Workplace bullying as a public health concern

Those of us who favor stronger organizational and legal responses to workplace bullying must do a better job of articulating it as a critical public health issue.

The 2007 national public opinion survey conducted by Zogby International pollsters in partnership with the Workplace Bullying Institute certainly verifies that bullying at work is a public health concern, with 37 percent of respondents reporting that they have experienced workplace bullying at some point in their work lives, and 45 percent of these bullying targets reporting stress-related health consequences.  Other studies have put the frequency of bullying even higher.

The percentage of workers who experience bullying at work is comparable to the percentage of children who experience bullying at school.  However, although some 35 states have enacted various laws dealing with school bullying, as of this writing no state has enacted a specific workplace bullying statute.

Here in the U.S., those concerned with school bullying are demonstrating success in characterizing it as a public health problem.  In “Antibullying Legislation: A Public Health Perspective” (Journal of Adolescent Health, 2008; no free online access), co-authors Jorge C. Srabstein, Benjamin E. Berkman, and Eugenia Pyntikova put forth an “Antibullying Public Health Criteria Index” that represents “an ideal collection of the legal elements necessary for an effective bullying program.”  These elements include “(1) the definition of bullying, (2) the legislative recognition of the link of bullying to health or safety risks, (3) the prohibition of that an antibullying statute has been enacted within the basic framework of public health concern.”

Transnational bodies such as the World Health Organization and International Labour Organisation have recognized the costs of workplace bullying to workers and employers, and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has hosted roundtable discussions of experts on workplace bullying, linking it to workplace violence.  Hopefully these are signs that we are closer to classifying the widespread and destructive effect of workplace bullying as a legitimate public health concern.

Are You a Marathoner or a Sprinter?

Are you a “marathoner” or a “sprinter”?

If, like me, you are not an avid runner, not to worry. This question refers to life and career achievements, not exercise regimens. It was inspired by an article, “The Continuing Pursuit of Genius” (link here), published in the alumni magazine of Walden University, a non-traditional, distance learning university that markets itself to adult students:

According to David W. Galenson, professor of economics at the University of Chicago, when it comes to expressing genius, there are “sprinters” and then there are “marathoners.” In his book Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), Galenson describes two types of innovators (or geniuses), that is, those “whose work changes the practices of their successors.”

Those in the first group are what he calls “conceptual innovators,” people who burst onto the scene with an important contribution early in their careers or at a fairly young age—wunderkinds like Picasso, Orson Welles, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sylvia Plath, and Mozart. In the second group are the “experimental innovators” whose “greatest successes are the result of long periods of gradual improvement of their skills and accumulation of expertise.” These are the people who, while they may be successful throughout their careers, generally make their greatest contributions when they’re older.

The occasion of turning 50 this month has caught me in one of those reflective states of mind, which I’m told is a common affliction of this particular birthday. (I’ve also dug out the old polyester leisure suit, bought a Ferrari, and arranged to go bungee jumping. NOT.) But seriously folks, I’ve been thinking a lot about my generation, that group of tail end Baby Boomers who grew up in between the 60s folks and Generation X, labeled by some “Generation Jones.”

In any event, I believe that my generation, at least collectively speaking, is still seeking to find its place in this world. We appear to have more marathoners than sprinters among us, which means that maybe, just maybe, we’re finally poised to make our signature contributions to the world around us. Let’s hope that these contributions will be informed by our own successes as well as mistakes, and those of generations preceding us.

Let’s also hope that there’s plenty of gas left in our tanks to seek out and make those contributions. I’ve realized that hitting 50 leads to some conflicting thoughts: You still feel “young” (whatever the heck that means), but you start thinking about what to do with the years you have left, and you also realize that retirement could beckon in another 15-20 years. (That’s assuming we can afford to retire, a topic for umpteen other posts.)  It leads you to ask those “big picture” questions, such as “What’s the meaning of life?”

