Editors Picks Social commentary

COP28: Universities have a key role to play in the transformations global society is facing

COP28 needs to deliver real ‘concerted action’ to tackle climate change amid fears it is becoming a talking shop ‘trade fair’ – argues MDX academic Johan Siebers

Amid the huge media coverage of COP28 two themes stand out: Firstly, with 70,000 participants, has this gathering become too unwieldy, a trade fair rather than an international decision-making body, as one commentator put it this week? And secondly, what do we need COP28 to deliver? This is the first global stock-take, the first time the international community steps back and looks at where we are with respect to concrete deliverables agreed earlier. It is likely that much more concerted action is needed if we are to maintain global warming within the 1.5, or even 2 degrees margin. At the same time, as a result of conflicts, polarisation, economic instability and increased insecurity, many national governments are stepping back from promises to drastically cut emissions and to put institutional frameworks and infrastructure in place to end the world’s dependency on fossil fuels. The UK, the home base of Middlesex, is no exception. The approach to energy security the British government is taking will increase national oil and gas production. Once in many ways a leader in the energy transition, Britain at the moment pursues an approach to climate change that can only be described as wavering and confused. Will there be a joint statement on the future of fossil fuels? From food systems to energy security, such a statement is necessary and will define policy development in the time to come.

The wavering is, in my view, a general feature of the contemporary moment. In the run-up to COP28 we heard that the host state had plans to use the conference to broker oil and gas deals with a host of nations. This perhaps not directly prohibited by the letter of the event, but for sure strangely at odds with the spirit of what the world community is trying to achieve. If there is a breakdown in the trust states and nations extend to each other, as is the case in a world riddled by conflict, the necessary cooperation, the sense of interdependence and creative harmony on which climate action depends, suffers. People withdraw into the strongholds of their narrowly defined interests and communities, environmental destruction becomes a price to pay for security and the only winner is militarism, of our nations and of our hearts and minds, one of the main arteries and expressions of colonial patriarchy.

The global academic community of Middlesex has always understood itself as working towards a different future: one of inclusivity, social and environmental justice, equality and equity, celebration of diversity and difference and of economic growth through responsible, social entrepreneurship. Middlesex has a tradition of radical scholarship that sees itself as participating in the shaping of our world. The vision of a better world is built into our DNA, starting with our 19th century initiatives to open up the teaching profession to women and running all the way to the present day, with our work on health inequalities, sustainable business, human rights and many other areas of research, teaching and public engagement that all put knowledge into action to make real improvements in societies worldwide. I invite you to have a look on our websites to learn about our work.

Universities have a big role to play in the social transformations that are needed to face the challenges global society is facing. We can’t afford to continue to try to understand the world by using the lenses of the past. Knowledge and understanding are essential enablers of building a sustainable world community. We are called to think and work in an interdisciplinary way, to teach our students to think and act in that way, to embrace the unity of our intellectual and practical pursuits and to celebrate the pleasure of higher learning, for everyone. More people than ever are entering Higher Education. This is a development that will not stop, no matter how many reactionary voices are trying to put swathes of the global population back into limited perspectives for their growth, for what they can achieve. Like primary education 150 years ago and secondary education 75 years ago, so tertiary education is now quickly becoming a global human right that will change the nature of universities in a fundamental way. It is an exciting time to be in higher education, as a student, a researcher or a lecturer, or all at once. Universities foster the environment that allows people to take control of their own thought process and communication process, to exercise their curiosity, to consider the facts, look for explanations in a methodical way and learn to look at things from a broad and open perspective, critical and appreciative at the same time. We all need to learn that if the vision of a sustainable world is to become a reality.

Photo by Melissa Bradley on Unsplash

Professor Johan Siebers is a Professor of Philosophy of Language and Communication at MDX University and a Theme Director for Sustainability of Communities and the Environment.

Coronavirus and COVID-19 Editors Picks Health & wellbeing Home Categories

World Mental Health Day: How to make positive changes to your wellbeing

Nicky Lambert, an expert on mental health, reveals how people can take several simple steps to improve their personal self-care

It is World Mental Health Day on Tuesday 10 October. This year’s theme – set by the World Foundation of Mental Health – has been called ‘mental health is a universal human right’.  

It is a day that reminds all of us to make positive changes to increase our wellbeing and to raise awareness of mental health issues more broadly.

Pressures related to the ongoing fallout from the pandemic and cost of living crisis continue to impact mental health.

According to the World Health Organization (2020) more than 264 million people experience depression globally and it is the leading cause of disability. In addition to rising numbers of people with mental health problems, there are ongoing staffing and funding shortages and despite nurses’ best efforts mental health service provision can be limited, with long wait times.

Whilst there have been significant strides forward in public understanding of mental wellbeing, the stigma around many mental health conditions remains and can form a barrier to people seeking support and reaching out to help others. It’s important that we are all aware of the indicators of when we need help and that we know how best to support our own psychological wellbeing.

Raising awareness

Signs that professional help may be needed include:

  • Feeling constantly overwhelmed and unable to cope or see a way forward.
  • Significant personality changes or an increase in agitation, anger, anxiety or other mood changes.
  • Withdrawal or isolation from others, poor self-care.
  • Talking and thinking a lot about suicide or feeling you can’t go on
  • Or uncharacteristic engagement in risk-seeking behaviour

If you or someone you know needs help – which can range from a supportive conversation and counselling through to more formal care, please tell someone. There are university systems (Counselling and Mental Health – CMH) that are designed to help and offer guidance on emotional wellbeing and mental health. Please come forward when you first notice something amiss and don’t wait for a crisis before reaching out.

Promoting self-care

There are some misconceptions about self-care that we should address before looking at ways to support wellbeing. It is not indulgent or a luxury to look after our mental health – in the same ways that we have to be mindful of our physical health the same is true of our emotional and psychological wellbeing. Also, there is no right way to do it. Everyone is individual in their needs and what they find nurturing, however there are aspects of our lives that can offer us prompts to action:

Mental aspects of self-care – Set realistic goals and priorities and learn to say no without feeling guilty – boundaries help you place your energy where it is most needed.

Physical aspects of self-care – Move more! Just 30 minutes of walking every day can help boost your mood and improve your health. If it’s raining find somewhere you can be free to be by yourself and dance like no one is watching to your three favourite songs!

Environmental aspects of self-care – Spend some time outdoors every day, develop an awareness of nature, grow something at home – it can be anything from a house plant or herbs to liven up a meal.

Spiritual aspects of self-care – Reassess your purpose in life, think about what makes you happy and try to align yourself better to your goals. It may take time to make changes (if they are needed), but it is important to live a life that is meaningful to you and to identify things that you are feel grateful for.

