Workplace wellness and workplace bullying

When you hear the term “employee wellness,” do you also think about “workplace bullying”?

That question has been buzzing through my head since yesterday, when it was my pleasure to speak at a program on creating healthy workplaces, sponsored by the New England Work & Family Association (NEWFA) — a group of human resources and wellness program professionals committed to supporting work-life balance — and hosted by the Boston College Center for Work and Family.

A tale of two halves

The first half of the program was an interesting panel discussion about workplace wellness programs, featuring presentations by NEWFA members who have developed and managed wellness programs. We heard about a variety of useful, pro-active initiatives, including health education and coaching (e.g., nutrition, exercise, smoking cessation), stress reduction, and mindfulness training.

The second half of the program was my presentation about workplace bullying and the challenges facing HR. Although I framed my remarks within the context of promoting healthy workplaces, it was clear that my piece was about the “dark” side of work. How else to describe a phenomenon that reduces productivity and morale and triggers a long list of negative health outcomes?

Will the twain meet?

Both pieces of the program related to the same general topic, namely, the creation and sustenance of healthy workplaces that embrace both productivity and employee well-being.  However, I couldn’t help but notice how the room tensed up as my talk explored the details about workplace bullying.

As I told the group, workplace bullying is a very threatening topic to many organizations, especially when the behavior is frequent and comes from a top-down direction. After all, boss-to-subordinate bullying is the most common combination, at least in the U.S. Furthermore, bullying and mobbing behaviors tend to be fueled by organizational cultures that enable or even encourage them. In short, bullying at work often points to responsibility at the top.

Contrasts in dealing with senior management

Perhaps this explains a fundamental difference in how and why senior management is consulted by HR.

Speakers on the panel about employee wellness explained that they often didn’t have to go to top management for specific approval about every new initiative they developed. In some cases, they simply went ahead with a program that eventually would become a regular offering, with no apparent pushback from the corner office.

When I talked about incorporating workplace bullying prevention and response into HR practices and training, however, I saw knowing nods in response to my advice to assess management tolerance for such initiatives and to consult legal counsel on liability exposure.

An integrated perspective

Perhaps I’m making excuses for the pizza I enjoyed the other night, but I don’t think we can de-couple bad habits such as unhealthy eating and smoking from undue stress at work. Indeed, it strikes me as ironic that we can talk more openly about wellness programs designed to reduce stress and improve health habits, while sometimes sweeping under the rug work-related conditions — such as bullying — that create a need for them.

In short, the quest for healthy workplaces cannot ignore fundamental conditions of work. It’s why I am thankful that NEWFA and Boston College created a program that allowed us to consider the workplace in a more balanced light.

A gift from our elders: Turning their shared regrets into our opportunities

In a society that worships youth and images of youthfulness, all too often we overlook precious opportunities to learn from those who have been around the block before us. As a counter to this mindset, palliative care provider Bronnie Ware asked people nearing the end of their life journeys to share what regrets they have carried into their later years.

Here are their top five regrets, as drawn from her conversations:

1. “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” (number one lament)

2. “I wish I didn’t work so hard.” (men especially)

3. “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.”

4. “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.”

5. “I wish that I had let myself be happier.” (“surprisingly common” regret)

To expound on what she learned, Ware has a new book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing (2011), available in both paperback and a very inexpensive Kindle edition.

A gift for the New Year

Ware’s full blog article is absolutely worth your click-and-read, and you may be motivated to get her book as well.

Especially as we approach or pass certain age milestones, or as we bemoan the passage of time often marked by a new year, we may be reluctant to heed the advice of those who are a decade (or two or three) older, as if paying attention suddenly accelerates our own aging. In reality, however, this is priceless wisdom, offered to many of us at points in our lives when we have the freedom to make changes and choices.

Some of these points may relate to career paths taken or not taken. Others may pertain to too much attention given to work in our lives. And a few remind us of the important people in our lives.

I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions, but stuff like this provides welcomed food for thought as we turn the calendar.

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Related post

The lessons of nostalgia

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Hat tip to Ann Appa via Facebook for Ware article.

How’s this for an epitaph? “She lived a balanced life”

The importance of “work-life balance” is something of a shibboleth to those of us who talk and write about psychologically healthy work environments, and on numerous occasions I’ve made blithe references to it. But at times, I find myself questioning whether this is an unattainable and sometimes wrongheaded ideal — at least as applied to individuals.

Parsing the definition

Wikipedia (link here) defines work-life balance as:

a broad concept including proper prioritizing between “work” (career and ambition) on one hand and “life” (Health, pleasure, leisure, family and spiritual development) on the other.

The mere use of the word “balance” leads us to a debate that cannot be resolved. How do we apportion our time among these categories? Is it 50/50, 30/70, or 60/40?

