Why conferences?

WSH-2013_tcm7-116912

I’m spending an extended weekend in Los Angeles, attending and participating in the biennial “Work, Stress and Health” conference co-sponsored by the American Psychological Association, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and Society for Occupational Health Psychology. This year’s conference theme is “Protecting and Promoting Total Worker Health,” and the agenda packs in four solid days of speeches, panel discussions, symposia, workshops, and poster presentations.

Despite its serious sounding title (anything with “stress” in the name tells us something, yes?), Work, Stress and Health is my favorite larger-scale conference. It’s where I learn the most from fellow participants, and it’s where I’ve had opportunities to present my work to knowledgeable, savvy colleagues.

These days I find myself less and less drawn to big conferences. To me, they’re usually too impersonal and have the feeling of being caught in an urban commuter rail station during rush hour. Work, Stress and Health, however, manages to overcome my predispositions, and here’s why:

First, it’s multidisciplinary. Although the fields of industrial/organizational psychology and occupational health psychology frame the overall conference, it draws presenters and attendees from many occupations related to employee relations. Tackling the challenges of making our workplaces healthy and productive requires input from many different perspectives, and this conference does a very good job of bringing many of them together.

Second, it’s relevant to both research and practice. Academics and graduate students form the largest cadre at the conference, but the programs typically carry significance for scholars and practitioners alike. Equally important, most people drawn to this conference bring a genuine respect for both research and practice.

Third, it’s friendly. Frequent conference goers understand the significance of that statement. Too many such gatherings are cold, stuffy, uptight assemblages, and I greet them with dread. Work, Stress and Health manages to avoid that look and feel. I actually look forward to being a part of it.

Fourth, it’s a great place to learn. Here, too, conference devotees get what I mean. Frankly, at some conferences, all you really care about is not saying something really stupid during your own presentation. The rest of the conference holds scant interest to you. By contrast, at Work, Stress and Health, there’s a lot of compelling stuff being presented, and not infrequently one has to make a choice among two or three appealing programs during the same time slot.

Finally, it connects and reconnects me with good people. This conference enables me to reconnect with valued associates and make new ones. Indeed, last night I joined long-time friends Gary & Ruth Namie (Workplace Bullying Institute), Kathy Rospenda (University of Illinois-Chicago), and Stale Einarsen (University of Bergen, Norway) for an excellent dinner and lots of story swapping at Mio Babbo’s Ristorante in Westwood Village. These folks are among the pioneers in helping us to understand workplace bullying, and I always enjoy their company.

l to r: Gary Namie, Ruth Namie, Kathy Rospenda, DY, and Stale Einarsen

l to r: Gary Namie, Ruth Namie, Kathy Rospenda, DY, and Stale Einarsen

***

I look forward to sharing several future posts summarizing and commenting on information and research presented at the conference.

Imagining the “compassionate mind” at work

In a thoughtful, compelling piece on the “compassionate mind,” Dr. Emma Seppala draws together a wealth of research and analysis on the role on compassion — defined “as the emotional response when perceiving suffering and involves an authentic desire to help” — in advancing the human condition. Here’s a short snippet of a piece that deserves a full read:

Compassion may have ensured our survival because of its tremendous benefits for both physical and mental health and overall well-being. Research by APS William James Fellow Ed Diener, a leading researcher in positive psychology, and APS James McKeen Cattell Fellow Martin Seligman, a pioneer of the psychology of happiness and human flourishing, suggests that connecting with others in a meaningful way helps us enjoy better mental and physical health and speeds up recovery from disease; furthermore, research by Stephanie Brown, at Stony Brook University, and Sara Konrath, at the University of Michigan, has shown that it may even lengthen our life spans.

The article appears in the May-June issue of the Observer, published by the Association for Psychological Science. It discusses whether compassion is natural or learned, the benefits of compassion for physical and psychological health, how compassion can change the world for the better, and how we can cultivate it.

OBS_Cover_May-June_header-88px1

Compassion at Work?

Is it naive to suggest that we could use more compassion in our workplaces?

Five years ago, I wrote a law review article suggesting that human dignity should be the framing concept for American employment laws. I noted, among other things, that considerations of human dignity are rarely voiced directly in connection with U.S. employment policy.

The idea of compassion seems even more, well, weird to associate with everyday employee relations.