Recreational aspects of self-care – Being creative takes many forms, perhaps you are a great cook, or you love making music or gardening. We can forget to play sometimes and remembering to prioritise times when we experience joy and the calm focus of being in a state of ‘flow’ is essential to our wellbeing.

Social aspects of self-care – Many bonds linking us have been placed under strain over the last few years. Even if you are at a distance from the people you care about, a regular zoom call with old friends or sharing a WhatsApp group with family or a local community keeps us stay connected.

About the author

Nicky Lambert

Nicky is an Associate Professor at Middlesex University, she is registered as a Specialist Practitioner (NMC) and is a Senior Teaching Fellow (SFHEA). She is also a co-director of the Centre for Coproduction in Mental Health and Social Care. Nicky has worked across a range of mental health services both in the UK and internationally supporting staff and practice development in acute and mental health trusts, councils, businesses, charities, HEE and the CQC. She is active in supporting mental health and wellbeing with the RCN and Unite. She is an editorial board member for Mental Health Nursing, and on the education and policy committees of MHNAUK. Nicky engages with local trusts and with the RCPsych to support sexual safety in mental health services. She is also a Trustee for The Bridge a charity supporting women to make positive choices, and encouraging improvements to fitness, health & well-being.

Twitter: @niadla

Editors Picks Health & wellbeing Social commentary

Safeguarding children in the metaverse

Top academic experts debated the challenges with addressing online safety in the metaverse – as part of ongoing research designed to protect young people in virtual worlds

The concept of the metaverse has gained significant attention in recent years, promising digital worlds where users can interact, learn, create, and explore. As underlying technologies like generative AI, haptic suits and eye-tracking evolve, it becomes crucial to examine the impact of the metaverse on children’s experiences and address the concerns surrounding their online safety. Indeed, the VIRRAC (Virtual Reality Risks Against Children) research project, funded by REPHRAIN the national research centre on privacy, harm and adversarial influence online, aims to do this. It is led by Professor Julia Davidson OBE, Director of the Institute of Connected Communities (University of East London) and Dr Elena Martellozzo, Associate Director at the Centre for Abuse and Trauma Studies (CATS, Middlesex University), supported by Paula Bradbury, Dr Ruby Farr and Boglarka Meggyesfalvi In a recent roundtable discussion, chaired by Nina Jane-Patel, high-profile experts from various fields accepted our invitation and came together to share their insights and perspectives on this topic as part of the research project.

Embracing the Positive Aspects

Experts highlighted several benefits of the emerging technologies’ transformative potential, particularly of immersive experiences for children. Unlike traditional online and console platforms, being in the metaverse enables physically engaging experiences, approximating real-world social cues and interactions. The sense of embodiment offered by digital worlds makes them more inclusive, creating opportunities for neurodiverse individuals (autism spectrum disorder ASD) and those living with disabilities as it removes barriers to communication and fosters connection with others.

Challenges in Online Safety for Children

However, this new frontier is not without its risks. Children and young people are particularly vulnerable to cyber bullying and harassment within digital environments. Although this is not a new issue, it is amplified within this immersive world designed to have maximum impact on users, which lacks consistent monitoring and reporting protocols/safety standards. The high level of anonymity encourages a subset of users to behave abusively towards others, creating unsafe spaces in which conflicts can accelerate quickly without any adequate guardian to intervene.

Griefing, a form of online harassment where users exploit game mechanics to intentionally upset others, is a prevalent issue. Other disturbing behaviours include the misuse of creative freedom to spread hateful messages and the initiation of virtual sexual assault incidents. Such instances can be particularly traumatic due to the high level of perceptual realism and embodiment associated with this technology. Sextortion, a form of blackmail in which sex acts are demanded in exchange for certain favours, including the reception of digital assets children often thrive for, is a growing concern too.

Moreover, age verification remains a challenge in virtual platforms, which often results in children accessing inappropriate content, entering 18+ spaces, or interacting with adults in ways they shouldn’t. Incidents have been reported when children as young as 9 years-old were abused in virtual private rooms, or taught gang language. During the roundtable, the importance of collaboration between platform providers was stressed, as well as the implementation of safety-by-design, and the need to provide caregivers and educators with comprehensive safety guidelines. Parents can find it challenging to oversee and understand what is happening with children in the VR headsets, so academics Dr Mohamed Khamis, Dr Mark McGill, and Cristina Fiani from the University of Glasgow are working to address the need to develop effective tools for safeguarding.  Tackling these risks means technology companies, experts, caregivers and regulators have to work together.

Impacts on Childhood Development

The integration of new technology into the fabric of our lives raises critical and mostly unanswered questions about its impact on child development. As Catherine Knibbs, an online harms and cybertrauma expert highlighted, every research ‘up until recently have all been pre-Internet and none of it has taken into account immersive technologies’. Children under the age of seven are typically learning to distinguish between fantasy and reality. Spending time in the 3D digital world at such a young age could lead to unforeseen effects on their cognitive development (processes of thinking and reasoning) and neuroplasticity (capacity for brain to rewire and change), including yet unrecognised triggers for imagination/witness trauma. Moreover, there is growing concern about the possible physical harm that prolonged use of VR headsets might inflict on developing eyesight.

These headsets, equipped with a variety of biometric sensors, collect a staggering amount of personal data such as motion or heartbeat data, that can provide unique insights into the users’ physical and mental state. Ensuring that this data is used responsibly, and at the minimum, especially when children are involved, should be a priority. The stakes are high, and understanding how to navigate this new reality safely, and setting age-limits responsibly, based on scientific evidence and ethical considerations is crucial for our children’s present and future well-being.

Unmasking the Vulnerabilities

Children with special education needs, those who have experienced (early life) trauma, have attachment difficulties, or those on the neurodiverse spectrum are particularly at risk in the vast landscape of the metaverse. As Catherine Knibbs, who provides therapy for young victims of online child sexual abuse highlighted that these vulnerabilities can be amplified due to their struggles with understanding relationships and deciphering harmful from benign interactions.

Young users often enter the digital realm naive, having started with a simple console or handheld device, and soon find themselves in more complex territories like VR games, often without sufficient adult guidance. Caregivers’ lack of understanding about internet connectivity and the capabilities of devices such as VR headsets increases the risk factors.

One of our experts, Shannon Pierson,  affiliate of the University of Cambridge’s Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy on XR cybersecurity, privacy, and governance subjects emphasised, regrettably, the metaverse is not a gender-neutral or race-neutral space. Disturbingly, research shows that female and minority avatars tend to be targeted more for online abuse, often experiencing abusive language. The severity and the nature of the harassment are often aligned with the user’s perceived gender and race.

