Zero, A Framework for Psychological Bullying

Zero, A Framework for Psychological Bullying

Engineer or architect woman worker headache stressThere can never be an Ethic of Risk as long as the safety industry is wedded to the ideology and discourse of zero. How can one be moral to another person when one denies fallibility in goal setting? Of course zero is not a SMART goal anyway! (See Understanding Safety Goals) Amazing how safety speaks all this language of intolerance to people and then expects them to think that safety is tolerant and compassionate???

How can the safety industry possibly tackle psychological health issues when its own ideology and language contributes to psychological harm? How can an industry that is fixated on numbers and intolerance of mistakes and the rejection of fallibility ever hope to be compassionate and tolerant to mortal humans who suffer psychological illness? How on earth can STEM knowledge even understand the complexities of psychological health?

The ideology of zero that permeates the safety industry ( ), naturally filters into all thinking and conduct across the sector. The language of zero sets the discourse for the safety industry and so is puts itself into direct conflict with a discourse of helping, compassion and understanding required in tolerance to enact a human approach to tackling psychological health at work? Unfortunately, Safety is so bogged down in STEM that it doesn’t even know what it confesses even when it tells us how it cares about mental health and psychological injury. Take the latest policy from SafeWork Australia into for example Work-related psychological health and safety . Discourse is about the power embedded in language and how the selection and omission of key words tells great deal about ideological assumptions in policy.

Just making some surface observations of this policy we see the following:

  1. Words ‘compassion’, ‘personhood’, ‘humanising’ and ‘caring’ get no mention.
  2. Language like ‘helping’, ‘learning’ and ‘listening’ are only mentioned in passing once or twice.

  3. Even the word ‘resilience’ is only mentioned twice and only in reference to training.

  4. There is certainly no discussion on the psychology of resilience in the paper. Yet, I would have thought that resilience was the starting point for guiding organisations to tackle the challenges of psychological health at work.

  5. The nature of caring is not defined in the text but rather the traditional safety model of ‘hierarchies of control’ are trotted out as if psychological risk is managed within the narrow safety behaviourist-cognitvist paradigm.

  6. Of course the language of ‘tolerance’ receives no mention in the SWA document. We ‘consult’ workers but there is no mention of ‘dialogue’.

  7. What is predictable in the document is the focus on legal obligations and regulation. Surprise, surprise. What an amazing discussion in light of the psychological harm of persons and best practice that the discussion quickly focuses on legal compliance.

  8. How amazing that in less than a few pages its all about preventing harm within the context of law rather than the context of care and helping?

  9. Even the construction of the document and its assumptions about human personhood demonstrate clearly how the industry thinks within its narrow paradigm. If one looks at the language of a real profession eg. community work, social work, medicine, nursing, education etc Compare policies and one will quickly observe that these professions understand mental health in a very different way to safety.

  10. The document makes the following statement: ‘Psychosocial hazards or factors are anything in the design or management of work that increases the risk of work-related stress’. Hmmm, how does the ideology of zero that permeates the industry and, the fixation on numbers and counting increase risk-related stress? Not mentioned in the policy. How does all the iconography and symbolism of safety speak to workers and tell them that they are just objects?

Here is Safety worried about bullying, with a mantra and language that encourages bullying, blaming and victimising? Of course, zero is the only acceptable number or goal. Astounding what binary nonsense safety projects on people.

Just look at the language in this article about fatalities in agriculture in the UK ( How is this tragedy ‘framed’. Of course, in the nonsense language of ‘all accidents are preventable’. When will Safety get over its silly Hindsight Bias??? ( Poor old dumb farmers, if only they had paid attention to super safety they would be alive now! They need a safety hero!

Unfortunately, an industry consumed with the importance of objects over subjects has little chance of tackling psychological health issues. Indeed, such an industry fixated on the language of zero and compliance can only enact a regime of intolerance. How does one operate a ‘people-oriented organizational culture’ when all the language and symbols of safety are about numbers, counting, objects and zero? How does one enact an ethic of tolerance and resilience within a discourse of zero?

