To better our workplaces, these opposites must attract

To readers following this blog for any length of time, it’s no secret that I frequently write about the so-called dark side of work: Workplace bullying, mobbing, and harassment get a lot of attention here, and it’s the primary cluster of topics that leads people here via search engines. We’re still learning about the impact and costs of these forms of interpersonal abuse, and I’m committed to discussing them. However, we also must apply our insights on these destructive behaviors to the broad objectives of creating better workplaces and treating workers with dignity.

Sometimes our perspectives on work are split between more abusive, exploitative employment practices and more positive, wellness-oriented behaviors. At times, for example, I’ve sensed some distance with folks who favor a positive psychology perspective on employee relations; they may see my emphasis on workplace bullying and related topics as being immersed in the negative, to a point of excess. However, when I write pieces coming from a more positive, solution-oriented perspective, I may feel resistance from those who are steeped in hurtful workplace behaviors, with an underlying message that I’m being overly sunny.

The bottom line is that we need to understand the light and dark sides of work in order to be effective change agents. If we don’t acknowledge that psychopaths, almost psychopaths, and narcissists constitute a narrow but sizable and destructive bandwidth of CEOs and managers, we often will be blind to the darkness coming out of certain corner offices and boardrooms. If we overlook the possibilities of creating healthy, even (yes) happy job situations and of transcending debilitating fight-or-flight work environments, we often will find ourselves stuck in a dark place for an extended period of time.

It’s about balance and integration, yes? For my part, I’ll do my best to examine destructive behaviors at work and their impact on workers and organizations, while also highlighting how organizational change, law reform, and individual and social change can lead us to better, more dignified workplaces and work experiences.

We’ve got a lot of work to do, and understanding the bigger picture, with all its possibilities and limitations, is a good starting point.

World Suicide Prevention Day, 2014: Ties to work, bullying, and the economy

2014_wspd_banner_english

This Wednesday, September 10 has been designated World Suicide Prevention Day by the International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP), an agency associated with the World Health Organization. You’ll find a wealth of resources related to suicide prevention awareness and education on the IASP’s dedicated webpage. And you also can access a copy of the WHO’s 2014 report, Preventing suicide: A global imperative, available in several languages.

What does this have to do with a blog about workers and workplaces? As longtime readers know, a lot. Conditions at work, especially severe workplace bullying, have been linked to suicides and suicidal ideation. The global economic meltdown has been associated with rising suicide rates as well. Here are some of my previous posts on suicide as related to bullying (both workplace and school) and the state of the economy:

U.S. Army’s investigation on toxic leadership may yield valuable insights on bullying/suicide risks (2014) — “The United States Army is taking a hard look at the effects of toxic leaders on the mental health of soldiers, and the results may yield valuable insights on linkages between bullying behaviors and suicidal tendencies.”

Suicide and the Great Recession: Will we heed the tragic warnings? (2013) —  “In this era of the Great Recession, suicide has become a leading cause of death in America, especially among the middle-aged, and it is to our shame as a society that this reality is not an ongoing, dominant focus of our attention. Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report documenting the alarming crisis….”

News report: Teen suicide in Japan followed virulent peer and adult bullying (2012) — “One of the most disturbing stories about a teen suicide linked to bullying comes from Otsu, Japan, where a 13-year-old boy was savagely bullied by both classmates and teachers before taking his life. The death occurred in October, but the story has just gone public.”

Suicides spike as Europe’s economy crumbles (2012) — “The meltdown of the European economy has been linked to rising suicide rates of workers who see no escape from their plight.”

Friends and families of workplace bullying suicide victims support Healthy Workplace Bill (2011) — “If you’re wondering about the terrible impact of workplace bullying on targets and their family and friends, a recent press conference in New York hosted by advocates for the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill put the question front-and-center. Among the speakers were Maria Morrissey, sister of Kevin Morrissey, an editor for the Virginia Literary Review who committed suicide last July; and Katherine Hermes, friend of Marlene Braun, a California park service employee who committed suicide in 2005.”

Following suicide of Rutgers student, N.J. Senator to introduce anti-bullying legislation (2010) — “Following the suicide of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi after images of him engaging in an intimate encounter with a man were posted to the Internet, U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) has stated that he will introduce legislation requiring colleges and universities to develop anti-bullying and harassment policies.”

Media tracks workplace bullying angle in suicide of Virginia journal editor (2010) — “The July 30 suicide of Virginia Quarterly Review editor Kevin Morrissey…, reportedly due to workplace bullying, has become the subject of growing media attention. Especially for those who are studying linkages between bullying and suicidal behavior, as well as instances of bullying in academe, this developing story merits your continued interest. In addition to Robin Wilson’s Aug. 12 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education and accompanying online comments, here are two more recent and extensive news accounts. You’ll find my interview remarks in both….”