Identifying Emerging Areas of Harm and Looking Ahead

As we peer into the horizon of emerging technologies, we must be mindful of the shadows cast by their potential for misuse. Platforms integrating generative AI tools are providing unprecedented freedom in creativity but also setting the stage for new ways of abuse. There’s also growing concern about the mental health implications for young people who suffer financial loss through cyber theft in the crypto and NFT space.

As technology continues to advance, some professionals dread the inevitable rise of haptic suits, which could drastically change the dynamics of sexual abuse in the metaverse. Situational threats for users, such as those posed by people in their physical vicinity while immersed in the digital space, also need addressing, as well as issues surrounding consent.

Another troubling trend has been noted among youngsters: these digital natives merge mixed reality gaming with other social platforms, for example playing in the metaverse but chatting on Discord or Telegram simultaneously. This can lead to uncheckable, toxic behaviours that often escalate to harmful extremes, including crashing people’s live streams, ‘swatting‘ and ‘doxing‘, instances that have already led to actual death in the offline world.

Exploring Solutions to Online Threats

Personal space boundaries, such as mute and block features, put the power of moderation in the user’s hands but may overwhelm young or distressed individuals and undermine the usefulness of reactive, user-reporting-based human moderation tools. To alleviate this burden, some academics and developers are working on automated moderation tools that could alert users or parents, and flag potential dangers or misbehaviours such as toxic speeches or virtual slappings. While these are not flawless yet, they represent a shift towards more proactive solutions.

The insights shared in this roundtable discussion shed light on the challenges and potential solutions associated with creating a safer metaverse for children. The VIRRAC project will continue to contribute to raising awareness and building a better digital future, based on empirical evidence. Children have the right to enjoy emerging technologies safely and participate in shaping how online spaces are designed for them. As a result, our team will capture children’s perspectives in order to develop an enjoyable, safe metaverse, and incorporate their opinions and experiences to develop practical safety guidelines.

Follow us on this journey to work towards an inclusive metaverse that offers exciting experiences while prioritising the well-being and safety of its youngest users.

About the authors

Dr Elena Martellozzo

Criminologist Dr Elena Martellozzo is an associate professor in Criminology at Middlesex University and the associate director of CATS, with extensive experience in researching subjects related to online harms and abuse against women and children. Elena has acted as an advisor on child protection to governments and practitioners in Lithuania, Italy and Bahrain to support the development of national child internet safety policy frameworks and led and co-led research project both in the United Kingdom and internationally.

Recognised as one of the world’s leading experts in criminology, she focuses primarily on online harms, online violence against children and women and online safety. She is an active member of the UK Centre for Internet Safety (UKCIS) and an expert advisor for EIGE on Cyber violence against Women and Girls, mapping national policies, research, data, and definitions on cyber violence against women and girls across the EU-27.

Elena delivers regularly expert training on online safety and prevention to professionals working in the online safety and sexual health area. As well as being the author of two books and more than 40 peer-reviewed articles, she regular speaks on national TV and in print media.

Twitter: @E_Martellozzo

Professor Julie Davidson OBE

Prof Davidson is a professor of criminology and the director of the Institute for Connected Communities at the University of East London. She is one of the UK’s foremost experts on policy and practice in the area of children sexual abuse and exploitation and online harms. Alongside her role as chair of the UK Council for Internet Safety Evidence Group, Prof Davidson provides expert advice to international and national organisations such as the Technology Coalition,  UNICEF, the US Sentencing Commission, the UN ITU, the Home Office and DCMS.

In addition, she is a member of the Europol  EC3 Expert Academic Advisory Group and is the Chair of the Research Ethics Committee to the Independent Inquiry into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse. She has been an academic advisor to the Inquiry since it began in 2017.

Twitter: @JuliaDavidson13

Boglarka Meggyesfalvi

Boglarka Meggyesfalvi is a dedicated child protection professional with a commitment to safeguarding children and advocating for their rights. She holds a Master’s degree in Criminology and has recently embarked on her doctoral research. In her role as a researcher at CATS, Boglarka immerses herself in impactful research to advance knowledge in the field of child protection. Her expertise extends internationally, as she serves as a youth projects’ expert for EU initiatives, where she gains invaluable insights into empowering and supporting young individuals on a strategic level. Her diverse career has included positions in the Integrated Rights Protection Service of the Hungarian Home Office and various child protection NGOs across Europe and Latin America.

Twitter: @meggyesfalvi

Photo by julien Tromeur on Unsplash

Editors Picks Home Categories Science & technology

It’s good to talk – the many methods and levels of communication

PhD student speaks about the differing forms of communication for humans and animals – and her experience of returning to university in her late 40s

If you’d asked me thirty years ago what I’d be doing during my 50th year on the planet, I’m fairly sure my answer wouldn’t have been “studying for a PhD”, but here I am at Middlesex University. I wasn’t able to complete my doctorate some years ago for health and personal reasons, but as the Universe/University has given me another shot at it as an (even more) mature student, I’m doing everything in my power to get it finished this time.

I’m studying how some tiny, insect-like animals of the Order Collembola communicate. Most people know them as springtails, except the ones I’m looking at don’t spring. The mechanism that allows this in most springtail species doesn’t function in my creatures.

One of the most important methods of communication in insects and similar creatures is through pheromones. Pheromones are chemicals secreted by an individual, that are then received and interpreted by others. They can act in a similar way to hormones but outside of the body, affecting the behaviour of receiving creatures. These pheromones trigger many different types of social responses including warning and alarm, trails to show where food is and mating signals.

I am investigating aggregation pheromones. These are used by seashore springtails to signal and form clusters before high tide, to shelter from the incoming waters. My research involves determining what the pheromone is made of, and how its signals are transmitted between the individual animals.

Research on communication plays an enormous role in studies of animal behaviour. Attempts to identify and translate the information exchanged in calls and signalling systems of countless animals of all shapes and sizes are continual, and pheromone or chemical communication is just a tiny part of this. Although non-human animals don’t communicate with what most people would consider language, the boundaries seem to increasingly blur as we learn more and more about the different characteristics of animal communication. And human language itself isn’t just about the words used. We use sounds, tone of voice, gestures, pictures, diagrams as part of our inter-personal communication.

During a recent seminar series, we looked at communication in Science; including who’s doing the communicating – and how. Scientists, teachers, publishers, politicians and policy makers, investors and advertisers, film makers and broadcasters, journalists, museums, the public and even bloggers are all communicating with variable levels of fact and fiction. Amongst other things it made me think about how many different types and levels of communication there are, even within my own small experience of the scientific world.

Although these days I’m usually found reading academic papers and writing thesis-type paragraphs, in the past I spent time as a primary school teaching assistant and a research student tutor, so I’ve had some experience of communicating knowledge to non-specialists. My earliest memories of doing this were with my mum during my undergraduate degree, and even while still at school.

