I’m Not Playing Any More

By Hayden Collins – First published here

Tract Cover April 2017 V2Have 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.

  • In my experience, I have found some people who have been involved in managing people on a RTW process have been genuine and supportive. At the same time, I have spoken to a number who have indicated that their emotional state was exacerbated by the way they were treated. As a number of indicated in this article and their postings, treating people as a number or simply as a ‘cost’ goes against most things I know. When individuals are pushed into a situation where they are forced to make a decision involving limited choices e.g. return to work when not fully healed (physically or psychologically) or resign, they can end up believing that no one really cares about them.

    Once the economics of the situation are managed because in my view, this is the elephant in the room where decisions are made purely on the financial aspect and not the humane aspect. In some cases, the ‘dollar cost’ might be more if a person stays on a RTW for a longer period of time, but the outcome might be better for all concerned. When an individual is pushed beyond the point of no return, it is pointless standing around and saying ‘we could see that was going to happen’. If an organisation or people managing the RTW process get to that point, they should hang their head in shame.

  • Bernard Corden

    The following link from the Idaho Observer provides a pretty precise summary of corporate behaviour:

    http://proliberty.com/observer/20070504.htm

  • Ron Whited

    Unfortunately,and unwittingly,injured workers have become nothing more than pawns in the sick game of profit driven madness prevalent in society today. Blame it on society as a whole if you wish,with its “we must appease the shareholders at any cost”mentality,or perhaps it sounds better to say “we must look at every expense and find a way to reduce it”,in the end it is not the boardroom that suffers the consequences but the injured and their families.

    There is in a sense a type of corporate behavior that defies human comprehension when an injured worker is relegated to statistical status,dehumanizing him or her to the lowest level in order to produce the expected results on the pie chart. Can anyone deny that this is corporate insanity? How such greed can run rampant in a civilized society is an indictment of our moral compass.

    The bottom line is that workers everywhere are expendable,replaceable with temporary workers who will work for far less and with little or no training. Long gone is any semblance of loyalty,replaced with the mantra of “if you were injured,it had to be because of your poor behavior in the workplace”which essentially puts the onus to prove otherwise back on the injured. I have seen literally hundreds of workers denied care by the system because of a loophole found in the coding of an injury,and I have no hope of seeing this trend abated.

    In closing,I am reminded of something that was said over two thousand years ago:”The love of money is the root of all evil”.

  • Bernard Corden

    We also talk about ethical decision making and corporate social responsibility. The organistion in this particular case had to summoned to appear before the parliamentary committee.
    Corporations are an anthropomorphic fallacy. The have no memory, soul to save or body to incarcerate. They are socially autistic mercenary rednecks.

    • Hayden Collins

      I don’t believe corporations (or Safety) understands Ethics or Social Responsibility. Money and Power are their sole concerns, everything else is cannon fodder

  • Bernard Corden

    Irreverent media campaigns often feature distraught victims and dependents with a narrative of culpability promoting the careless worker myth.
    It is a form of cognitive regulatory capture and a sinister attempt to blame the victim and disguise or absolve the employer’ s duty of care.

    • Hayden Collins

      Not at all surprising when the Regulator and their agents in workers compensation (insurance companies) are under pressure to post a profit in their annual reports. Denied claims are much more valuable than worker wellbeing

      • Bernard Corden

        Dear Hayden,

        Read the transcript from the Queensland Parliamentary inquiry into CWP and the victim’s testimony (pp. 43-49) before the select committee. It was quite harrowing in the public gallery:

        https://www.parliament.qld.gov.au/documents/committees/CWPSC/2016/CWPSC/CWP-trnsp-15Mar2017.pdf

        If the CWP victims take the common law compensation route, the prognosis is decidedly bleak. The gig economy has seen many corporate behemoths use contract labour hire through many hiring agencies. The duty of care has been defused and diffused into many harmless divisive channels. Many victims will have many employers and unravelling the mess will be a legal nightmare. If the victims take the statutory compensation route the scheme will have insufficient funding and the tax payer will eventually foot the bill.

        In the US, the DOL has paid out $US 45 billion in CWP related claims since 1975. It amounts to many hospitals and other public health infrastructure and they continue to preach concepts like zero harm.

        It happened with the Radium Girls in the 1920s and more recently with asbestos. Alan Derickson published a book many years ago entitled Black Lung- Anatomy of a public health disaster yet many are pleading ignorance.

        • Hayden Collins

          Thanks Bernard. An interesting read and a great example of the exploitation of the vulnerable. Sad to see but typical of the zero harm mentality of BHP and QLD.

  • Hayden Collins

    I agree Rob, it certainly is a brutal ‘game’. I was handing out tracts at a workers compensation conference recently and spent a bit of time eavesdropping on conversations in the lounge area. All talk revolved around tricks and loopholes for cost reduction and avoiding WorkSafe. Not one discussion about care or people – not even spin!

  • Rob Long

    I don’t think their is anything more ruthless and brutal than the return to work process. The gods of greed and mammon drive the industry so that all ‘objects’ in ‘the system’ can cost as least as possible to the bottom line. The process has become perfected so that any sense of compassion or understanding has been removed and all the talk of ‘care’ is just spin. What is worse, once in the spiral it actually makes people more ill and with greater complexity of illness the more you stay in the system.

    • Hayden Collins

      I agree, it certainly is a brutal ‘game’. I was handing out tracts at a workers compensation conference recently and spent a bit of time eavesdropping on conversations in the lounge area. All talk revolved around tricks and loopholes for cost reduction and avoiding WorkSafe. Not one discussion about care or people – not even spin!

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