Wellness Programs — Where’s the Stress?

When I saw this link to a promising-sounding “10 steps to a healthier employee population in 2009” piece on Boston.com  (http://www.boston.com/jobs/employers/hr/nehra/2008/12/10_steps_to_a_healthier_employ.html),  I hoped that it would say something, anything about stress and health at work.

To my disappointment, it didn’t.  As you can see for yourself, it’s about exercise, healthier eating, and physical fitness.  Important subjects, yes, but workplace wellness initiatives often neglect to address the sources of work-related stress that can lead to unhealthy habits and bad health outcomes.

Could it be that acknowledging work-induced stress would raise thorny questions about management practices, organizational hierarchy, and employee relations?  By contrast, it’s easier to talk about eating right, walking groups, yoga, and meditation (“Ooooom, I hate this job, ooooom”).

They beat me to it!

Sometimes it’s the little favors that can turn a workday into a pleasant one.  Case in point: Earlier today I e-mailed the hosts of Workplace Prof (http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/laborprof_blog/), a blog primarily for law professors who teach and write about employment and labor law, asking if they would mind my linking to them.  Right away they got back to me with their okay, and then they went and gave a plug to this blog on theirs.  A nice gesture, much appreciated.

Which makes me all the happier to carry through on my recommendation:  If you’re looking for a blog to help you track the latest legal and public policy developments in employment and labor law, Workplace Prof is the place to go.  Hosted by four law professors — Paul Secunda (Marquette U.), Jeff Hirsch (U. Tennessee), Marcia McCormick (Samford U.), and Rick Bales (Northern Kentucky U.) — Workplace Prof provides steady news and commentary on major court and administrative decisions, legislative developments, collective bargaining, and other aspects of employment relations.

You’ll also see lists and abstracts of published and about-to-be-published studies and articles related to the law of the workplace.  Workplace Prof’s links are very helpful as well.

Workplace Prof is not for the casual reader.  Academicians and scholars are its main audience, and many of the posts assume a baseline of legal knowledge.  In addition, Workplace Prof is not a legal helpline.  For workers seeking legal advice on employment matters, the National Employment Lawyers Association (www.nela.org) offers information and online referral assistance.

But for those who want to keep a serious eye on legal developments in employment relations, this is a valuable source of information.

The U.S. Workplace Bullying Movement at 10

In 1998, Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie founded the Campaign Against Workplace Bullying (now the multi-faceted Workplace Bullying Institute), marking the real beginning of an American movement to respond to the destructive phenomenon of workplace bullying.  During the ensuing ten years, we have witnessed the steady emergence of workplace bullying on the landscape of American employment relations.  Key developments include:

  • Media — Workplace bullying has received increasing news coverage by the print and electronic media, including articles in countless newspapers and feature segments on television news magazines.  The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and Washington Post are among the major newspapers that have devoted features to workplace bullying.
  • Stakeholder Awareness — We are seeing greater awareness and acknowledgement of workplace bullying among major employment relations stakeholders, including managers, human resources administrators, labor unions, and employment lawyers.  Some companies now include bullying in their employee handbooks, and some unions are raising concerns about bullying at the negotiating table.
  • Legislative Advocacy — There are now significant stirrings of grassroots legislative advocacy for workplace bullying laws, with variations of the Healthy Workplace Bill filed in some 12 state legislatures since 2003.  This movement is growing, with volunteer organizers working in many states to advocate for this needed reform in the law.
  • Research — Scholars from across the disciplines, ranging from tenured professors and seasoned practitioners to graduate/professional students, are presenting their research on workplace bullying at academic and professional conferences.  In American universities, professors such as Pamela Lutgen-Sandvik (New Mexico), Loraleigh Keashly (Wayne State), Joel Neuman (SUNY-New Paltz), and Suzy Fox and Lamont Stallworth (both of Loyola-Chicago) have become leading scholars on bullying and related topics.

But this movement has a long way to go before we can say that bullying has been “mainstreamed” into our workplace vocabularies:

  • Employers continue to devote much heavier resources into sexual harassment and workplace violence training, despite that bullying is more frequent and sometimes equally or more harmful to individuals and organizations.  Bullying situations are too often treated as mere personality conflicts.
  • Labor unions are just starting to put workplace bullying on their agendas, even when their members have experienced such treatment for years.
  • Too many therapists and mental health counselors dismiss complaints about bullying behaviors as ordinary stressors of being employed.
  • The legal system is woefully inadequate in terms of protecting severely bullied workers.
  • In relevant professional degree programs, such as organizational behavior, industrial/organizational psychology, mental health counseling, and law, workplace bullying is only beginning to appear in standard texts used by students.

I believe that the next five years will be critical for this movement, determining whether workplace bullying receives the ongoing attention it deserves — after all, 37 percent of American workers have experienced this mistreatment, according to the 2007 Zogby/Workplace Bullying Institute survey — or remains an interesting niche subject.  Several things need to occur, including:

  • States need to begin enacting workplace bullying legislation — hopefully some variation of the Healthy Workplace Bill — in order to provide targets of severe bullying with a legal claim and to provide an incentive for employers to take this behavior much more seriously.
  • Organized labor, down but not out in America, needs to take on workplace bullying as a cause, educating its members, proposing collective bargaining provisions covering abusive supervision, and helping to advocate for law reform.
  • Employers need to take workplace bullying seriously, regardless of liability exposure, for the sake of their productivity and the well-being of their employees. 
  • The mental health community needs to understand how widespread this behavior is and what it can do to people, and to develop effective counseling and treatment approaches.
  • The academic community in fields such as business administration, labor studies, psychology, and law must be encouraged to introduce students to this topic in a manner proportionate to its impact in the workplace. 
  • Above all, the general public must see workplace bullying as a profound violation of human dignity that denies someone the right to do his or her job without undue interference or harassment.