Are suicides of French Telecom workers related to workplace bullying? (2010) — “(H)ere is a report from Matthew Saltmarsh of the New York Times on an investigation in France of some 40 suicides of French Telecom employees that may be related to bullying at work….”

Global news about workplace bullying and the law (2010) — “Four workmates of a young waitress who killed herself by jumping off a building have been convicted and fined a total of $335,000 over relentless bullying before her death. Brodie Rae Constance Panlock, 19, was subjected to the humiliating bullying by workmates at Cafe Vamp in Hawthorn, in Melbourne’s east, before she threw herself from a multi-storey car park in September 2006.”

Workplace bullying suicide of Jodie Zebell, age 31 (2010) — “This week, a Wisconsin state legislative committee deliberating on the Healthy Workplace Bill heard about the 2008 suicide of Jodie Zebell, who took her own life after enduring months of workplace bullying at the clinic where she worked as a mammography.”

The school bullying suicide of Phoebe Prince, age 15 (2010) — “Phoebe Prince was a 15-year-old girl at South Hadley High School in Massachusetts who was so mercilessly bullied by fellow students (in person and online) that she took her own life.”

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Suicide prevention resource in the U.S.

If you or someone you care about is having suicidal thoughts, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached around the clock at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). In addition, you can go to a hospital emergency room and ask for help.

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“Can we help you with the problems we caused?” The ironies of employee assistance and wellness initiatives

Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) and employee wellness programs are among the features of many contemporary workplaces, especially larger organizations that are in a position to devote time and money to extended human resources operations. They can serve useful roles in creating healthier, more productive workplaces and in helping workers with personal problems and challenges. Many are staffed by dedicated, trained EAP and wellness practitioners.

In less-than-wonderful workplaces, however, EAPs and wellness initiatives can play an ironic role: They exist in part to deal with the dysfunctional and unhealthy aspects of the organization itself.

Briefly explained…

EAPs are designed to help workers deal with personal problems that may impact their job performance and health. They may include providing advice and consultation, short-term counseling, and referrals to other care providers.

Common employee wellness initiatives may include anti-smoking counseling, exercise classes, weight control assistance, and mindfulness programs.

But what if…

So here’s the rub: What if the problems and challenges that lead workers to contact an EAP or partake in a wellness program are triggered by work-related stress or even mistreatment?

I’m not talking about the everyday stress that is part of many jobs. Rather, I’m referring to acute situations that can be attributed, at least in significant part, to bad management, interpersonal abuse (such as sexual harassment or workplace bullying), and unhealthy organizational cultures.

For example, what if a worker is contacting the EAP because she’s being sexually harassed by her boss? What if a worker enrolls in a smoking cessation program because undue stress created by a dysfunctional work situation has fueled a nicotine habit?

“It’s all about you”

These scenarios highlight the limits of EAPs and wellness programs: The focus is typically on the individual. However well meaning and helpful at times, they often are constrained in addressing systemic problems that may prompt someone to seek help.

To draw on the examples above: What will an EAP director do if an alleged serial sexual harasser is the same person who hired her? If participants in a smoking cessation program repeatedly complain about work-related stress, will the program coordinator be able to raise concerns about an unhealthy organizational culture?

I’m not suggesting that we get rid of EAPs and wellness programs because of these inherent limitations; quite the contrary. However, I am very curious to know how many dysfunctional, unhealthy organizations look like pure gold on paper because they offer these useful benefits, without addressing some of the internal, core reasons for why their workers access them.

Nurses and workplace bullying

If asked to identify an occupational group that has been pro-active in addressing workplace bullying and related behaviors, nurses would quickly come to mind.

Over the years I’ve had many interactions with nurses of different certification levels and with organizations that represent their interests, ranging from participation in workshops and conferences to individual exchanges. Here in Massachusetts, for example, I’ve spoken at programs on bullying at work sponsored by the Massachusetts Nurses Association and the Massachusetts Association of Registered Nurses, and the latter has endorsed the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill.

Uniquely situated

Nurses are uniquely situated to address workplace bullying for several reasons:

First, bullying is common in the healthcare workplace, and nurses are on the receiving end of it from doctors and other nurses. This is no small matter to them.

Second, nurses are at the heart of healthcare workplaces. They see a lot and they know a lot, and they are in a position to understand how organizational dots connect.

Third, many nurses are unionized. This provides them with a structure for raising concerns about mistreatment at work through advocacy, member education, and collective bargaining.