Which is a big part of the problem. Too many of our workplaces are downright mean and utterly devoid of compassion. (That statement includes public service and non-profit employers, as well as profit-making businesses.) Within such organizations, incivility, bullying, violence, and other forms of aggression are common.

I understand that workplaces must be productive, however one defines the term, in order to thrive and survive and deliver our paychecks. So I’m not suggesting that we turn our places of employment into a giant support group. We have work to do — I get that.

But maybe someday we’ll understand that most of us do our best work in environments that are safe, supportive, and — yes — compassionate. Saying so isn’t naive; rather, it makes good sense.

***

Emma Seppala is the Associate Director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University. Go here to access her website.

“At some point, we need to have a serious conversation about $5 t-shirts”

The title of this piece quotes a Facebook post by Jennifer Doe, a widely respected labor organizer here in Boston.

Jennifer is referring, of course, to the latest workplace safety horror in Bangladesh: Last week, an eight-story building housing garment factories collapsed, with the death toll approaching 380 and very likely to rise. (Go here for extensive coverage by The Guardian.)

Last November, some 120 people died in a fire at another Bangladeshi garment factory. It bore an eerie similarity to the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in New York City, where 146 workers perished.

The $5 t-shirt, the $30 DVD player, and so on

The Bangladeshi workers were making clothes for U.S. brands. As we go about our business today, many of us could be wearing the results of their toil.

Which is exactly Jennifer’s point. Lots of consumer goods that we buy in shiny department, big box, and electronics stores carry low price tags in large part because they were made by workers in impoverished countries who earn subsistence wages while facing harsh, sometimes life-threatening working conditions.

Thrift vs. blood savings

I fully understand the value that many Americans put on thrift. Especially during these difficult times, inexpensive clothing, electronics, and other goods are especially appealing to anyone on a tight budget.

My mom grew up during the Great Depression. Throughout their lives, she and her sisters dutifully clipped coupons and waited for sales to buy things they needed. While concededly I have not wholly internalized their level of thrift, I get it: Hunting for a bargain is a good thing.

But we need to face the question of the human costs of these bargains. Most of us have purchased goods made by low-paid workers in other countries. In the case of products made in countries like Bangladesh, however, we’re talking about downright blood savings. These folks are dying so we can buy inexpensive stuff.

The path to labor globalization

The terrible situation in Bangladesh is hardly an isolated phenomenon.

The globalization of manufacturing involves the constant search for the cheapest, most exploitable labor possible. The rough pathway started with manufacturing jobs secured by union collective bargaining agreements in the north, followed by the flight of those jobs to anti-union southern states. When those wages got “too high,” manufacturers fled to other countries where workers were willing earn a tiny fraction of what even the lowest-paid Americans expected to receive.

More recently, as manufacturing workers in places like India have engaged in labor organizing, these companies are packing up again for new places to mistreat the rank-and-file, such as Bangladesh. However, now that Bangladeshi workers are protesting these recent disasters, I’m sure these companies will start looking elsewhere.

They may be running out of South Asian countries, but sub-Saharan Africa has yet to be fully exploited in this way. Wouldn’t it be obscenely ironic if American-led multinationals targeted the continent that supplied future slaves to the U.S. for their next round of exploitation? It’s not an implausible scenario.

Popular posts from 2012

I’ve collected a dozen of the more popular 2012 posts from Minding the Workplace. Especially if you missed them the first time around, I hope you find them interesting.

1. Gaslighting as a workplace bullying tactic (December) — “It can range from petty mind games to severe, twisted harassment and stalking. The goals are to undermine a target’s confidence, keep the target off-balance, and instill fear and paranoia.”

2. Not “Set for Life”: Boomers face layoffs, discrimination, and bullying at work (November) — “The bottom line? For many workers, the American Dream is no more. The assumption that working hard and playing by the rules would lead to a relatively comfortable retirement has been demolished.”

3. Are some workplaces “bullying clusters”? (September) — “So here’s the hypothesis: Bullying behaviors are not evenly distributed among all employers. Rather, bullying behaviors are disproportionately concentrated in a smaller number of toxic workplaces.”

4. Positive qualities of my best bosses (August) — “I’ve been giving some thought to the personal qualities of the many bosses I’ve worked for, going back to high school and extending to the present day. A handful stand out as being especially good, and I’ve come to realize that they shared a lot of positive characteristics. Here goes….”