Unfortunately, the safety industry is now so cloistered within itself, so disconnected from transdisciplinary dialogue that it seeks to tackle new paradigms within old worldviews. No wonder discourse in the workplace about psychological health often projects blame and views mental issues as ‘human error’. The deficit language of zero sets the pejorative discourse for the sector that puts it in intellectual schizophrenia when it comes to mental health.

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long

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Dr Rob Long
PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, MRMIA Rob is the founder of Human Dymensions and has extensive experience, qualifications and expertise across a range of sectors including government, education, corporate, industry and community sectors over 30 years. Rob has worked at all levels of the education and training sector including serving on various post graduate executive, post graduate supervision, post graduate course design and implementation programs.

8 Replies to “Zero, A Framework for Psychological Bullying”

  1. Dear Rob,
    You may remember we talked about the current safety cursus in Luxembourg. I enjoy reading such an article that matches my everyday concerns.
    And I think you test us with the sentence “Indeed, such an industry fixated on the language of zero and compliance can only enact a regime of tolerance”, I don’t see irony in the chapter so don’t you actually mean “a regime of intolerance” instead?
    Kind regards,

  2. Olivier, yes a typo if Dave could fix it for me would be good.

    Yes, in your line of work and in the ontology of Red Cross in Luxembourg some of the stuff about in safety must seem pretty dumb. Fascinating to see a policy of psychological injury with next to no reference to many of the issues we would normally expect to read from a helping profession which goes to show, safety is not a helping profession. I remember fondly our discussion and the need for maturity and wisdom in this space, sadly not coming from this industry.

  3. We have not adhered to the “vision zero” carta till now. I discussed it with the director and I think he has well understood the contradictions within (like we read its principles acknowledge that humans are fallible and have limits and, further, zero harm is “the only acceptable long term goal”… what a consistent non-sense!). By the way, our institution exists because the failibility and vulnerability of humans beings.
    Of course we manage to comply with safety regulation. But we consider the rules and tools are definitely no aims and must be used for what they actually mean (and never forget: imperfect simplistic rules and tools regards to the complexity and unpredictability of everything about human beings). So we try to be wise enough to keep them at their right place and improve our engagement through dialogue and participation. I am convinced we can do a lot better and remain realistic at the same time.
    Do you plan a last trip to Europe in 2019 before retirement?

  4. Hi Olivier, not currently making plans to go OS and no requests at present anyway. I’m concentrating on setting up things here into the future and a new book.
    The problem with the ‘vision zero carta’ is they don’t understand it is a language. This comes from the narrow behaviourist-cognitvist philosophy that dominates safety. They think their words have no psychological or unconscious effect. The idea that there is no other goal ignores the whole problem of the psychology of goal-setting and strategic thinking. Zero only makes sense if there are only lower order goals but there are not, middle order and higher order goals are much more important than a number. The lemmings follow the zero discourse because they don’t know what discourse is and have no idea of the human and collective unconscious. Strange in Europe after all Goebbels was able to achieve unconsciously through the use of language.
    Keep up the good work.

  5. Hi Rob. An interesting read your article. Also an interesting read is the Comcare Guide, “Working Well – An organisational approach to preventing psychological injury”. The guide certainly has very different words, language and vocabulary to the article from SafeWork Australia that you have referred to. As you have stated if it’s not in your vocabulary it’s not available to you. I think the Comcare guide indicates there’s much available in it’s language and intent.

  6. The current chair of Safe Work Australia was a senior executive for many years with Broadspectrum, the organisation that managed the Manus island regional processing centre.

    He who opens a school door closes a prison – Victor Hugo

  7. An interesting comparison John but still some amazing omissions in language. Again, so clearly dominated by behaviourist-cognitively assumptions.

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