Finally, nurses are part of a professional structure that includes health care associations and colleges of nursing. These entities can play a key role in education, prevention, and response.

Lots of blog posts!

I’ve written many posts about nurses, workplace bullying, and related topics on this blog. Here is a good sampling:

Nurse can proceed with age discrimination claim against employer seeking “rising stars,” federal court holds (2013)

Why we need psychologically healthy workplaces in the healthcare sector (2012)

U of Cincinnati conference examines workplace violence, bullying, and incivility in healthcare (2012)

Cheryl Dellasega’s When Nurses Hurt Nurses (2011)

Nurse writes about bullying by doctors, other doctors respond (2011)

Nursing as a Calling: Aspirations and Realities (2010)

Workplace bullying in healthcare IV: Nurses bullied and responding (2009)

The ongoing disconnect: Employment law and worker well-being

A quick perusal of topics at a major international law & mental health conference is all I need to remind me of how employment law is way behind other legal fields in connecting to mental health and psychology.

As I wrote in my last post, I’m at the biennial Congress of the International Academy of Law and Mental Health in Amsterdam, Netherlands. The program book (pdf here) lists the dozens of panels offered each day during the week-long gathering, and a cursory review yields the dominance of topics concerning criminal justice, health care, family law, juvenile law, substance abuse, and forensics. But there is scant evidence of workplace issues, even in the many sessions related to therapeutic jurisprudence, the school of legal thought that examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of law and legal institutions.

Compare this to the recent “Work, Stress and Health” conference I wrote about last month — another biennial, international gathering — where researchers and practitioners in fields such as industrial/organizational psychology, occupational health psychology, and occupational safety and health are positively immersed in the linkages between public policy and the psychological aspects of worker health.

Nevertheless…

I get a lot out of this conference even in the absence of many presentations directly addressing employment law & policy. As I’ve noted in previous posts, therapeutic jurisprudence has quickly become a collegial theoretical “home” for my legal interests, in that it makes eminent sense to me that the law should promote, rather than undermine, psychologically healthy outcomes. Accordingly, I find many of the ideas exchanged here to be an easy “port over” to the law of the workplace and the practice of employment law.

For example, earlier this week I listened to a simply wonderful presentation by Erna Haueter, a domestic relations lawyer in Zurich, Switzerland, who explained how she uses stress reduction and relaxation techniques with her clients who are going through emotionally difficult divorce proceedings. Haueter drew upon insights from neuropsychology to explain the effects of stress on her clients, negatively impacting their ability to act in their own best interests.

Of course, her words resonated loudly with me, as I have seen countless individuals dealing with similar stress levels due to bullying and other forms of mistreatment at work. I thought to myself how great it would be if plaintiffs’ employment lawyers were taught how to use these relaxation techniques with their clients.

A challenge

My belief in the need to strengthen linkages between employment law and mental health was reaffirmed during the course of a conversation I had with an Israeli lawyer and doctoral student who is planning to do her thesis on some aspect of therapeutic jurisprudence and employment law. She expressed surprise over the paucity of work linking these two areas, suggesting that they were a natural fit together. We discussed the many relevant psychological aspects of employment law that could form the basis of a very promising thesis topic.

Those of us who understand these linkages need to do a better job of persuading fellow employment and labor law scholars to incorporate these perspectives in their work. The two dominant frames for examining employment law & policy, namely, economics (leaning right) and civil & labor rights (leaning left), yield important insights. But mental health and emotional well-being are equally important and deserve a place at the roundtable of this discussion.

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Go here to download a copy of my 201o law review essay, “Employment Law as If People Mattered: Bringing Therapeutic Jurisprudence into the Workplace.”

Working notes: On screening out sociopaths, the anti-worker Supreme Court, heroic flight attendants, and much more

I’ve got lots of good stuff to share with you today. Here are seven items that may be of interest:

Forbes on Employee Screening for Sociopaths

Rob Asghar writes for Forbes magazine on “How To Screen Out The Sociopath Job Candidate.” His piece features psychiatrist Martha Stout, author of the compelling and chilling The Sociopath Next Door (2005):

I asked psychiatrist Martha Stout . . . how hiring managers and corporate boards can avoid unwittingly unleashing a sociopath within their organizations—especially at the senior levels.

“More and more businesspeople people are asking me about this,” she says.  “After all, having a sociopath can be expensive.” Indeed, they often aren’t extracted from an organization until they’ve caused permanent injury.

Dr. Stout offers four pieces of advice. Check out the full article if you’d like to read more. (You’ll probably have to click through a subscription invitation pop up first.)