5. Do “almost psychopaths” help to explain the prevalence of workplace bullying and abuse? (July) — “While the true psychopath may have trouble functioning in regular society, the almost psychopath often can navigate life successfully, including — perhaps especially in – the workplace.”

6. Cruelty on a school bus (June) — “A group of junior high school students from Greece School District in Rochester, NY, subject bus monitor Karen Klein to a profanity-laced stream of humiliating insults and threats.”

7. A movement emerges: Will unpaid internships disappear? (May) — “Now there’s an emerging movement against unpaid internships (especially in the private sector), and here’s evidence of its coming out party….”

8. Workplace bullying 2.0: Psychology and mental health (April) — “Of all the major disciplines relevant to studying, preventing, responding to workplace bullying, the fields of industrial/organizational psychology and its emerging sibling, occupational health psychology, rank first in terms of research and practice.”

9. Maryland teachers sue for bullying and harassment (March) — “Teachers in Silver Spring, Maryland, are suing their principal and the school board for ongoing bullying and harassment.”

10. Workplace wellness and workplace bullying (March) — “When you hear the term ‘employee wellness,’ do you also think about “workplace bullying”?”

11. Burnout in the non-profit sector (February) — “Non-profit employment attracts those who are drawn to changing society for the better. . . . However, it also feeds burnout tendencies that are exacerbated during difficult times.”

12. “Puppet master” bullying vs. genuine mobbing at work (January) — “Let’s start with what I call puppet master bullying. In these situations, a chief aggressor’s power and influence over a group of subordinates may be sufficient to enlist their participation in mistreating a target, creating what looks and feels like a mob. . . . By contrast, genuine workplace mobbing occurs when the malicious energy is shared among the many, who proceed to go after the few.”

OSHA cites convenience store owner for workplace violence risks

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which administers and enforces the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act, has cited a convenience store owner for allegedly failing to safeguard its employees from robberies and other forms of violence on the job.

In the Matter of TMT Inc.

Bruce Rolfsen reports for the BNA Daily Labor Report (Nov. 30, by subscription only):

Citations issued Nov. 19 against a Texas convenience store owner for allegedly failing to protect workers from robberies and other violence marks an increased willingness on the part of the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration to use the general duty clause as a tool to prevent workplace violence.
OSHA cited TMT Inc. with four alleged violations of the general duty clause, one each for Whip In stores in Garland and Mesquite, and citations for two stores in Dallas. Proposed fines total $19,600.
. . . The citation announcement marked the first time in recent memory that OSHA has used the general duty clause to cite a convenience store operator for violations related to workplace violence, according to observers who follow convenience store safety.

 

General duty clause

OSHA issued the citation under the law’s general duty clause, which requires employers to provide workers with conditions of employment “that are free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm.”

Despite thousands of individual regulations addressing workplace safety promulgated under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, there is no specific provision addressing workplace violence. However, OSHA has released a fact sheet on workplace violence and engaged in educational initiatives for employers about the subject.

Application to workplace bullying?

OSHA’s recognition of workplace violence as a serious hazard raises hopes that workplace bullying, too, will get greater attention.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the federal government’s research arm on workplace safety, has included bullying in its studies of workplace violence and aggression and hosted meetings of leading researchers to discuss the impact of bullying on worker health.  NIOSH researchers have examined organizational dynamics of workplace bullying and the implications for intervention strategies.

Back in 2005, I participated in a working group convened by NIOSH to examine workplace bullying and psychological aggression. This included a day-long session in Cincinnati that, to this day, remains one of the most intense and insightful exchanges I’ve participated in on this topic.

We can now at least imagine the possibility that research findings about the harm caused by bullying will lead to a stronger regulatory response.  As I’ve noted earlier on this blog, some of the analysis for that response may be found in the work of professor Susan Harthill of Florida Coastal School of Law, who has argued persuasively that occupational safety and health law can be part of a multi-pronged approach that includes collaborative and cooperative efforts between public and private employment relations stakeholders.

Limitations

Of course, mild penalties are one of the genuine limitations of current federal workplace safety law, as reflected by rather paltry proposed fines (under $20,000) in the TMI case. In addition, this statute does not allow individual claims for damages by injured workers. Identical limitations would apply in workplace bullying situations as well.

Nevertheless, this is a step in the right direction, and with the current Administration in place for another four years, it bears watching.

