, when we consider workers’ wellbeing, we are talking about an environment that supports workers — an environment that provides resources and dynamics that allow and encourage workers to flourish in all aspects of their lives. The traditional organization pyramid only conveys management structure and controls that flow from the top-down. However, the pyramid cannot convey the concept of support. Simply, in our world with gravity, any metaphor for support comes from below — providing a foundation for whatever is being supported.

Sometimes the very elements we put into place to promote safety — the objectified structure of regulations, programs, and work practices — can become threats to safety itself when there is no balance. To correct this, we need a new paradigm and a new metaphor. At the very least, we need to invert the pyramid. Here, we have created a new dynamic and management style where management provides the foundation at the bottom, supporting the workers at the top. With this dynamic, programs and protocols are launched to support workers and seek worker input. But this new bottom-up dynamic deserves an entirely new model. McKenzie has suggested a tree as a more appropriate model. A tree is organic, vibrant, and alive — everything required of a healthy management and organization that supports workers. The traditional stratified, top-down pyramid risks treating workers as resources, just as equipment and materials are resources. Though this perspective has a certain kind of efficiency, it risks objectifying workers, which could have a long-term negative impact. However, with the model of a tree, management becomes the tree’s trunk — the solid support for the organization — drawing resources through its roots. Management channels those resources up through the branches to the leaves — the workers — where the real productivity takes place. [15] Through the roots management gathers resources such as money, equipment, training, work environment, safety regulations, and work practices. All these resources are then sent upward through management in order to support the workers. However, management can also gather other resources — the resources that build community — relationship, culture, compassion, dignity, and self-respect. All of these will support workers in their experience of personal excellence and wellbeing.  


When we engage workers through their knowledge and culture, we create a balance between management and community. In this environment, workers can flourish, experiencing their own self-respect, personal excellence, and wellbeing. Management provides the core structure that supports workers and builds community, while workers further the work community where everyone takes care of each other. Together, management and community have the opportunity to embrace a culture that is a source for everyone’s wellbeing.


[1] Nicholas R. Management and Community. 5th China International Forum on Work Safety. Beijing, P.R. China. pp. 639-643. 2010.

[2] Schulte P, Vainio H. Wellbeing at work — Overview and perspective. Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment, & Health. Vol. 6, No. 5. pp. 422-429. 2010.

[3] Waddell G, Burton AK. Is work good for your health and wellbeing? London: The Stationary Office,.2006.

[4] Räsänen T, Anttonen H. Definition of wellbeing at work and the various categories for evaluation of work activities. Towards Better Work and Wellbeing. Helsinki, Finland. 2010.

[5] Ferrie J (Ed.), Work, stress, and health: The Whitehall II Study. Council of Civil Service Unions/Cabinet Office, UK. 26 p. 2004.

[6] McEwen B, Krahn D. Natural health web: The response to stress [Online] (2007). [July 2010]. 1999. Available from:

[7] American Stress Institute: Job Stress. [Online] [July 2010]. 2009. Available from:

[8] Clarke S, Cooper CL. Managing the risk of workplace stress: Health and safety hazards. Routledge, New York, NY. 208 p. 2004.

[9] Hanson R, Mendius R. Buddha’s brain. New Harbinger Publications, Oakland, CA. 251 p. 2010.

[10] United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Universal declaration on cultural diversity: The General Conference. 2001.

[11] Mkhize N. A primer: Doing research in traditional cultures. DOE Human Subjects Research Database Web Site [Online]. Issue:12. [September 2010], 2005. Available from:

[12] Chinnock P. Knowledge translation toolkit: A resource for researchers. [Online] (2009). [September 2010], 2008. Available from:

[13] Mulligan M, Humphery K, James P, Christopher S, Smith P, Welch N. Creating community: Celebrations, arts, and wellbeing within and across local communities. Melbourne: RMIT Print Services. 176 p. 2006.

[14] Nicholas R. Worker values, culture, and community—Safety communication that goes directly to workers and their values. Health & Safety Canada 2009. Industrial Accident Prevention Association. Toronto, Canada. 2009. [15] MacKenzie G. Orbiting the giant hairball: A corporate fool’s guide to surviving with grace, Viking, New York City, NY. 224 p. 1998.

Copyright © 2010 Robin M. Nicholas