I’m Not Playing Any More
By Hayden Collins – First published here
Have you ever felt that somebody is manipulating you for their own gain? That your vulnerabilities are being exploited, leaving you helpless? We have all been targets to this kind of behaviour, and I’m sure many of us have inflicted it upon others. Some may even say, “that’s life”, even if it is painful and demoralising. But if nobody wishes to be treated in this way, why is it so prevalent?
When the pursuit of money and power is unquestionably worshipped as virtuous (as it is in our modern society), the dehumanisation and exploitation of others is justified and normalised; we are stripped of our “humanness” and reduced to “objects”. Only then can we be controlled and manipulated. At this point, “community” and “fellowship” ceases to exist. We effectively become a collective of objects in competition and conflict – a mass of emptiness and loneliness. Our world becomes a battlefield – or a metaphorical chessboard – where the “Pawn” is at the mercy of the “Queen”, and where everyone is maneuvering to become the Queen.
Recently I read an article from a small-town newspaper, it was a disturbing example of peoples vulnerabilities being exploited in the name of money and power. The article contained a letter to Council – authored by local property developers – who were anxious of Council’s ability to process development applications.
The troubling nature of this letter emerged in the first paragraph. These property developers had listed the names and positions of Council employees who had been on “indefinite leave due to stress”. They go on to complain of the incompetence of Council; that these employee absences are creating inefficiencies in the system, delaying their projects, and ultimately taking money out of their own pockets. Nothing within this letter addressed – or even acknowledged – the physical, psychological, or cultural issues at play within a potentially toxic workplace. There was no concern for these employees struggling with the pressures of modern society; money and power was the sole concern here.
The property developers had effectively dehumanised the employees by relating to them as “resources”, as objects whose value corresponds to their utility. Since their usefulness to assist these developers in accumulating money and power – as Council employees – had been compromised due to stress leave, these employees were to be sacrificed in the developers’ pitched battle against Council; like Pawns on a chessboard. The crusade for money and power has justified and normalised the exploitation of these vulnerable employees. There is no sense of community or humanism within this letter, only objectification, competition, and conflict.
Although this article – and its use of humans as chess pieces – disturbed me, I was not shocked. The dehumanisation and subsequent exploitation of vulnerable workers has also become normalised in the Safety and Return to Work industry. Being in the “game” for 13 years, I have unfortunately experienced many similar situations. You may be asking yourself “but surely an industry comprised of “professionals” espousing “Cultures of Care” and “Zero Harm” wouldn’t engage in the dehumanisation and exploitation of their workmates? Does this really happen?”
Once I worked with a guy (I’ll call him Ed) who suffered horrific injuries after a workplace incident and was basically told he wouldn’t work again. Ed had been off work for over 12 months, and was on a downward spiral of relationship breakdowns, addiction to painkillers, and major depression. Not only was he dealing with life changing injuries; social isolation and a feeling of worthlessness had begun to manifest. He desperately missed working, mostly for the social aspects, like shooting the breeze with his mates. A few of us had arranged to hang out at Ed’s for a long lunch; no “agendas”, no “updates”, and no “fixing”, just a casual meal where we could just “Be” with him. Sounds perfectly reasonable right? We had worked alongside each other for years, hung out at family gatherings, and drank our fair share of beer together after a rough day. It just felt like the right thing to do. Out of courtesy we let Ed’s caseworker from the insurer know our plan, that’s when things got bizarre…
On the end of the phone was a torrent of panic, frustration, and anger. I was bombarded with comments like: “That’s not in the plan”, “This could affect the premium”, and “I do not authorise this activity”. I was dumbfounded! It was apparent that the insurer didn’t appreciate Ed the same way we did; as a friend, a member of our community, and a human being who deserved our care, support, and respect. The insurer saw Ed as an object; he was a case number with a cost code, a shelf life, and a fancy spreadsheet that tracked his journey to becoming “productive” and “useful” again. There was no care, support, or respect on their behalf; their concern was money, power, and control. As much as this dehumanizing attitude didn’t make sense to us, our request to treat Ed as a friend made just as little sense to the insurer. It was a battle of ideologies, and the “Queen” (insurer) was pulling rank on us “Pawns”.
I will always remember this experience as one that helped open my eyes to the reality of Safety and Return to Work. I asked myself “how can an industry that is charged with supporting the vulnerable end up treating them with such contempt and cruelty”? This paradox can be made sense of when we deconstruct the guidance material used within the industry.
The language and discourse within the Workers Compensation legislation and guidance material is no different to that of this letter to Council, with a heavy bias towards “efficiency in returning to work”, “controlling costs”, and “obedience to authority”. The lack of language relating to “support”, “care”, and “community” clearly indicates to any discerning reader that money and power is the trajectory of these bodies of work (The Semiotics of the RTW Industry).
The consequences of this language is a view that injured employees are the enemy – a threat to the organisation’s bottom line – due to increased premiums, retraining costs, and lost production. They become objectified and dehumanised; reduced to “Resources” – or “Injured Workers” – whose usefulness and value is attached to their capacity to be “productive”, rather than being valued as a unique human being, or an essential member of the community that deserves our love, care, and support as much as any other individual. In a world of ever increasing financial volatility, with shareholders and executives to keep happy, and bonuses and promotions on the line, it is not difficult to comprehend that the most vulnerable in a group will ultimately become a Pawn for those in power. I have seen it play out countless times (Ed is just one example). Laptops taken to hospital in order to escape the dreaded LTI, unnecessary surveillance activities (borderline stalking) conducted with the sole aim of terminating claims, and vigorous disputing and stalling of recommended medical procedures due to “excessive costs”. Recovery and rehabilitation is not the aim of the Return to Work process, it’s all about penny pinching, power struggles, and arse covering.
So what can be done? We cannot hope that dehumanisation and exploitation will altogether disappear – the lust for money and power is deeply embedded in our society – but we also cannot succumb to Fatalism; our submission equals approval. There may be no silver bullets to this wicked problem, however we all have a responsibility to tackle it and attempt to manage it as best we can. An understanding of Critical Theory enables us to identify the harmful discourse of dehumanisation hidden within the regulations, procedures, and correspondence we take for granted as “righteous” every day. If we can name what is happening, we may be able to neutralise it by advocating the virtue of empathy – or “loving our neighbor as ourselves”. The systems we work within may not be able to understand or express love, care, or support, but the humans that administer these systems can. Before enacting anything we should ask, “How would I view this situation?” “How would this make me feel?” and “What would I like to see happen?” The antidote to power and dehumanisation is love, community, and fellowship. It is our responsibility as community members to apply this antidote to a system that can only see humans as chess pieces. It is our responsibility to stop playing this game.