My mum was very artistic having trained as a fashion designer but she was the first to admit she didn’t know much about science. Everything was interesting to her though, and I used to love explaining things to her, going through the stages of cell division, drawing diagrams on bits of scrap paper at the kitchen table. I’ve always thought it was the best way to learn something myself too because explaining something to someone else seems to help things stay in my own head. Sitting in the pub with colleagues sketching ideas on beer mats also seems to work in a similar way.

Speaking of sitting in the pub, we humans are pretty social animals and most of us enjoy being in groups, for work as well as social activities. We don’t even need to words to communicate our ideas to each other most of the time. For example, how often do we convey “call me” with a phone near our ear gesture, or “fancy a drink?” by raising an invisible glass to our face? We use many signals to alter the behaviour of others and coordinate it with our own, as do the springtails. Humans also form groups and clusters for protection.

And for that protection to be more than just short-term and physical, maybe making improvements to science communication could help protect us all through improving our understanding and finding solutions to our problems.

Picture shows Anurida maritima aggregating on the water surface Credit: Evan C,

Elise Michele Heinz is a PhD student in the Faculty of Science and Technology.

Editors Picks Science & technology Social commentary

Content Moderators: The fire fighters of the internet

The Centre for Abuse and Trauma Studies (CATS) highlights the damaging impact that child sex abuse material can have on content moderators

            The dark corners of cyberspace can play host to the some of the most distressing images imaginable, including child sexual abuse material (CSAM), which is highly damaging not only to the children depicted in those images and videos, but also to those who review and remove such content. Unfortunately, the increase of digitalisation and online connectivity, has seen pressure on the tech industry, law enforcement agencies and other organisations to police the internet increase rapidly.

The growth in online sexual offending has had significant implications for those who are tasked with responding to such crimes. A recent online event hosted by the Centre for Abuse and Trauma Studies (CATS) at Middlesex University featured leading academics, practitioners and frontline responders, who all emphasised the  urgency in addressing the impact that exposure to CSAM and other potentially traumatic material has on the mental health of content moderators.

The aim was to share the preliminary findings of a project entitled ’Invisible Risks: Content Moderators and the Trauma of Child Sexual Abuse Materials’  which has been conducted by CATS over recent  years, with support and funding from the Tech Coalition and End Violence Safe Online Initiative.

In this blog, the event chair and Middlesex University criminologist Dr Elena Martellozzo, with criminologist Dr Paul Bleakley, University of New Haven, highlight some of the key points raised in the webinar and share insights that may contribute to improving well-being for content moderators, no matter what type of organisation they may work for.

The first speaker of the event was child psychiatrist Dr Richard Graham, who has worked to support positive mental health in children and young people, and those who work with them, for many years, and served as a consultant on the ‘Invisible Risks’ project. Dr Graham invited the audience to reflect on the meaning of  occupational health in the content moderation field and, particularly, the concept of burnout. Dr Graham suggested that many of the challenges experienced in content moderation are not entirely new. He referred back to the 1960s and 1970s when the swift growth of international travel meant air traffic controllers were suddenly faced with inadequate equipment, changing shift patterns, long shifts without breaks, stress and fatigue of those long shifts, the monotony of automated work, and the challenges arising from using new technology. Because of these rapid changes in working conditions, many felt burnt out and, tragically, this poor state of well-being even resulted in several mid-air collisions. Dr Graham urges that this scenario is “what we need to be thinking about is when we’re looking at harms in the online world.” He continued that “understanding the impact of the work upon content moderators may have come late, but it is not too late to make changes, because we need these professionals to be able to work well and flourish.”

The next speaker, Denton Howard, the CEO of The International Association of Internet Hotlines (INHOPE), referred to content moderators as “first digital responders who put out the fire that is CSAM.”  He argued that no matter how cutting-edge innovative technology might be, the human eye is still instrumental in assessing and making the final decisions when it comes to responding to potentially harmful online content. He stressed “while the perception is that we’re technology driven and there is lots of fancy machines that do that [content moderation], behind that [technology] are the people, and unless we take care of the people, the machines won’t work and we won’t achieve what we’re supposed to do.” Whilst artificial intelligence continues to develop, Howard said it is not yet at the stage where it can make clear distinctions during the assessment of an image, and what response is warranted to that material. 

However, there is substantial evidence which suggests that constant surveillance of traumatic images can affect content moderators’ wellbeing, mental health, and quality of life. It can also have knock-on impacts on their professional competence, satisfaction, and productivity.  These arguments were supported by panellist Andy Briercliffe, an online child safety specialist who has spent more than 20 years in British law enforcement undertaking investigations into various types of serious internet crime. Andy shared some of his personal experiences, and outlined the impact that viewing harmful content may have on content moderators’ lives including (but not limited to) burnout, secondary traumatic stress, compassion fatigue, and vicarious trauma. As Briercliffe noted, if we want content moderators to act as ‘fire fighters’ and ‘put out’ CSAM effectively, it is important that they are appropriately supported — that we understand their coping strategies and the organisational factors which may assist or hinder the efficacy of the coping mechanisms they utilise.

            Several of the same issues were raised by Dr Ruth Spence, a researcher in psychology at CATS who also served as the project manager of ‘Invisible Risks’. Following on from Briercliffe, Dr Spence presented some of the study’s preliminary results based on a survey conducted with 212 content moderators, and in-depth interviews with another 11. Dr Spence explained that more than a third of content moderators (34.6%) presented signs of experiencing moderate to severe psychological distress, which would ordinarily result in a referral for treatment and more than half (58.5%) showed signs of mild-to-low psychological distress, amounting to 93.1% of content moderators exhibiting indicators of distress on some level.

Dr Spence went on to observe that a high proportion of content moderators also experienced secondary trauma characterized by intrusive thoughts, avoidance, hyperarousal (e.g., sleep disturbance, hypervigilance), and other cognitive and/or emotional affects. Nonetheless, in spite of these profound challenges, Dr Spence also noted that content moderators seemed to cope relatively well with this distress, which the ‘Invisible Risks’ project seeks to explore further in order to determine appropriate intervention strategies.

            Paula Bradbury, a criminologist and senior researcher with CATS, presented the project’s findings on leadership in the content moderation industry, which highlighted the need for a leadership environment that is empathetic, shows appreciation for the work of content moderation, and an understanding of the challenges.

Ultimately, Paula said, content moderators did not want to be part of a profession that is hidden: they called for more networking opportunities which would allow the field to professionalise, more training opportunities, and more direct feedback on their job performance from leadership. She added content moderators also emphasised the importance of building “the right team” which they defined as one in which they could rely on teammates, and felt comfortable being open with them about their experiences, and concerns. Paula noted most content moderators interviewed referred to their professional colleagues as a “second family” that was bonded through the shared challenges faced in the course of their work. This second family was seen as essential to the coping strategies employed by moderators, and stands as an essential informal support system.