And how do we define “work”? For example, “family” usually is placed in the “life” side of the ledger. But I doubt that a parent taking care of kids equates family responsibilities with leisure! For many, it’s physically and emotionally demanding work.

Time at work

Beyond the definitional nitpicking, I get the general idea: We spend a lot of time at work, especially in America. Economist Juliet Schor brought this issue into our contemporary policy debates in her 1993 book, The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure, marshaling data showing that U.S. workers spend a lot more time at work than counterparts in other nations.

So, in questioning the concept of work-life balance, I agree that things in America (and elsewhere!) are out of, umm, balance.

“I want it all”

But implicit in the notion of work-life balance is the idea that we can have it all, if only we can find the elusive formula for fitting the pieces together in the right way.

The YouTube video pasted into this article — from the Broadway show “Babe” — captures that wishful thinking. Three women of different ages and life circumstances meet by chance in a doctor’s office, and they share with each other how they want it all.

But most of us can’t

Way back in 1985, Norman Redlich, the dean of NYU Law School, referenced those Broadway lyrics in his remarks at our graduation convocation. His message: It sounds great, but most of us can’t have it all. There are choices to make and realities to navigate in a life that moves all too quickly.

So there we were, sitting among family and friends in beautiful Carnegie Hall, thinking that the world is our oyster, and the dean is telling us it’s probably not.

It’s one of the few useful pieces of advice I’ve heard among a sea of mostly banal, forgettable remarks at graduation ceremonies.

Instead

Many women, especially, have understood the impossibility — or at least the unlikelihood — of having all of life’s pieces conveniently coming together at the right places and right times.

Instead of chasing such an elusive goal, I suggest that we all redirect our focus to qualitative questions of what makes for a good and meaningful life, while remaining aware that choices and events may constrict our flexibility.

For some, that meaningful life may be grounded in raising a family or pursuing an avocation. For others, it may mean devotion to a career or a cause. For lots, it will involve a perpetual juggling act. A fortunate few may achieve a zen-like blend that allows them to check all the boxes. And still others may find meaning in overcoming significant personal or family challenges.

“She lived a balanced life”

Ultimately, aren’t we — and the world — better off for having made a positive difference in some way? You know, like starting a company, raising a family, helping those in need, contributing to the community, or inventing or creating or making or fixing something?

As I see it, work-life balance should remain a priority for employment relations, but when it comes to individual lives, we need to embrace a much deeper set of questions. After all, does anyone really want to be remembered for having “lived a balanced life”?

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Related posts

Beyond happiness: Founder of “positive psychology” movement expands his vision

What’s your legacy work? (And how can you de-clutter your way to it?)

What will be your body of work?

Are You a Marathoner or a Sprinter?

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June 11 update: In a sad coincidence, Dean Redlich died this week. His obituary, which details his rich life and career, can be read here.

The Workplace Bill of Rights by Workplace Fairness

Workplace Fairness is a non-profit organization dedicated to education and advocacy about employee rights. I’ve been meaning to share their Workplace Bill of Rights (link here), a comprehensive statement of basic rights and protections that all workers should enjoy:

1. Employees should be treated with honesty and respect.

2. Working full-time should guarantee a basic standard of living.

3. Workplaces should be free of discrimination.

4. No working person should be without health insurance.

5. No one should have to work his or her entire life.

6. Employees should be able to leave a job with dignity.

7. Every workplace should be as safe as possible.

8. There is more to life than work.

9. Employees are entitled to work together.

Covers workplace bullying

On the Workplace Fairness website, each core right is accompanied by a full explanation. No. 1 — the right to be treated “with honesty and respect” — states that “workplaces should be free of verbal abuse, threats, sabotage, and bullying of any kind.” Bravo!

Work on TV: Cop dramas

I love good cop dramas on TV, not only for their entertainment value, but also because they do a great job of portraying the ups and downs of working for a living.  Here are some of the underlying themes that are prominent in many these shows:

1. Pursuing one’s passion (the bad and good of it)

2. Career advancement (triumph and disappointment)

3. Diversity and inclusion (often not a lot of it)

4. Work-life balance (mainly lack thereof)

5. Incivility and bullying (often lots of both)

6. Politics (both in-house and electoral)

7. Ethics (good cop, bad cop)

8. Dispute resolution (from informal chats to murder)

My favorites (alphabetical order)

I’ve written about two of these shows before (The Wire and Prime Suspect), but here’s a longer list of my favorite police dramas:

Blue Bloods — A brand new weekly, it’s among a minority of cop shows built around a non-dysfunctional family. Tom Selleck is excellent as the New York City police commissioner.