Which leads me to wonder: Will my generation innovate, create, nurture, and build with the many good years we have left?  Or will we simply play out the season and then hang it up?  Our choice, but I think it’s an easy one.  Heaven knows this world needs whatever good stuff we can bring to it.

Video on the International Labour Organization

Here’s a quick little scrapbook-style video, “The ILO and the Quest for Social Justice,” recognizing the 90th anniversary of the International Labour Organisation:

The International Labour Organisation is a transnational agency, with representatives from employers, trade unions, and governments, that has been affiliated with the United Nations since 1946.  The ILO has three primary functions: (1) promulgating labor standards dealing with the health and welfare of workers; (2) providing technical assistance to member nations on employment and industrial relations matters; and (3) conducting research and publishing studies on labor and employment issues.  Most UN members, including the United States, belong to the ILO.

The ILO was one of the first transnational bodies to recognize workplace bullying.  In a 2000 report on violence at work, it observed that workplace bullying is behavior that “by itself may be relatively minor but which cumulatively can become a very serious form of violence.”

For the ILO’s website:–en/index.htm

Why severe workplace bullying can be so traumatic

Why is severe, malicious workplace bullying so traumatic for many targets?  A 1992 book by University of Massachusetts psychologist Ronnie Janoff-Bulman, Shattered Assumptions: Towards a New Psychology of Trauma, offers valuable insights. According to Janoff-Bulman, victims of intentional, malevolent harm may find that the mistreatment they experienced fractured their core beliefs about human relationships.  They now face unique and difficult psychological challenges:

Although the ruthlessness of the perpetrators may differ, survivors of intentional, human-induced victimization suddenly confront the existence of evil and question the trustworthiness of people.  They experience humiliation and powerlessness and question their own role in the victimization. . . . These survivors are forced to acknowledge the existence of evil and the possibility of living in a morally bankrupt universe.  The world is suddenly a malevolent one, not simply because something bad happened to the victim but because the world of people is seriously tainted.  Trust in others is seriously disturbed.

Janoff-Bulman used “Shattered Assumptions” as the title for her book because the traumatization process involves the shattering of three commonly held, fundamental beliefs “about ourselves, the external world, and the relationship between the two”:

The world is benevolent.

The world is meaningful.

The self is worthy.

Few of us would be so naive as to think that work will be free of the normal ups and downs of human interaction.  But workplace bullying, at least in its severe form (repeated, malicious, and health endangering), goes horribly beyond “normal.”  Janoff-Bulman’s conceptualization reminds me of so many conversations I’ve had with bullying targets who characterized their experiences as a profound and stunning breach of trust.  Understandably, they often approach their next jobs with a high level of alert and apprehension.

(Hat tip to Dr. Ruth Namie for suggesting this book to me several years ago.)

Next on the economic hit list: Public and non-profit sectors

The Great Recession is starting to cycle full throttle through the public and non-profit sectors.  Why?

In the public sector, budgets are taking a big hit as the meltdown that began in earnest last fall translates into falling tax revenues.  If you’re following the deliberations of state legislatures this year (and California in particular), you know what I mean.

In the non-profit sector, tax-deductible contributions are falling and foundations have less money to give out.  Wealthier non-profits such as prestigious universities are seeing their endowments shrinking and rainy day funds drying up.

What does this mean for the world of work and jobs in these sectors?  It’s not a pretty picture:

  • Layoffs and hiring freezes
  • Salary and benefit cuts and freezes
  • Pressures to do more with less
  • More employment-related lawsuits
  • More bullying, incivility, and stress at work

And it’s likely to get worse before it gets better.

At this point, we can only hope that public and non-profit employers will heed Margaret Wheatley’s advice to engage workers rather than clamp down on them.  The coming years probably will be rough ones, and organizations that respond to this challenge in healthy ways will be the ones that contribute to, and benefit from, a recovery and turnaround.