Professor Antonia Bifulco, co-founder and director of CATS, closed the event, highlighting that often when people hear about content moderation, they think that it is all dependent on complex technology, such as AI.

However, she continued, “this work is about people and it is important to ensure they are kept in the picture, as they are the people behind the technology that protects us from seeing disturbing content.”

As mentioned over the course of the event, practitioners are working with the material comparable to toxic waste, and Professor Bifulco added that “this work can involve moral injury. It’s about material that really offends your values and sense of what’s right and wrong.”

It is this type of material that content moderators are faced with on a daily basis and, as the early results of the ‘Invisible Risks’ project suggest, this may have a significant (and hidden) impact on their well-being and psychological health. With greater understanding of how the role of content moderator effects those performing said role, we will be better placed to offer evidence-based support to the industry, allowing content moderators perform their job effectively in a way that lessens the personal risk of harm.

About the authors

Dr Elena Martellozzo

Criminologist Dr Elena Martellozzo is an associate professor in Criminology at Middlesex University and the associate director of CATS, with extensive experience in researching subjects related to online harms and abuse against women and children. Elena has acted as an advisor on child protection to governments and practitioners in Lithuania, Italy and Bahrain to support the development of national child internet safety policy frameworks and led and co-led research project both in the United Kingdom and internationally.

Recognised as one of the world’s leading experts in criminology, she focuses primarily on online harms, online violence against children and women and online safety. She is an active member of the UK Centre for Internet Safety (UKCIS) and an expert advisor for EIGE on Cyber violence against Women and Girls, mapping national policies, research, data, and definitions on cyber violence against women and girls across the EU-27.

Elena delivers regularly expert training on online safety and prevention to professionals working in the online safety and sexual health area. As a published peer-reviewed author, she regular speaks in national TV and print media.

Twitter: @E_Martellozzo

Dr Paul Bleakley

Dr Paul Bleakley is an assistant professor in Criminal Justice at the University of New Haven in Connecticut, USA, with an expertise in policing, corruption and abuse studies. He has a particular focus on historical criminology, and especially the use of historical research methods to examine police corruption and cold case crimes. Dr Bleakley has written two books on this subject, Under a Bad Sun: Police, Politics and Corruption in Australia (2021) and Policing Child Sexual Abuse (2022). He has published his research in a range of leading journals such as Criminology & Criminal Justice, Critical Criminology, Deviant Behavior, Policing, and Criminal Justice Studies.

A former journalist, Dr Bleakley previously worked for Middlesex University.

Twitter: @DrBleaks

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Labour rights reporting: Is a new era in sight?

MDX academic explains how British firms will have to comply with new EU corporate laws covering a range of social and environmental issues

Greenwashing is the exaggeration of a company’s impact on the environment and society. Unlike financial information, companies are not required to comply with reporting standards concerning environmental, social and governance (ESG) information.

It is, therefore, perhaps not surprising that companies report their behaviour favourably without divulging the challenges or adverse impacts of their operations. This has cast a shadow over the credibility of ESG reports and their contributions to corporate accountability.

Furthermore, our research shows that companies struggle to report accurate information about workers along their value chains. Many companies agree with the general principles of labour rights, but they often fail to provide specific information supported by statistics, any steps they take to uphold labour rights, or their interactions with key stakeholders. Instead, they tend to provide general narratives which exaggerate their efforts.

The UK Modern Slavery Act (2015) has not improved the situation much. It is a relatively soft law and carries no penalties. There is very little political appetite in Britain to take on board recommendations to improve labour rights reporting.

All this may have to change in the face of new developments in the EU. The Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD) is a new Directive marking the beginning of a new era for reporting on a broad range of social and environmental issues, including labour rights. Given that Britain is the third largest trading partner in the EU, many British companies will have to comply.

The CSRD will mandate companies to report ESG information to the new European Sustainability Reporting Standards (ESRS). There will be penalties for non-compliance. ESRS will require companies to report on their endeavours to uphold labour rights of their employees and the workers along their value chains. ESRS requirements are closely aligned with those of the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) standards. However, ESRS will evolve over the coming years and it’s yet to be seen if they will surpass the GRI standards in quality and adoption.

The CSRD will be implemented gradually from 2024 to 2029, starting with large EU companies, followed by listed small- and medium-sized enterprises and at the end, major non-EU companies.

While the accounting profession is gearing towards the upcoming changes, companies and local authorities need further support and guidance on how to uphold labour rights at the bottom end of value chains in the UK. It remains to be seen how far down the value chains companies can go to report accurate information and provide assurance on the absence of modern slavery.

Dr Sepideh Parsa is Associate Professor of accounting at Middlesex University Business School. Sepideh has been appointed by the Global Sustainability Standards Board (GSSB), GRI’s independent standard setting body, to serve on the GRI Labor Project Advisory Group to revise and develop the Labor related GRI topic standards.

Photo by Benjamin Child on Unsplash

Editors Picks Education Home Categories

ChatGPT could be your Ally – really!

Professor Balbir Dean, Academic Dean of the Faculty of Science and Technology, explains why academia should embrace rather than fight against the AI platform

For academics not up to speed with emerging AI platforms, ChatGPT is a conversational chatbox that uses a generative, pre-trained large language model (trained to predict the next token) using natural language parsing. The scale of the trained model is derived from a dataset constituting almost 1 trillion words

Google searches for ChatGPT have shot up since the release of the platform in Nov 2022. It has also been the subject of media attention. Up and down the country, academic staff rooms (both virtual and real) have been in various stages of shock as faculty staff attempt to establish what it means for course design, student learning and quality assurance. There are already early cases of academic misconduct through the use of the ChatGPT platform for student assignments.

It presents us with real challenges as it could make cheating and misconduct easier. Will the shift to moving away from exams be halted Its tracks as universities aim to ensure quality control and stamp out dishonest behaviour?

I believe neither burying our heads in the sand or yearning to go back to what we had before is the answer. It never has been when it comes to the opportunities and risks posed by new technology. I’m suggesting we embrace rather than fight.

For Higher Education (HE), two key stakeholders are affected – the teachers and the students. This note advances the notion that these stakeholders need to invert their thinking and approach to ChatGPT especially in the context of broader digitalisation agenda in HE.