Fighting flight attendants: Not nearly as funny as it may seem

During the past week, we’ve been treated to two news stories about flight attendants getting into arguments that required their respective flights to head back to the gate.

One argument came on an American Eagle flight that was ready for take off. Ben Mutzabaugh, writing for USA Today‘s travel section, explains how it got started:

Passengers on a New York-to-Washington American Eagle flight were delayed for more than four hours Wednesday after the airline’s attendants got into an argument with each other, according to NBC Washington.

Witnesses tell NBC the spat seemed to begin when one attendant was on her phone. That’s when the flight’s other attendant made this announcement: “Everyone needs to put their phones away, and electronics and so on, including the flight attendant.”

On Wednesday, two attendants on a United Airlines flight got into it soon after take off, necessitating that the plane return to the airport. Mutzabaugh reports again:

A fight between two attendants forced a Chicago-bound United Airlines flight to return to Raleigh/Durham shortly after takeoff this morning, according to The News & Observer of Raleigh.

“Our law enforcement team was notified by the tower that the captain had requested law enforcement to meet the aircraft,” Mindy Hamlin, RDU spokeswoman, tells the News & Observer. “The aircraft had gotten about 50 miles out when he reported a possible assault on the aircraft.”

Flying the stressed-out skies

Fighting flight attendants. It sounds like the stuff of a late-night talk show monologue, doesn’t it?

But before we start making fun, let’s at least acknowledge that since 9/11, working in the passenger aviation industry has become an increasingly stressful job — especially for rank-and-file cabin crews. Layoffs and furloughs have been frequent. A job once associated with glamour and seeing the world has changed dramatically.

Flight attendants now are expected to be the front line eyes and ears against possible terrorism. They must work packed flights of passengers who are surly about going through the TSA security gauntlet and then stuffed onto planes with a beverage and pretzels to tide them over.

In addition to lousier working conditions, their compensation and benefits have been in a free fall. Their unions have been pressed to make major concessions, and airline pension funds have gone bankrupt. These cutbacks and pension fund implosions have occurred despite healthy bonuses given to high-level executives at many major airlines.

I don’t know anything about the individual flight attendants involved in these arguments. And regardless of the stressors they’re facing, the safety risks involved in these behaviors likely justify disciplinary measures.

That said, instead of joking about “cat fights in the air,” we should consider the strong possibility that stressful working conditions and sharp cuts in compensation are fueling tensions between these workers and making it more likely that similar incidents will occur.

News reports: Shooter near Empire State Building was a laid-off worker seeking revenge

At least nine people have been wounded and two are dead following a shooting this morning near the Empire State Building in Manhattan. One of the dead is the gunman, who was shot by police.

Early news reports at least raised the spectre of terrorism. One analyst even discussed the possibility that terrorists might stage a test run of sorts to see how law enforcement authorities would react to shootings in crowded midtown Manhattan. I suppose that in view of the memories of 9/11 seared onto New York’s consciousness, such speculation is natural.

But no, for better or worse, it apparently had nothing to do with terrorism. The shooter was a 53-year-old man who was laid off from his job, and his target was his former boss. Here’s a summary of news reports from Jason Sickles of Yahoo! News (link here):

The shooting occurred at 9:03 a.m. ET at Fifth Avenue and West 34th Street. The fatal incident was the act of a disgruntled former employee. The gunman, a 53 year-old women’s accessories designer named Jeffrey Johnson, was fired from his job during a corporate downsizing at Hazan Imports and returned to his office Friday morning to target his 41 year-old boss.

The shooter followed his coworker down 33rd Street, and shot him outside of Legend’s Bar, according to the New York Post. It is unclear if he fired into a crowd of pedestrians outside of the Empire State Building, or if pedestrians were caught in crossfire, reported the New York Daily News.

Frightening sign of the times?

Obviously we know way too little to make definitive assessments about what drove this man to do what he did. However, while conceding the likelihood of some pre-existing mental instability or illness, I’m willing to suggest that what pushed him over the edge had something to do with the desperation, fear, and anger that can accompany losing one’s job at middle age. I’m not making excuses for such a terrible act of violence, only offering a possible explanation.

Perhaps I’m guilty of speculatively filling in the gaps, but once I read some of these details, I had a sinking feeling that this is a sign of sad and desperate times.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,019 other followers

%d bloggers like this: