Workplace bullying: Human rights, public health, and mental health

Among the many disciplines that need to put workplace bullying more squarely on their respective agendas are human rights, public health, and mental health. Here’s why:

When an academic or professional discipline acknowledges the relevance of a topic and includes it in university courses, scholarly literature, and continuing education programs, generations of new practitioners and graduate students will bring that knowledge to their work.

With workplace bullying, it means that human rights activists will regard it as a profound violation of human dignity. It means that public health advocates will grasp how bullying at work impacts the health of workers and their families. It means that therapists will “get it” when clients share stories of abusive treatment at work.

Human rights

Human rights are often framed in a global context, putting a focus on nations with unstable governments and/or severe poverty. This emphasis is understandable and vitally important. In addition, we need to consider dignity violations at work. On this note, I was so pleased when the blog of the Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation recently published a piece on workplace bullying. Here’s how Rebecca Popham concluded the post:

There are some actions employees who are victims of bullying can pursue.  Depending on the situation and the extent of the bullying, these include coaching, working with a therapist, and seeking legal counsel.  Ultimately, though, workplace bullying needs to be addressed in the same manner that racial and other forms of workplace discrimination were tackled, resulting in legal protections.   The problem of workplace bullying has many causes and won’t be easily solved.  A good starting place, however, is greater awareness of the problem and making sure that its victims are heard.

Public health

Workplace bullying rarely appears in the public health literature, but a hardy few are making the case. For example, in 2010 Drs. Jorge Srabstein and Bennett Leventhal published a paper in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization on the public health implications of bullying across the lifespan, including the workplace:

Bullying is a major public health problem that demands the concerted and coordinated time and attention of health-care providers, policy-makers and families. Evolving awareness about the morbidity and mortality associated with bullying has helped give this psychosocial hazard a modest level of worldwide public health attention. . . . However, it is not enough.

Bullying is a multifaceted form of mistreatment, mostly seen in schools and the workplace. It is characterized by the repeated exposure of one person to physical and/or emotional aggression including teasing, name calling, mockery, threats, harassment, taunting, hazing, social exclusion or rumours. . . . A wide range of bullying prevalence has been documented among students and in labour forces worldwide.

Mental health

While subfields such as industrial/organizational psychology, occupational health psychology, and consulting psychology devote increasing attention to workplace bullying, clinical psychology and counseling continue to fall short. That’s why this March 2013 Counseling Today piece on adult bullying by Lynne Shallcross is most welcomed. It features counselor and coach Jessi Eden Brown, who is associated with the Workplace Bullying Institute and also maintains a private practice:

Unfortunately, graduating from college still doesn’t guarantee an end to bullying. A 2010 survey commissioned by the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) found that 35 percent of the U.S. workforce — an estimated 53.5 million Americans — report being bullied at work. An additional 15 percent said they had witnessed co-workers being bullied.

These statistics are all too familiar to Jessi Eden Brown, who serves as WBI’s administrator and also runs a private counseling practice in the Seattle area. About half of her clients deal with issues related to workplace bullying.

Framing it globally and individually

Together, the human rights, public health, and mental health perspectives help to frame workplace bullying as a fundamental issue of human dignity and as an important health concern. I hope there are enterprising practitioners, advocates, scholars, and graduate students in these disciplines who will help to fill in these gaps.

Workplace bullying: Addressing the annual conference of the Association of Labor Relations Agencies

ALRAlogo

Yesterday I had the privilege of presenting a speech on workplace bullying at the 62nd annual conference of the Association of Labor Relations Agencies in Washington, D.C. It was a wonderful opportunity to discuss this topic with some 200 of the most accomplished labor relations commissioners, attorneys, and officials in North America.

The ALRA describes itself as “an association of impartial government agencies in the United States and Canada responsible for administering labor-management relations laws or services.” It promotes interagency cooperation, “high professional standards,” “public interest in labor relations,” “improved employer-employee relationships,” and “peaceful resolution of employment and labor disputes.” The annual conference provides its members with continuing education on labor relations topics and opportunities to network and share information.

My remarks

I was part of “Advocates Day” (agenda here), a component of every ALRA conference that invites people outside of the organization to discuss developing labor relations issues. I started with a basic overview about workplace bullying and its effects on workers and organizations, went into a quick summary of U.S. and Canadian legal developments, and closed with a cluster of personal observations about workplace bullying.