Faculty staff need to avoid entering an arms race that they will lose. Every request to ChatGPT generates a unique response making both detection and provision of sufficient proof time consuming.  Detection mechanisms may exist as there are already cases of software apps claiming to detect ChatGPT outputs, but the underlying large language models only get better and detection may get harder. OpenAI (the owners of ChatGPT) itself may provide digital watermarks. We will have to wait and see as the move of OpenAI from an open platform/“not for profit”mode to a new model where profit is capped to 100 times the investment for investors, is a fundamental direction change in the ethos of the company.

Other product companies working in plagiarism detection, such as Turnitin, will also enter the arms war. Costs will inevitably rise for institutions as new “value-add” services such AI Detection are bolted on.

Academic departments will re-examine their assessment design.  The recent welcome shift away from unrealistic (and not terribly useful in real life) modes of assessment such as exams will return with vengeance and on steroids.  This exam artillery was never helpful and now it may be damaging especially to those from minority backgrounds.

Other strategies will include efforts at “designing out” misconduct opportunities. Multiple assessment points will be embedded. All will lead to increased costs and take away valuable time that can be used to support students properly.

Meanwhile, what of the students, who are potentially future consumers of enhanced ChatGPT 4.0 services? Students driven to potential academic misconduct will spot an opportunity to move away from essay mills and other contract services and want to have more direct engagement to their course assignments and for free.

Given the range of capabilities (albeit with limitations) many more opportunities for misconduct will become available. Students will be able to use ChatGPT on their smart phones during in-class synchronous discussion, as well seeking support in writing 3000 word complex essays or even software programmes.

We are safe in the assumption that ChatGPT or similar platforms are only going to increase in their availability and usage so an alternative approach from both stakeholders is required.

That’s why I’m proposing that given ChatGPT offers a new sweet spot of opportunity for 21st Century HE, we should embrace it rather than fight it.

Here are some alternative ways of using ChatGPT:

  1. For Faculty: Design assessments that incorporate deliberate use of ChatGPT so that students can demonstrate how they refine their submission requests to ChatGPT to get better answers. Award marks for enhancing the outputs with assumption that presented work has been partially generated. A good practical example of this is the academic paper on ChatGPT by Cotton et al. Input to ChatGPT that helps develop useful starting point text and how the final output is enhanced through factual error correction, grammar improvements and citations are all examples of important academic writing skills.
  • For Students: Starting an assignment, such as an essay, is often a major stumbling block. Structure of essays also exhibit cross-cultural differences.  ChatGPT is excellent in generating some initial ideas that can be further developed using more traditional academic approaches. Used in this way, ChatGPT becomes the sage on the side with the added bonus of supporting decolonisation agendas.  Another common question students ask is how to structure essays. ChatGPT can help in this too. Is it possible then, that ChatGPT will actually release scarce teaching resources? It seems so. Tutors can then focus on helping students with content and other higher order support.
  • A third potential use of ChatGPT is in the actual interaction between the teacher and the pupil. The platform and the outputs can become a boundary object for critical discussions in classroom settings. It can be used for generating false positives and other boundary conditions to help explain problems and solutions, spurious claims and other critical thinking needs. Further advantage is gained by the mediation through a technological platform that is strongly aligned with post-Covid Hyflex teaching models.

A third stakeholder also stands to benefit from this new learning technology. New software tools can be imagined. Just think: An essay authoring environment that integrate argumentation frameworks such as Toulmin, with ChatGPT capability,  Google scholar search with Mendelay citation. Could that be a potential software package that students might get bundled in with the latest tablet device at the start of term?

Pro-vice chancellors of Education are hopefully commissioning local research to get to grips with understanding the impact of ChatGPT. There are lots of pedagogic research questions worth exploring such as protocol frameworks for using ChatGPT as an additional virtual teaching assistant, or even implementing/prototyping example tool chains such as that mentioned earlier. It’s not all gloom. We can make ChatGPT work!

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Editors Picks Science & technology

Devastating cost of ignoring human factors exposed in ferry sinking

MDX academic Roger Kline, who will appear in an upcoming Channel 5 documentary on the sinking of The Herald of Free Enterprise, explains what caused the disaster.

The sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise on March 6th 1987 with the loss of 198 lives was an accident waiting to happen, highlighting the devastating consequences of abandoning safe working practices in the name of financial savings.

The issue of human factors in such disastrous events began to gain serious attention after the tragedy.

Human factor is the scientific discipline concerned with understanding how we interact with each other and with other elements of a system.

In turn systems are then designed to optimise well-being and performance among humans – and reduce safety risks.

The Herald sinking was avoidable had steps recommended by maritime inquiries and the ship owners Townsend Thoresen’s own captains been adopted.

It is now a case study in how such disasters could be avoided.

These were the main causes:

Firstly, Roll On – Roll Off (RoRo) ferries were inherently unstable

An official investigation into the sinking of the European Gateway ferry, which had a similar design to the Herald warned of another potential tragedy.

The 1986 European Gateway inquiry identified a new phenomenon, “transient asymmetric flooding”, to account in part for the rapid capsizing.

Unlike other ships, which are subdivided into watertight compartments, the vehicle decks of RoRo vessels meant any flooding on these decks would allow the water to flow the length of the ship. 

This issue had been identified as early as 1980, following the losses of Seaspeed Dora and Hero in June and November 1977 respectively. 

It was known prior to the Herald disaster that RoRo ships lost in collisions sank or capsized within ten minutes.

They were uniquely dangerous because their design features for quick loading led to high sided ships and lack of internal bulkheads which made the ships top heavy and vulnerable to a sudden rush of water through the bow or stern doors.

The company knew about the dangers.

Six years previously officers on its sister ship the Spirit of Free Enterprise threatened to strike unless safety standards improved, and in particular demanded a third officer to close the ship’s bow doors.

The owners insisted that only two officers were needed to simultaneously close the bow doors, let go the stern ropes and assist the captain on the bridge.

Secondly, the culture of the shipping line was rotten

Mr Justice Sheen summed up his findings at the subsequent Herald of Free Enterprise inquiry as “from top to bottom, the body corporate was infected with the disease of sloppiness”.

The inquiry identified a number of examples.

Ever since it had launched six years previously The Herald of Free Enterprise suffered from a permanent list, while repeated complaints from captains were ignored and it was forced to sail with a ballast tank permanently full of water to counter the list – which lowered the ship’s bow.

This was compounded at Zeebrugge harbour because other ballast tanks were filled at its low dock to allow car drivers to off load.

The time to empty these tanks was longer than the harbour turnaround time low dock to offload. The company was asked by its captains to fit pumps to clear the water more quickly but refused saying the cost was too high – £25,000.

One root cause was the failure of the assistant boatswain to close the bow door before dropping moorings, after he fell asleep on duty due to fatigue from working an excessively long shift.

The bow door remained open as the ferry set sail, the decks became flooded and the boat filled with water and capsized minutes later.