I’m glad to see this topic getting mainstream media attention. While some “jerks” and abrasive bosses can be coached and counseled to interact with others more appropriately, those who behave abusively are in a different category. Among the latter include those with sociopathic and psychopathic traits, many of whom perpetrate or orchestrate the most damaging instances of workplace bullying and abuse.

Hat tip to eBossWatch

LA Times on Supreme Court Employment Law Decisions

Alana Semuels reports for the Los Angeles Times on employment cases decided during the recently concluded term of the Supreme Court, which includes a quote from me, among many others:

“You can see this common thread of making it more difficult to have your day in court,” said David Yamada, a professor at Suffolk University Law School in Boston. “The legal climate for employees is a tough one.”

The current incarnation of the U.S. Supreme Court continues to interpret federal employment and labor laws in ways that make it increasingly difficult for workers pursuing legal claims. It is fair to say that this is the most anti-worker Supreme Court of the modern, post-World War II era.

USA Today on the Heroic Flight Attendants of Asiana Flight 214

Ben Mutzabaugh from USA Today reports that last weekend’s crash landing of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 at San Francisco International Airport could’ve been much worse had it not been for the calm, brave responses of the flight attendants. Here’s his lede:

Asiana Airlines attendants are being lauded as heroes for their role in helping passengers to safety after the crash-landing of Flight 214 at San Francisco on Saturday.

Lee Yoon-hye, described by The Associated Press as the “cabin manager” who was “apparently the last person to leave the burning plane,” was among those being called out for her efforts to lead fliers to safety.

The heroic, life-saving work of the flight attendants is becoming one of the important backstories of this event. Read Mutzabaugh’s article for more details.

Next Avenue on Back to School at Midlife

Nancy Collamer, blogging for Next Avenue, offers some advice for workers who are considering degree and certificate programs to enhance their employability:

I suspect many Americans in their 50s and 60s are considering going back to school to improve their career prospects.

…But college isn’t cheap and there’s no guarantee that further schooling will lead to a new job or fatten your paycheck.

So when does it pay to go back to school after age 50 or so?

It’s a good piece if you’re thinking about a return to school. The Next Avenue site has become one of my favorites. Take a look and click around!

Dean & Provost on Being Thrown Under the Bus

J. Dirk Nelson, writing for Dean & Provost, a publication for academic administrators, addresses a situation that occurs all too often in academe — and elsewhere: That of being “thrown under the bus,” i.e., being scapegoated or wrongfully blamed. Here’s a snippet:

Political forces in colleges are never an easy ride, and unfortunately many careers have been shattered or significantly altered by the seemingly petty, arbitrary, capricious, discriminatory and often childish politically driven actions of others.

…(T)here certainly exist unsavory political forces on campuses, and consequently, a colleague (or you) may be “thrown under the bus” i.e., made the scapegoat or blamed for something that wasn’t his responsibility in the first place.

. . . The appropriate responses to being thrown under the bus — while possibly difficult in practice — are simple and sound in theory: Have a positive attitude, vent, behave with professionalism, and learn.

Do you agree or disagree? Nelson gets into a lot more detail in the full article, exploring a topic that will resonate with many people who are familiar with workplace bullying. Wrongful blame for mistakes made by others is high on the list of common bullying tactics.

Hat tip to Mike Schlicht, New York Healthy Workplace Advocates

Followup to Blog Post on the Stages of Dealing with Workplace Bullying

Earlier this month, I wrote a piece on what I characterized as the four stages of dealing with workplace bullying: Recognition, response, recovery, and renewal. Since then, thoughtful readers have shared their own stories of being bullied and the aftermaths.

For some honest, raw, courageous testimony about the toll that this form of abuse can exact, scroll down to the several dozen comments following my blog post, here.

Unpaid Internship Ruling Spurs Media Coverage

A federal court decision in June holding that unpaid interns working on the Fox Searchlight Pictures production of “Black Swan” were entitled to back pay under federal and state minimum wage laws has resulted in an abundance of media coverage. Here are three recent articles for which I was interviewed:

Bloomberg.com, Jim Snyder & Christie Smythe, June 27

“This question of whether private-sector internships violate the minimum wage laws has been sort of a sleeping-giant issue for many years,” said David Yamada, director of the New Workplace Institute at Suffolk University Law School in Boston. “The absence of payment is done with a wink and a nod. Interns know they better not make any trouble about this.”

Boston Globe, Taryn Luna, June 26

The majority of students who accept unpaid internships can only do so on their parents’ dime. This creates both a class issue, where more students from affluent families get a foot in the door, and a situation where employers limit their applicant pool, Yamada says.