Readers, how can we shine a light on workplace bullying, to the point where it no longer needs explaining to the average American?  What will be the “tipping point(s)” that bring this problem squarely into the mainstream of our discussions about work?

[Note: Recently I opened a page on the Social Science Research Network to make available without charge my longer scholarly articles on workplace bullying and other employment law topics:  http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/cf_dev/AbsByAuth.cfm?per_id=506047.]

A Holiday Note, with Thanks

To each of you, a big THANK YOU for being among the first readers of Minding the Workplace.  In the weeks and months to come, I’ll work hard to earn your continued visits.

If you are a return reader, you may notice that I already changed the title, from the descriptive-but-let’s-face-it-horrendously-dull New Workplace Institute Blog to Minding the Workplace.  I think the new title fits quite well, yes?

I’ll be back with my next post — a short retrospective on 10 years of the workplace bullying movement in the U.S. — the day after Christmas.

Labors of Love: Chasing Tornadoes

In May I went on a seven-day storm chase through the heart of “Tornado Alley,” hosted by Tempest Tours, a company of professional storm chasers who organize group tours for weather enthusiasts.  It was a remarkable experience, made so in large part by the guides who took us on a 3,000 mile journey through parts of Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska in search of turbulent weather.                                                                                                                       

Our lead tour guide was Bill Reid, a veteran storm chaser who plans his year around the peak chase months.  Holder of a master’s degree in climatology, Bill spends his “off-season” in California, working as an airport weather observer and as a grocery store clerk – jobs offering sufficient flexibility to allow him to spend May and June in America’s heartland.


The driver and guide for my van was Brian Morganti, a retired business owner who began chasing storms a decade ago and now works for Tempest.  When the chase season is over, he returns to his home in Pennsylvania.


These guys don’t make a lot of money working this gig.  I gather that most of them pay for their adventures by leading tours.  What they do get is the gift of seeing nature in an awe-inspiring and powerful state.  Having gotten one taste of it, I can understand what draws them back again and again.


Of course, to new storm chasers like me, the measure of a successful chase tour is whether we intercepted a tornado (or two, or more).  And that we did: Our tour group hit the jackpot within hours of our orientation meeting, intercepting a storm that produced multiple tornadoes in northern Oklahoma.  Here is one of the first tornadoes we saw:


[Photo: David Yamada]

But what truly surprised me was how taken I was by the vistas we encountered throughout our week – the roiling super cells, cloud formations that seemed to stretch on forever, beautiful sunsets unobstructed by high-rise buildings, and nighttime lightning storms flashing on and off in the distance.


Even when the tornado intercepts are few and far between, these guys (and yes, they’re mostly guys, with exceptions such as “Twister Sisters” Melanie Metz and Peggy Willenberg) get to see this stuff throughout their stay in Tornado Alley.  And over meals at roadside diners and fast food joints, they talk about their adventures with attention to detail and gusto.  They discovered storm chasing in different ways, but they are united by a fascination with tornadoes, ongoing study of the weather conditions that produce them, and the thrill of the chase.  They are among a small number of people who have managed to turn storm chasing into a job.

Indeed, in terms of passion for one’s work, this ranks among the Gold Standard.


Tempest Tours: http://www.tempesttours.com/

Bill Reid’s website:  http://www.stormbruiser.com/

Brian Morganti’s website: http://www.stormeffects.com/


And visit the website of writer Jenna Blum, whose 2007 feature on storm chasing in the Boston Globe travel section led to my signing up, and whose next novel builds on her passion for stormy weather: http://www.jennablum.com/.

Website(s) of the Week: Career Planning and Management, Inc.

“Website(s) of the Week” is a weekly feature on the NWI Blog, highlighting information, individuals, organizations, companies, and services relevant to work and the workplace.

The approach of the New Year makes for a lot of resolutions, including promises to revisit work and career paths.  The state of the economy is encouraging such reflection and planning, although not for reasons that make us happy.  For some, a career planning coach or consultant may prove helpful.  One good example of this is Dan King’s Career Planning & Management, Inc. (CPM).  Here’s the link to their individual consulting practice:


Dan is the principal and founder of CPM.  (He’s also on the advisory committee of the New Workplace Institute.)  He has developed a special expertise in working with professionals who are considering career changes, including people between jobs and others Dan has called the “unhappily employed.”

CPM is hardly the only firm doing this kind of work, but I suggest its website as a very good example of what career consultants can offer individuals who are contemplating shifts in their work lives.

Avoiding Layoffs

The New York Times reports on employers that are taking steps to avoid layoffs by spreading around some of the economic burden:


Of course, at companies that hand out exorbitant salaries, bonuses, and special deals for executives high on the organizational chart, there is a natural starting place for cuts.  But there may come a time when even employers that have fair salary and wage structures are faced with the question of layoffs vs. trimming compensation.  For many reasons, the latter is far preferable.

Layoffs can have serious economic and psychological consequences for affected individuals.  When reporter Louis Uchitelle began researching his book The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences (2006), he did not anticipate that he “would be drawn so persistently into the psychiatric aspect of layoffs.”  But he soon understood that the “emotional damage was too palpable to ignore.”  For the suddenly unemployed, “a layoff is an emotional blow from which very few fully recover.”


Furthermore, Uchitelle found that “layoffs damage companies by undermining the productivity of those who survive but feel vulnerable, as well as the productivity of those who are laid off and get jobs again.  All lose some of the commitment, trust, and collegial behavior that stable employment or the expectation of stable employment normally engenders.”

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