The speech was very well received. Despite that my talk came at the end of a long day of distinguished panelists and speakers, the delegates were engaged and attentive, and our conversations spilled over to the reception that followed.

I was pleased about the response at another level, too: This is one more sign that workplace bullying is entering the mainstream of North American labor and employee relations. Ten years ago, this speaking invitation would not have transpired.

The conference

At a time when, at least in the U.S., the very concept of collective bargaining is being challenged by extremist forces, how refreshing it was to be part of a conference that embraces a commitment to healthy labor relations. Multiple speakers shared stories and perspectives about how management and labor can work together toward common interests and attempt to resolve differences in peaceful ways.

In my judgment, the Canadian perspective cannot be overlooked, and it’s good for we Americans to be exposed to it. My Canadian colleagues will be quick to admit that labor relations up north fall short of utopia, but they do manage to practice their craft with fewer sharp elbows than in the U.S.

Many thanks

I’d like to give a special shout out to the Program Committee, with affiliations noted to show the breadth of agencies that are part of the ALRA: Co-Chairs Scott Blake (Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, U.S.) and Jennifer Webster (Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, Canada), and members Ernie DuBester (Federal Labor Relations Authority), Gary Shinners (National Labor Relations Board), Pat Sims (National Mediation Board), Catherine Gilbert (Ontario Labor Relations Board), Jennifer Abruzzo (National Labor Relations Board) and Danielle Carne (Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission).

I had not traveled within the circles of the ALRA before this. Thus, it was a leap of faith for them to give me a generous one-hour time slot. (Put it this way: If your sole speaker for a featured, 60-minute slot is a dud, you’ll be hearing about it!) This enabled me to give a talk with real substance, while leaving time for a lively Q&A segment. It was an honor to be a part of the day.

“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.

Swag bag message to NY Fashion Week attendees: “Pay Your Interns”

Who says labor activists can’t deliver a message with a stylish wink? At last week’s New York Fashion Week, members of Intern Labor Rights – an outgrowth of the Occupy Wall Street Arts & Labor group — distributed colorful swag bags to attendees. Tyler McCall, blogging for Fashionista, got one:

Frankly, I was expecting lame pantyhose or maybe chapstick or something when I opened the box. Instead, there was a pin that read “Pay Your Interns” and some folded up literature about why unpaid internships are wrong and how you can get involved in the movement.

Here’s what she found inside:

“The Devil Pays Nada”

The fashion industry, you see, is notorious for using unpaid interns (among other exploited workers) on an international scale. And Fashion Week is a great event for reaching a global audience. Here’s what Intern Labor Rights had to say in announcing their swag bag promotion:

We invite your attention and critical eye to the widespread use of illegally unpaid workers in the fashion industry. This rampant wage theft, international in scope, is now being met with an international response:

In anticipation of our one-year anniversary, Intern Labor Rights is lovingly preparing hundreds of Intern Swag Bags to be given out at Fashion Week events over the February 8–10, 2013, weekend. To get your hands on an Intern Swag Bag, or to help us distribute, email us at intern.labor.rights@gmail.com and find out where we’ll be during the weekend. To track our progress follow #devilpaysnada and #payinterns on Twitter, or find us on Facebook.

There’s still plenty of room for old-fashioned, hard-nosed labor advocacy. But sometimes a light touch can be very effective, and this idea did the job quite nicely.

Want to learn more?

Intern Labor Rights has compiled an excellent list of resources on unpaid internships.

The list includes my 2002 Connecticut Law Review article, “The Employment Law Rights of Student Interns,” freely downloadable here. And here’s a post I wrote last year on the emerging intern rights movement.

Hey Apple, start paying your store workers a decent wage

During the past week, I’ve had the pleasure of attending three free workshops at the Apple Store in Boston’s Back Bay. There I’ve learned how to better use my various Apple gadgets. Each workshop — taught by different customer service specialists — was interesting, informative, and useful.

For people like me who don’t like reading the instructions but lack an instinctive feel for anything digital, the workshops are an easy way to get more value out of my purchases.

Too bad that Apple doesn’t reward its store workers for the value they bring to the company.

