Mental Health and the Safety Habitus

Originally posted on April 11, 2019 @ 7:40 AM

Mental Health and the Safety Habitus

Young engineer with pensive face and security helmetHow is the safety industry equipped to tackle the challenges of mental health? What assumptions about personhood and ‘mind’ dominate the safety sector? Do these assumptions help or hinder an holistic approach to tackling mental health at work? These questions ought to be of great concern to anyone in the safety industry.

Lets be clear, there is nothing in the WHS curriculum that prepares safety people for tackling mental health at work. If anything, the current WHS curriculum could be best defined as compulsory mis-education. The idea of Compulsory Miseducation was first put forward by Pail Goodman (1962) and describes the disconnect between training and learning. Friere (Pedagogy of the Oppressed) described this approach to knowledge acquisition as ‘banking’, knowledge as deposits and withdrawals.

Unfortunately, studying swathes of legislation, regulation, standards and codes of practice doesn’t equip one for the daily challenges of mental health at work. There is nothing in the WHS curriculum that even comes close to the essentials required in pastoral care needed for safety people to deal with mental health issues at work.

Most of what is studied in a safety qualification is irrelevant to what a safety person encounters on a daily basis in the workplace. All the language about being ‘professional’ in safety is meaningless without the essential helping skills required of any profession. Indeed, the language of ‘helping’ is simply not a part of safety discourse yet it is foundational to being professional. I have been conducting culture audits for many years and it’s fascinating to ask people what safety is about and the response is never about ‘helping’, ‘listening’ and ‘learning’. It is always about policing and telling.

The key to tackling mental health at work is through empathy, listening, learning and helping. Language (according to my audits) simply not used in the safety sector.

However, there is a much deeper problem for Safety that limits its capability to tackle the challenges of mental health at work. The dominant ideologies that dominate the safety sector evident in: the global mantra of zero ( ), behaviourism and cognitivism foster intolerance. Tolerance, trust and care are essential foundations for helping in tackling mental health issues at work ( ).

Just have a look at how the safety sector thinks about mental health. Let’s have a look at two examples, the first from the SIA (How OHS Professionals can have a real impact on mental health

The document states that ‘mental health is akin to physical safety’. Nothing could be more delusional. Further it states: ‘Safety leaders within organisations are well positioned to assist with skill-building training and coaching to facilitate this capability’. And, prey tell, how do these safety people develop these skills? How does one police and punish for petty risk and next day expect people to connect in empathy and trust???

The second is from Safework Australia (Mental Health It is clear from this document that psychological injury is statistical and individual in focus. When we discuss mental health Safework Australia starts by talking about claims, compensation and stress. However, mental health is not just about work related stress, it is much more complex that that. And where does the document lead? Of course to the WHS Act and Regulation. Mental health is not a legal problem but rather a moral and ethical challenge. We don’t need to study the Act and Regulation to know why we should tackle the challenges of mental health at work. Dear Oh dear, and the solution? ‘A psychosocial risk assessment tool that includes resources to help organisations identify, manage and evaluate injury prevention and management interventions, is available from People at Work.’

It was Pierre Bordieu that introduced the idea of the habitus. The habitus is the habits, skills and dispositions of a social world. Peoples, groups and institutions are socialized into a particular habitus (disposition). This occurs through training, mimetics (copying) and osmosis. A habitus is much more than a habit, it is the social structure of orientation to the world. In the case of the safety industry it is characterized by the ideologies of behaviourism, cognitvism and zero.

Mental health is not an individualist, cognitivist or behaviourist problem. Rather mental health is socially constructed ( The real challenge for safety in tackling mental health is not in some technical tool but rather in reforming the safety curriculum ( The whole way safety is oriented mitigates any effectiveness in dealing with mental health at work. Indeed, the common ideologies in safety actively provoke mental health problems at work. Cognitvism, behaviourism and zero socially construct the problem itself.

Safety is the industry known for its denial of fallibility ( Indeed, the delusions of zero and the demand for perfectionism are part of the mental health social construct. When an industry frames its habitus around the metrics of petty risk, one knows that anything that follows can be no more than tokenism ( ). When a habitus is identified by its love of brutalism and dehumanizing ( ), one knows that the industry itself is part of the problem.

If you want to know more about the nature of mental health and some constructive tips for tackling the challenges of mental health at work, perhaps these past blogs may be helpful:

If you want help in tackling the challenges of mental health at work and in building social resilience I can recommend no one more capable than Gabrielle Carlton ( Gabrielle can be contacted at:,

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