Foyle’s War — A treat from PBS, this ongoing series is set in small town England during World War Two, featuring Michael Kitchen as Inspector Christopher Foyle.

Hill Street Blues (*) — Pathbreaking 80s classic set in an unspecified American big city. Hey, let’s be careful out there.

Homicide: Life on the Street (*) — David Simon’s earthy Baltimore, Take 1. Addictive.

Prime Suspect (*) — A gift from across the pond, Helen Mirren is astoundingly good as British police inspector Jane Tennison. Start with Prime Suspect 1 and follow her career and life. Brilliant stuff.

The Shield (*) — You’ll feel guilty for hoping that LA cop Vic Mackey doesn’t get caught.

The Wire (*) — David Simon’s earthier Baltimore, Take 2. Widely acclaimed for its portrayal of life in inner city urban America.

(*) = has completed series run; episodes available on DVD.

But where’s the union?

Even the best cop dramas miss on the realities of being in unionized work settings. Most rank-and-file police officers and detectives are unionized, and collective bargaining negotiations over salaries and benefits have a significant impact on their lives. In most cop shows, however, the union presence is practically invisible, usually limited to calling in a union rep when an officer gets in trouble.

Are electronic gadgets promoting or undercutting work-life balance?

This is a question that keeps me going ’round in circles: Are electronic gadgets such as laptops, netbooks, iPhones, Blackberries, and Skype promoting or undercutting a healthy sense of work-life balance?

Promoting

Electronic gadgets can be a godsend for those who jobs require time on the road, whether it’s a business person hosting a conference call or a contractor working with customers across a state. They can render distance largely immaterial in terms of communications.

For those with family responsibilities or health & mobility impairments, all this gee whiz technology makes telecommuting a genuine option. With a relatively modest investment in space and equipment, a wired home office can be a reality.

Undercutting

But there are real disadvantages too. Mickey Meece, writing for the New York Times, captures the downsides of technology that allows us to work anywhere and anytime (link here):

GIVEN the widespread adoption of smartphones, text messaging, video calling and social media, today’s professionals mean it when they brag about staying connected to work 24/7.

…But all of this amped-up productivity comes with a growing sense of unease. Too often, people find themselves with little time to concentrate and reflect on their work. Or to be truly present with their friends and family.

With the right toys, work can go wherever we go, and that’s not always a healthy thing.

A toss-up

I call it a toss-up, with the most important consideration being, as many have noted, whether we’re using the technology to facilitate more balanced lives and make work more convenient, or whether the technology is making it nearly impossible to separate ourselves from our work.

What’s your legacy work? (And how can you de-clutter your way to it?)

What is your legacy work? In other words, how do you want to make your mark on the world?

This potentially life-changing inquiry is a core idea of a book I’ve recommended in recent posts (here and here), Chris Guillebeau’s The Art of Non-Conformity: Set Your Own Rules, Live the Life You Want, and Change the World (2010).

Two key questions

Guillebeau poses two simple questions:

  • “What do you really want to get out of life?”
  • “What can you offer the world that no one else can?”

The answers may take a while to articulate — especially if you’ve never asked yourself these questions. And don’t apologize if this is the case. Guillebeau’s overarching theme of non-conformity recognizes that many folks have jumped through hoops defined by others.

It’s up to you

Ultimately, only you can define your legacy work. When we start thinking for ourselves, the possibilities are endless, and surely not limited to paid employment:

  • Building a business
  • Raising a family
  • Organizing for a cause
  • Writing a book
  • Leading a community group
  • Teaching kids
  • Starting a band
  • Caring for animals
  • Creating a charity
  • Inventing a new product
  • Helping the sick
  • and many, MANY more

Too much junk? Then de-clutter

Once you get to a certain age, life may have served up enough baggage — material and emotional — to eat up precious time and energy. This can impede your quest to identify and do legacy work. If that’s your situation, then you may need to de-clutter.

The Art of Non-Conformity has a very good chapter on how to clear away the junk for stuff that matters. It’s especially helpful in getting us to do triage on the tasks and commitments that may suck up a lot of time but provide very little payoff in terms of real accomplishment and satisfaction.

In addition, I highly recommend Brooks Palmer’s Clutter Busting: Letting Go of What’s Holding You Back (2009), which I also mentioned in a recent post. Palmer nails the psychology of how our material clutter frustrates our ability to live in the present and for the future. He employs a humane version of tough love to get us to ask important questions about why we hold onto belongings that have little or no positive value to us.

Individual power in tough times

Especially during these tough times, I believe that individual initiative and creativity will be the key to lifting some people into a better place in their lives. Identifying one’s legacy work and clearing away the clutter are two vital steps toward moving in that direction.

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Additional resources

Go here to access Chris Guillebeau’s website.

Go here to access Brooks Palmer’s blog.

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