Great workers, low pay

As reported in an in-depth article by David Segal in Sunday’s New York Times, these store workers aren’t paid very well. In fact, especially given how much value they create for the company, their compensation is terrible:

About 30,000 of the 43,000 Apple employees in this country work in Apple Stores, as members of the service economy, and many of them earn about $25,000 a year.

…By the standards of retailing, Apple offers above average pay — well above the minimum wage of $7.25 and better than the Gap, though slightly less than Lululemon, the yoga and athletic apparel chain, where sales staff earn about $12 an hour. The company also offers very good benefits for a retailer, including health care, 401(k) contributions and the chance to buy company stock, as well as Apple products, at a discount.

But Apple is not selling polo shirts or yoga pants. Divide revenue by total number of employees and you find that last year, each Apple store employee — that includes non-sales staff like technicians and people stocking shelves — brought in $473,000.

Labor market experts quoted in the piece observe that Apple deliberately sets its compensation so that most workers will not stay for a long time. However, even Apple must be self-conscious about their wages, because they announced pay hikes soon after the Times began investigating their compensation structure for store workers.

A global pattern of using cheap labor

Apple’s store workers aren’t the only ones who are underpaid. As Charles Duhigg and David Barboza reported for the Times earlier this year, Apple also has been using cheap overseas labor to build its products:

In the last decade, Apple has become one of the mightiest, richest and most successful companies in the world, in part by mastering global manufacturing. Apple and its high-technology peers — as well as dozens of other American industries — have achieved a pace of innovation nearly unmatched in modern history.

However, the workers assembling iPhones, iPads and other devices often labor in harsh conditions, according to employees inside those plants, worker advocates and documents published by companies themselves. Problems are as varied as onerous work environments and serious — sometimes deadly — safety problems.

The public response to these revelations helped to prod Apple to take initiatives toward better compensation and working conditions for workers who assemble their products.

Who benefits?

I have transitioned to Apple products over the past three years, largely because their interface is easy to use and their products are well built. The presence of Apple Stores to provide customer service also makes a difference.

But as many people know, Apple products aren’t cheap. My low-end MacBook cost much more than an entry-level PC laptop. And while the iPad is proving to be a remarkably handy machine, it’s an expensive piece of hardware.

Unfortunately, the factory workers who build their products and the store workers who sell them and assist customers are the most neglected pieces on the Apple compensation chain. Company executives no doubt are doing just fine on payday, and shareholders have been rewarded handsomely as well.

I’m not against decent salaries for successful executives and fair profits for those who invest in a company. But the situation at Apple is way out of hand. It’s time to fairly compensate the people who build and sell these products and service the customers.

Suicides spike as Europe’s economy crumbles

The meltdown of the European economy has been linked to rising suicide rates of workers who see no escape from their plight.

Barbie Latza Nadeau reports for Newsweek (link here) on increasing suicide rates in countries such as Italy, Greece, Spain, and Ireland – all of which are in the throes of severe economic crises. She observes that “(i)n the countries most affected by the euro-zone crisis, depression is on the rise and suicides are spreading.” In addition, amid widespread unemployment in these countries, governments are cutting back on social support services for the jobless and those in need of assistance:

“The main reason for the rise in suicides is the recession and now austerity—both making hard times more difficult and reducing funding for mental-health services,” says David Stuckler, a Cambridge professor who coauthored a report on the health effects of the economic crisis in Europe. “Usually an epidemic is thought of as a short-term increase in a disease—by that criterion, suicides would be an epidemic.”

Nadeau begins her piece with three stories of three Italian workers who committed suicide due to their personal financial struggles. I suggest checking it out if you want a clearer sense of the human costs of this recession.

Cutting back when the need is greatest

Austerity can be a sound philosophy and practice when you need to cut back on spending, and surely many individuals and organizations manage to do so when times are tough. But in this context, austerity has meant sharp cuts in government support of those who most need assistance, including social services to help people who are struggling with life’s harsh challenges.

When America faced the Great Depression of the 1930s, the federal government enacted the New Deal legislation that created a stronger social safety net, including the minimum wage, Social Security, and public insurance for our bank accounts. Ironically, it was this influx of government spending, followed by the huge increase in public expenditures necessary to fight the Second World War, that saved capitalism and put America on path for its greatest era of prosperity.