A crucial contributory factor was the absence of an indicator that the bow door was open.

As a result, the captain had no view of the bow door and no indicator light or other means for him to confirm they were closed. The absence of a communication channel with deck crew meant the captain had to make assumptions about the status of the rear door.

The company had dismissed requests by its captains to have an indicator installed on the bridge showing the position of the doors, partly because the company thought it frivolous “to spend money on equipment to indicate if employees had failed to do their job correctly.”

There was also pressure to remain on schedule and a clear deficiency in safety leadership at a higher level in the organisation.

There was one final contributory factor.

When a vessel is under way, the movement under it creates low pressure, which has the effect of increasing the vessel’s draught.

In deep water the effect is small but in shallow water it is greater, because as the water passes underneath it moves faster and causes the draught to increase. This reduced the clearance between the bow doors and water line to less than two metres.

After extensive tests, the investigators found when the ship travelled at a speed of 18 knots (33 km/h), the wave was enough to engulf the bow doors.

The relevance of human factors science

Human factors science tells us human beings make mistakes and any potentially unsafe system (all systems) needs to build in safety measures to anticipate that.

We had here an inherently unsafe type of ship with staff working 24 hours shift and poor communication channels. It was a lethal system.

Working 24-hour shifts increases the risk of mistakes by staff which was compounded because the captain had no warning of such errors.

The captain had no time to take corrective measures after the mistakes because this ship capsized in 90 seconds due to its design.

This free surface water is mirrored when carrying a tray full of water and the risk was foreseen in the RoRo ferry disaster inquiries.

In total, 198 crew and passengers paid with their lives for this disastrous failure to address predictable safety risks. The relentless pursuit of profit was a major contributory factor and continues to this day on ferries.

A year after the disaster, many cross-channel seafarers, including some who had played heroic roles saving lives in the Herald, were sacked by new owners P&O after protesting about longer hours and worse conditions.

Then some 23 years later, earlier this year, P&O’s new owners sacked their replacement crews for even cheaper ones, and got away with it as government ministers blustered and sat on their hands.

Human factors science learned from the Herald disaster and is widely applied in sectors as diverse as nuclear power stations and healthcare but the working culture of some shipping lines has not changed.

Roger Kline is a Research Fellow at Middlesex University and advised the Herald seafarers when they were dismissed by P&O in 1988.

If you are interested in knowing more about Human Factors at work, Roger recommends Steven Shorrock’s excellent book Human Factors and Ergonomics in Practice: Improving System Performance and Human Well-Being in the Real World (2016).

The documentary ‘Why Ships Sink: The Herald of Free Enterprise’ will air at 9pm on Channel Five on Sunday October 20th

Editors Picks Law & politics Science & technology Uncategorized

All systems shutdown: how do governments use the “Internet kill switch” to hide violations to human rights?

Senior Lecturer in Computing & Communications Engineering Dr Mahdi Aiash describes what Internet shutdowns ordered by repressive regimes entail, and how they can be bypassed

Protesters on motorbikes and on foot in a road in Tehran during anti-government protests in September 2022. There is a major traffic jam and an object on fire in the distance
Protesters in Iran last month, where the authorities have cut off mobile internet, WhatsApp and Instagram. Credit: AFP/Getty Images

A report recently published by the UN Human Rights Office highlights the fact that Internet shutdown is increasingly becoming a tool used by governments around the world in the time of crisis to supress protest and hide deadly crackdowns or even military operations against civilians. Most recently, Iranian authorities cut off mobile Internet, WhatsApp, and Instagram amid protests against the killing of Mahsa Amini.

What are Internet Shutdowns and how they happen?

Internet shutdowns are measures taken by governments or entities on behalf of these governments, to intentionally disrupt access to and the use of information and communications systems online. Internet shutdowns exist on a spectrum and include everything from complete blackouts (where online connectivity is fully severed) or disruptions of mobile service to throttling or slowing down connections to selectively blocking certain platforms. Some internet shutdowns last a few days or weeks, while others persist for months or even years.

To explain how this might happen, we need to know that the Internet (as a network) is made up of a number of Internet exchange points (IXPs) which are physical location through which Internet infrastructure companies such as Internet Service Providers (ISPs) connect with each other.

These locations exist on the “edge” of different networks, and allow network providers to share transit outside their own network. Governments might order local internet service providers (ISPs) to fully disconnect online access for a particular geographic region or throughout a country. Unfortunately, ISPs may comply with government orders out of fear of retribution of legal action.

The good news is that if a government does not own and control the whole Internet Infrastructure, it might need to ask another party (IXP providers) to collaborate, which makes it a bit more challenging to have an entire Internet Blackout. Therefore, countries like China, Russia and Iran are also developing individual, “closed-off” internets, which would allow governments to cut off the country from the rest of the world wide web.

Can people bypass the shutdowns?

Depending on the scale of shutdown (and the country), there might be tools and ways to bypass the shutdowns:

  • Virtual private networks (VPNs): These allow users to access many blocked sites by providing internet service based outside of a censored country using a proxy server. A caveat is that because VPNs are publicly accessible, governments can block them.

    Also worth mentioning is that encryption is not enabled by default in all VPN services, and even with encryption enabled, not all your Internet traffic will be encrypted. Domain Name System (DNS) traffic, translating domain names like or to Internet Protocal addresses so browsers can load Internet resources aren’t encrypted, meaning that Internet Service providers (and the government) know what websites you are visiting even if you are using VPN.

    The good news is that there is a way to encrypt DNS traffic, by configuring the browser to use DNS over TLS (DOT) or DNS over HTTPs (DoH) protocols.

    Another concern related to the use of VPN is the element of trust, since VPN services keep your data.
  • A good alternative to VPN is serverless tunnels such as Ngrok-tunnel, which is an open source tool that does not tunnel traffic or rely upon third-party servers, meaning governments have a much harder time blocking them.
  • Deep Packet Inspection circumvention utilities such as GoodbyeDPI or Green Tunnel might be another option to bypass Deep Packet Inspection systems found in many Internet Service Providers which block access to certain websites.

Why this is important?

KeepItOn coalition, which monitors shutdown episodes across the world, documented 931 shutdowns between 2016 and 2021 in 74 countries, with some countries blocking communications repeatedly and over long periods of time. Not only do Internet shutdowns represent violations to human rights and freedom, they also inflict social and economic damage on citizens and limit their abilities to access much-needed services such as hospitals, educational institutions and public transport, which in turn deepens inequality.

Editors Picks Health & wellbeing

Zero tolerance for bullying in healthcare?