In These Times, Michelle Chen, June 24

David Yamada, a labor law specialist at Suffolk University Law School, comments via email, “We’ll probably never know how many people from modest backgrounds don’t even bother applying for unpaid internships because they know they can’t afford it. But there surely is a strong element of economic class bias in this practice.”

. . . Yamada says that since it was filed in 2011, the Fox lawsuit has “led to the creation of informal networks of former interns and lawyers weighing the possibility of bringing lawsuits to challenge unpaid internships,” and has since developed intern networks that “are coalescing via social media and face-to-face gatherings. This is becoming a genuine social and legal movement.”

“Total Worker Health” vs. “Wellness” vs. “Well-Being”: Framing worker health issues

l to r: Larissa Barber, David Ballard, Lois Tetrick, Matt Grawitch

Organizational psychology experts discuss worker health at “Work, Stress and Health”: Larissa Barber (Northern Ill. U.), David Ballard (APA), Lois Tetrick (George Mason U.), and Matt Grawitch (St. Louis U.) (photo: DY)

What should be our primary framework for thinking about worker health?

Last month’s “Work, Stress and Health” conference in Los Angeles featured the theme of “Total Worker Health.” This important biennial event is co-sponsored by the American Psychological Association (APA), National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and Society for Occupational Health Psychology (SOHP). On its webpage, NIOSH defines Total Worker Health this way:

Total Worker Health™ is a strategy integrating occupational safety and health protection with health promotion to prevent worker injury and illness and to advance health and well-being.

As conceptualized by NIOSH and others, Total Worker Health engages both legal mandates and pro-active measures to promote worker health and safety.

Wellness

Another term often invoked at this conference was “wellness,” usually in association with employer-sponsored programs that promote smart health habits, such as good nutrition, exercise, weight control, smoking cessation, and mindfulness practices.

Wellness programs are designed to contribute to healthier and more productive workforces and to save organizations money through lower health insurance premiums and less absenteeism and turnover.

Well-being

A third term that recurred at Work, Stress and Health was “well-being.” The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) examine well-being in the context of a concept they label “Health-Related Quality of Life.” They define well-being this way:

Well-being is a positive outcome that is meaningful for people and for many sectors of society, because it tells us that people perceive that their lives are going well. Good living conditions (e.g., housing, employment) are fundamental to well-being. Tracking these conditions is important for public policy. However, many indicators that measure living conditions fail to measure what people think and feel about their lives, such as the quality of their relationships, their positive emotions and resilience, the realization of their potential, or their overall satisfaction with life — i.e., their “well-being.” . . . Well-being generally includes global judgments of life satisfaction and feelings ranging from depression to joy. 

More than word salad

Okay, so you might be thinking, “Total Worker Health” . . . “Wellness” . . . “Well-Being” . . . blah blah blah. Just a toss of word salad among terms that you basically can mix and match.

Maybe so, at least from a distance. But these terms do carry subtle distinctions and connotations within the world of employment relations, especially in the fields of occupational safety & health and organizational psychology.

In a Good Company blog post, Dr. Matt Grawitch (St. Louis U.), an organizational psychologist who plays a key role in the APA’s Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program, reflected upon how these terms were invoked at the conference and cast his vote for well-being as the best framing concept:

For organizations, this means you have to have a strategy, one emphasizing the development of a workplace that fosters (or at least does not detract from) overall worker well-being. It should not start with the implementation of a wellness program; it should start by taking a long hard look at the culture, structure and business practices of the organization to identify where those important contextual factors are enhancing or detracting from worker well-being. It should include an assessment of a range of well-being factors (including health). And it should result in a multi-faceted approach that leverages a host of psychologically healthy workplace practices to effectively improve worker well-being.

Exercise can be a good way to relieve stress that we experience from an abusive supervisor, work-life conflict or poor working conditions. But wouldn’t the organization and its employees reap greater rewards if abusive supervision, work-life conflict and poor working conditions were eliminated? Then, exercise could be used to enhance health rather than to simply maintain it (or keep it from deteriorating even more).

I’m happy to cast a concurring vote. I confess that I had not given this any attention before. But at the conference, my thought process was first triggered by a sidebar conversation with Dr. Tapas Ray of NIOSH, who shared with me how his research is centering on measures of well-being. By the end of the conference, further informed by other discussions and panels, I had became a convert. Indeed, I realized that well-being, within the context of workplace health and safety, is a very good fit with broader questions about human dignity and employment law that I’ve been raising for several years.

I’m sure that I’ll be exploring these conceptual links in future posts.

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