The European economy today is different from that of the U.S. during the 1930s, but the point about government support is no less relevant. When people have nowhere to turn, some choose the most terrible option.

On suicide

It pains me that suicide comes up so often in discussions of depression, desperation, and despair related to work and livelihood. Before I began to understand the psychological impact of work and the economy, I did not comprehend how severe setbacks and traumatic experiences linked to employment (or lack thereof) might be related to suicide.

I get it now. The increasing suicide rate in Europe is horrific in itself, as well as the canary in the coal mine. We must pay attention.

ILO report: The world of work is in a world of hurt

In a new report, the International Labour Organization – the employment research and policy arm of the United Nations — concludes that there is no fast recovery in sight for the global labor market. From an ILO news release and summary:

Despite signs that economic growth has resumed in some regions, the global employment situation is alarming and shows no sign of recovery in the near future, says the International Labour Organization (ILO).

The ILO’s “World of Work Report 2012: Better Jobs for a Better Economy” says that around 50 million jobs are still missing compared to the situation that existed before the crisis. It also warns that a new and more problematic phase of the global jobs crisis is emerging.

Four factors

The ILO identifies four key factors contributing to its conclusions:

First, this is due to the fact that many governments, especially in advanced economies, have shifted their priority to a combination of fiscal austerity and tough labour market reforms. . . .

Second, in advanced economies, many job seekers are demoralized and are losing skills, something which is affecting their chances of finding a new job. . . .

Third, in most advanced economies, many of the new jobs are precarious. Non-standard forms of employment are on the rise in 26 out of the 50 economies with available information. . . .

Fourth, the social climate has aggravated in many parts of the world and may entail further social unrest.

Job-friendly public policies

The report acknowledges that there are no easy solutions. However, it “argues that if a job-friendly policy-mix of taxation and increased expenditure in public investment and social benefits is put in place, approximately 2 million jobs could be created over the next year in advanced economies.”

Observations

The trends and underlying data marshalled by the ILO paint a very disturbing picture that largely mirrors what we’re seeing at the ground level. The Great Recession continues to define the world we live in, and the notion of a “jobless recovery” (an all-time oxymoron) has taken hold even in nations where other economic indicators are pointing up.

As I’ve said many times on this blog, it’s not as if we’ve run out of important, meaningful work that needs doing. Something is fundamentally wrong with economic structures that cannot match those needs with decent jobs at decent pay.

***

For the ILO’s detailed news release and report summary, go here.

For a complete copy of the ILO report (128 pp., pdf, free of charge), go here.

Dear Apple, please start taking global human rights seriously

photo credit: Wikipedia

Here’s a factory scene from China, as described by Charles Duhigg and David Barboza of the New York Times:

The explosion ripped through Building A5 on a Friday evening last May, an eruption of fire and noise that twisted metal pipes as if they were discarded straws.

When workers in the cafeteria ran outside, they saw black smoke pouring from shattered windows. It came from the area where employees polished thousands of iPad cases a day.

Two people were killed immediately, and over a dozen others hurt. As the injured were rushed into ambulances, one in particular stood out. His features had been smeared by the blast, scrubbed by heat and violence until a mat of red and black had replaced his mouth and nose.

Snazzy products, high profits, and workers at risk

Unfortunately, dangerous working conditions for workers who assemble Apple products are more common than any of us who buy, own, and love these computers and gadgets would like to think. As Duhigg and Barboza add in their report:

In the last decade, Apple has become one of the mightiest, richest and most successful companies in the world, in part by mastering global manufacturing. Apple and its high-technology peers — as well as dozens of other American industries — have achieved a pace of innovation nearly unmatched in modern history.

However, the workers assembling iPhones, iPads and other devices often labor in harsh conditions, according to employees inside those plants, worker advocates and documents published by companies themselves. Problems are as varied as onerous work environments and serious — sometimes deadly — safety problems.

Our responsibility

I own and use a MacBook laptop and an iPad regularly. I think they are excellent products. I own a small amount of Apple stock in my retirement portfolio. I’ve made some money off of it.

Folks like me (and perhaps some of you, dear readers) need to make our concerns known. I’m a latecomer to the Apple world, but I’ve always envied the “hip and cool” image of the company and its followers. Now, however, it’s terribly clear: There’s nothing hip or cool about exposing workers to life threatening and health impairing conditions on the job.