Roger Kline, MDX Research Fellow, argues tackling bullying and harassment in healthcare must remain a priority and equal more than well-meaning statements of planned action

Five years ago, Duncan Lewis and myself estimated the bullying of NHS staff in England cost £2.3 billion per year – and this didn’t include the huge cost of presenteeism (working without being productive), incivility (rude behaviour), or the impact on bystanders. It took no account of primary care or national bodies and above all it did not include the immense cost to patient care. We were told “NHS bosses will be sacked if they fail to stamp out alarming bullying of hospital staff”. Since then the incidence of bullying, and the likelihood staff will report it, has remained at dangerous levels.

In the last NHS staff survey 11.6% staff reported at least one incident of bullying, harassment or abuse by a manager, whilst 18.7% reported at least one incident by another colleague.  Less than half (48.7%) said that they or a colleague even reported such incidents. Some groups of staff (disabled, LGBT and Black and Minority Ethnic staff) remain especially subjected to bullying, harassment and abuse whilst it is particularly high in some occupations, notably the ambulance service. We now also know how toxic rudeness is.

Bullying has been a key factor in patient care scandals driven by a cocktail of workload pressures, reorganisations, hierarchical cultures, and poor leadership which together create an organisational climate in which inappropriate and unacceptable behaviours become the “norm”. It is a serious problem for the NHS. It damages the health and wellbeing of staff.  It undermines organisational effectiveness, increases sickness absence, prompt presenteeism, and reduce discretionary staff effort and increasing turnover not only of those directly subjected to bullying and harassment but bystanders too.   It undermines effective team working, disrupts inclusive working, and negates psychological safety which in turn undermine the trust, collaboration and communication essential for good care.

If it is such a problem why have efforts to reduce it failed?

Almost seven years ago the NHS Call to Action on Bullying made little difference. NHS Employers bullying guidance (2006-2016) stated ‘employers can only address cases of bullying and harassment that are brought to their attention’.  This approach emphasised the importance of making it safe for staff to raise concerns, of having policies, procedures and training in place, often accompanied by leaders (and ministers) announcing “zero tolerance” of bullying.

But staff who are bullied and harassed are reluctant to formally complain because they either have no confidence it will make a difference or believe it will make things worse. I recall how, when visiting one NHS trust with poor staff survey bullying data, I was assured this data should be treated with a degree of scepticism as there were very few grievances lodged. I suggested this meant there was a further problem – staff saw little point in raising concerns or were afraid of the consequences of doing so.

Research finds the reliance on policies, procedures and training to be fundamentally flawed. An authoritative ACAS review concluded, for example

“while policies and training are doubtless essential components of effective strategies for addressing bullying in the workplace …….. research has generated no evidence that, in isolation, this approach can work to reduce the overall incidence of bullying in Britain’s workplaces.

The review added such an approach

“flies in the face of current research evidence about the limited effectiveness of using such individualised processes to resolve allegations of bullying and to prevent bullying behaviours.”

Organisational culture is shaped by formal organisational values and local policies; by values, behaviours and knowledge staff learn; and by how an organisation’s leaders behave. Culture is crucial in healthcare. Managing staff with respect and compassion correlates with improved patient satisfaction, infection and mortality rates, Care Quality Commission (CQC) ratings and financial performance.  

An inclusive climate (the antithesis of an inclusive one) is more likely to enable psychological safety and both are likely to positively influence speaking up and may be particularly helpful in the hierarchical environments common in healthcare where it may minimise the effect of status on psychological safety within teams and give legitimacy to voice. Inclusive teams treat relational intelligence (kindness, emotional intelligence) as being important as rational intelligence (regulation, measurement and efficiency) further enabling those benefits.

Using formal grievance procedures to tackle bullying is rarely effective. Employees who “win” often find they have to “move on” whilst employers find underlying causes are rarely addressed. My own field work suggests staff who do raise bullying concerns want bad behaviours to stop rather than to lodge formal grievances. Grievance, discipline and whistleblowing procedures which are often linked to bullying concerns risk a punitive and adversarial approach driven either by an eye on possible litigation – or the silencing of the person raising a concern.

There is an alternative, but no magic solution. The NHS has shown a growing interest in data-driven early informal intervention – a “public health” approach to toxic culture. The ‘professionalism pyramid’ developed by Vanderbilt University’s Center for Professionalism and Patient Advocacy, for example, emphasises discussing unprofessional behaviour at the first signs of it and providing support for the individual to change whilst emphasising the need for interventions to escalate if unprofessional behaviour persists or worsens. A review found the majority of professionals “self-regulate”. 

Such informal early action, appears to rely on managers, senior staff, HR and staff as a whole:

  • Being clear about the importance of responding to low intensity or one-off behaviours such as rudeness and interpersonal conflict;
  • Having the confidence, skills and time to make effective informal early interventions.
  • Having (and be seen to have) the active support of senior leadership modelling such behaviours

Without those preconditions being in place staff may fear becoming a target themselves, or making things worse. Early research on the impact of bystanders emphasised “the relevance of workplace relationships and managerial ideology in influencing bystander decisions, actions and outcomes. “

Another element of early intervention may be the use of mediation but ACAS advise caution against using mediation as a universal “fix” especially where there are stark power imbalances between the parties.

Research on whistleblowing (a frequent way of staff raising concerns about bullying and harassment) by Megan Reitz and colleagues concludes

“leaders…..are focusing their attention and efforts predominantly on those who feel silenced, urging them to ‘be brave’, ‘speak up’ and have the ‘courageous conversations’ that are required…….We need to stop trying to ‘fix the silenced’ and rather ‘fix the system’.”

Reitz then argues

“instigating whistleblowing lines and training employees to be braver or insisting that they speak up out of duty, will achieve little therefore, without leaders owning their status and hierarchy, stepping out of their internal monologue and engaging with the reality of others.”

In whistleblowing, in discrimination and in bullying (which often overlap) what leaders do, and don’t do, is what drives culture, not what they say. There certainly are some NHS leaders who behave like corporate psychopaths. But many others want to do the right thing but hesitate or struggle.

Accountability is crucial. The approach to workplace culture in Mersey Care NHS FT suggests some principles we might draw on, acting wherever early, informally, using data and soft intelligence to be preventative and proactive with an emphasis on learning not punishment. Recent resources from NHS England helpfully build on elements of that approach in tackling incivility and rudeness at work.

Finally, there is much talk about “allyship” in tackling discrimination. This approach applies equally to bullying and harassment. It should not (must not) be left to those who are bullied and harassed to have prime responsibility for tackling their abuse. It is for leaders to step up and for all of us as colleagues to do the same, early and informally wherever possible, robustly where that is not possible. Crucially, we must draw on the evidence relying primarily on policies, procedures and training is simply not good enough and, in isolation, simply will not work.

Roger Kline is Research Fellow at Middlesex University Business School