What is Psychosocial Safety?

What is Psychosocial Safety?

Psychosocial safety is really not a new concept but has been around industry for some time. The beginnings of psychosocial safety are usually linked to Herbert W. Heinrich an insurance investigator in the 1930s and 1940s. Interest in psychosocial safety as a discipline grew out of the early work done by pioneers who were applying behavioural principles in organizations. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Aubrey Daniels, Wanda Myers, and others were working with organizations applying psychological concepts to improve performance in what Aubrey would later term ‘performance management’. More recently psychology in safety has been championed by Scott Geller (Geller, S., (2001) The Psychology of Safety Handbook. Lewis Publishers, London).

Perhaps the first complete focus on a psychosocial focus on risk and safety was triggered by the methodology of Karl E. Weick. Weick’s psychosociocultural evolution model of organizing adapts the concepts and propositions of cultural evolution, sociology, psychology and ecology to human organizing, risk and safety. See further: Weick, K., (1979) The Social Psychology of Organizing. McGraw Hill, New York; Weick, K., (1995) Sensemaking in Organisations. Sage Publications, London.

Psychosocial safety integrates key aspects of psychology and sociology to understand and manage human dimensions of safety. As a discipline, Psychosocial safety extends well beyond the mechanistic horizons of Behavioural Based Safety (BBS). Behaviourism is typically reductionist and determinist. Rather than being a panacea for safety BBS limits the way humans are viewed, humans are more than the sum of their behaviours and are not machines. For this reason psychosocial safety the takes into account a full range of psychosocial factors in its methodology not just behaviourism.

Whilst there is no doubt that orthodox safety methodologies such as BBS or legislation have some success in improving safety, there is more to the safety picture if one wants to become a ‘Total Safety Organisation’ (Weick).

The following serve as examples of what psychosocial safety considers in its response to human judgement and decision making about hazards and risks:

Cognitive Dissonance: developed by Leon Festinger. Refers to the mental gymnastics required to maintain consistency in the light of contradicting evidence. An understanding of cognitive dissonance is essential if one wants to understand conversion. Cognitive dissonance explains the attempts made to alleviate the feeling of self-criticism
and discomfort caused by the appearance of the conflicting beliefs. The idea that compliance forces, power, punishment, incentives and other behaviourist methods ‘convert’ people from ‘unsafety’ to safety is naïve. Such belief denies all that has been learned from the psychology of addictions, psychology of conversion, psychology of fundamentalisms, psychology of abuse, cults and religions, suicide ideation and psychology of goals (Moskowitz, G., and Grant, H., (eds.) (2009) The Psychology of Goals .The Guilford Press, New York.).

In many ways televangelists and safety officers share something in common except televangelists are much better at it. They just have a different view of what it means to ‘save lives’. There is not space here to emphasise or map the dynamics of cognitive dissonance and its relevance to safety, I undertake a more detailed description of this in my book.

Discourse Analysis: attributedto Leo Spitzer, Jurgen Habermas and Michael Foucault. Discourse analysis is concerned with The transmission of power in systems of thoughts composed of ideas, symbols, artefacts, attitudes, courses of action, beliefs and practices that systematically construct the subjects and the worlds of which they speak. For example: the language of safety is so important for the construction of meaning for organisations. For example: the language of ‘zero’ in safety constructs mindsets preoccupied with reductionism, minimalism and control. The language of BBS constructs a focus on behaviour-only approaches to safety.

Reciprocal Determinism: postulated by social cognitive theorist Albert Bandura. Reciprocal determinism states: that the situation people find themselves in will influence both their behaviour and their attitudes. People’s behaviour will influence both their attitudes and the situation, and that people’s attitudes will influence their perceptions of a situation and, in turn influence their behaviour.

Risk Homeostasis: developed by Gerald Wilde (Wilde, G., (2001) Target Risk 2. PDE Publications, 2001). Risk homeostasis holds that everyone has his or her own fixed level of acceptable risk. The famous Berlin Taxi Experiment first conducted by Wilde in 1981 demonstrates the idea of ‘risk compensation’. What this means is that people adjust their response to safety technologies. Safety technologies are not neutral but are interpreted. It is possible that some safety technologies increase rather than reduce risk. This is because humans tend to resist external controls and prefer to ‘own’ their decisions. The current thirst in society for ‘edgework’ exemplified in ‘X-games’ is evidence of risk homeostasis. Further see: Zinn, J., (ed) (2008) Social Theories of Risk and Uncertainty, An Introduction. Blackwell, London.

Unconscious enactment: championed by John Bargh. Bargh, J. A., (ed.) (2007) Social Psychology and the Unconscious: The Automaticity of Higher Mental Processes. Psychology Press, New York; Hassin, R., Uleman, J., and Bargh, J., (2005) The New Unconscious. Oxford University Press, London. Bargh shows that many of our decisions and judgements are ‘primed’ by the anchoring of words or social context. This idea of automaticity is also supported by social psychologists of risk: Slovic, Plous, Sunstein and Gardner. There are strong connections between what has been discovered by Bargh and discourse analysis. For this reason safety culture programs need to take much greater care with safety communications, language, words and symbols.

Much more could be discussed about these and other psychosocial influences on human judgement and decision making. There is much more to learn about why some orthodox safety programs and initiatives don’t work. Psychosocial safety is no silver bullet, it just helps explain why there are no silver bullets. It extends the journey. Once we get our heads out of silver bullets and begin to be realistic about human judgement and decision making, then we may better able to make sense of risk, broaden our approaches to its understanding, analysis and management.


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