Brits say: Workplace stress, bullying, and violence are taking their toll

America certainly isn’t the only nation dealing with challenges to psychological health at work. Across the pond, workers in the United Kingdom face their own problems with stress, bullying, and violence on the job, as these recent studies indicate:

CIPD survey: Stress fueling long-term sick leave

Katie Allen reports for the Guardian newspaper (link here) on a survey conducted by Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) and SimplyHealth indicating that fear of layoffs is contributing to significant levels of employee stress:

Worries about job losses have helped stress become the most common cause of long-term sick leave in Britain, according to a report that underlines the pressures on workers in a deteriorating labour market.

Stress has overtaken other reasons for long-term absence such as repetitive strain injury and medical conditions such as cancer. Workers blame workloads and management styles….

Cardiff & Plymouth study: High levels of violence and aggression at work

A study conducted by Cardiff and Plymouth universities (link here) shows that British workers face significant levels of violence and other forms of aggression on the job:

One million Britons experienced workplace violence in the last two years, while millions more were subjected to intimidation, humiliation and rudeness, new research has shown.

Surprisingly, managers and professionals in well-paid full-time jobs are among the groups most at risk.

…The research, by Cardiff’s School of Social Sciences and Plymouth Business School, is based on face-to-face interviews with nearly 4,000 employees who were representative of the British workforce. Key findings included:

4.9 per cent had suffered violence in the workplace – the equivalent of more than 1 million workers – with 3.8 per cent injured as a result

Almost 30 per cent complained of impossible deadlines and unmanageable workloads

Nearly a quarter had been shouted at or experienced someone losing their temper

13.3 per cent had been intimidated by somebody in the workplace

CMI study: Bad management costing £19 billion per year

The November issue of the Chartered Management Institute newsletter (link here) reports that “(i)neffective management could be costing UK businesses over £19 billion per year in lost working hours.” Bullying is among the severe problems noted in the CMI survey:

The study of 2000 employees across the UK reveals that three quarters (75 per cent) of workers waste almost two hours out of their working week due to inefficient managers. Worst management practices responsible for time lost include unclear communication (33 per cent); lack of support (33 per cent); micro-management (26 per cent); and lack of direction (25 per cent).

…Alarmingly, the research also highlights that 13% of those surveyed have witnessed managers exhibiting discriminatory behaviour towards employees based on gender, race, age or sexual orientation and almost one third (27%) have witnessed managers bullying or harassing their employees.

Our low “spirit level”: America ranks 27th out of 31 nations in global social justice study

Based on measures of social justice, America ranks 27th among 31 member nations of the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), according to “Social Justice in the OECD — How Do the Member States Compare?,” a report released last week by Bertelsmann Stiftung, a private German foundation.

Here are some of the low points for the U.S. in the report:

  • 28th in income inequality
  • 29th in poverty prevention
  • 28th in child poverty
  • 22nd in unemployment and long-term unemployment
  • 20th in access to education
  • 23rd in health care
  • 25th in debt levels

In no category does the U.S. place in the higher ranks.

Overall, the four nations ranked immediately above the U.S. are Portugal, Slovakia, South Korea, and Spain. Only Greece, Chile, Mexico, and Turkey rank below the U.S.

“We should be ashamed”

New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow references the study and writes:

We have not taken care of the least among us. We have allowed a revolting level of income inequality to develop. We have watched as millions of our fellow countrymen have fallen into poverty. And we have done a poor job of educating our children and now threaten to leave them a country that is a shell of its former self. We should be ashamed.

The Times also prepared an excellent graphic that highlights selected measures in the report. The full report is only 50+ pages, with lots of easy-to-read charts and summaries.

America’s “spirit level”

In The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger (rev. ed. 2010), British epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett examined comparative economic and social data and found that social and health problems worsen as inequality grows.

In fact, overall wealth is less predictive than distribution of wealth in forecasting the well-being of a populace. In terms of public health, they found that while the poor are the biggest beneficiaries of greater equality, the wealthy make gains as well. Here’s a short YouTube video of Wilkinson and Pickett explaining their book:

The U.S. fares poorly in The Spirit Level as well, mirroring the findings of the OECD study.

Conclusion

What else is there to say? America, we’ve got our work cut out for us.

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