Our search for meaning

One of the most personally influential books I’ve read is Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning.  Frankl was a psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor who lost almost all of his immediate family in the Holocaust. Wikipedia describes his landmark work this way:

Viktor Frankl’s 1956 book Man’s Search for Meaning chronicles his experiences as a concentration camp inmate and describes his psychotherapeutic method of finding a reason to live. According to Frankl, the book intends to answer the question “How was everyday life in a concentration camp reflected in the mind of the average prisoner?” Part One constitutes Frankl’s analysis of his experiences in the concentration camps, while Part Two introduces his ideas of meaning and his theory of logotherapy.

According to a survey conducted by the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Library of Congress, Man’s Search For Meaning belongs to a list of “the ten most influential books in [the United States].” (New York Times, November 20, 1991). At the time of the author’s death in 1997, the book had sold 10 million copies in twenty-four languages.

Frankl believed that life’s essence is about a search for meaning:  “We can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing a something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.”  He founded a school of psychology, logotherapy, based upon these premises.

Work is only one way in which we can find meaning in our lives. In fact, some of us take it too seriously!  Raising a family, helping friends, caring for animals, contributing to our communities, and pursuing hobbies and pastimes are other vital avenues to fulfillment and service.  Nevertheless, the current economic crisis, along with the numerous other challenges facing us, provide an opportunity — or perhaps impose a mandate — to examine how our work contributes to our own lives and to the greater good.

Wikipedia on Man’s Search for Meaning:’s_Search_for_Meaning

Wikipedia on Viktor Frankl:

Viktor Frankl Institute for Logotherapy:

NWI’s “Eightfold Path” to a Psychologically Healthy Workplace

Drawing on relational-cultural theory, organizational justice, and therapeutic jurisprudence, the New Workplace Institute suggests asking these eight questions to determine whether or not a workplace is psychologically healthy, productive, and socially responsible toward its own workers:

  1. Is there a sense of zest, “buzz,” and opportunity in the workplace?
  2. Do employees feel they are valued and treated with respect and dignity?
  3. Is the organizational culture friendly, inclusive, and supportive?
  4. Is organizational decision making fair, transparent, and evenhanded?
  5. Are diversities of all types welcomed and accepted?
  6. Does the organization face tough questions concerning employee relations?
  7. Are allegations of mistreatment of employees handled fairly and honestly, even when the alleged wrongdoers are in positions of power?
  8. Are compensation and reward systems fair and transparent?


For more about relational-cultural theory and practice, go to the website of the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute at Wellesley College.  In addition, Christina Robb, This Changes Everything: The Relational Revolution in Psychology (2006) tells the fascinating story behind the development of relational psychological theory.

The eight questions posed here are slightly revised from “What’s a Psychologically Healthy Workplace?,” which appeared in January.

The Happiness Recession

Money may not buy happiness, but it’s foolish to think they’re unrelated.  Insight, the magazine of the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, links psychology, economics, and the current recession in an interesting piece:

“We’re in a happiness recession,” says economist Justin Wolfers, associate professor of business and public policy at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “We have found the most robust determinant of happiness to be the current state of the economic cycle.”

Dr. Wolfers and colleague Betsey Stevenson have studied three decades of data produced by the Gallup-Healthways Index and several earlier polls that measured subjective well-being (the Gallup World Poll, the World Values Survey, and the U.S. General Social Survey) and identified strong parallels between general well-being and the ups and downs of the economy. Low points plotted on their “happiness charts” occurred in 1973, 1982, 1992, and 2001, each a year at the center of an economic recession.

For the full article:

NBC’s Today Show Examines Workplace Bullying

Yesterday’s NBC Today Show did a nice segment on workplace bullying.  Here’s the link, via the Workplace Bullying Institute website:

Note the website comments, rightly taking issue with the NBC work expert’s assessment that “standing up” to a bully at work is the way to respond.  Although that may work on occasion, in many instances it backfires, only enraging the bully more and triggering an escalation of the abusive conduct.

[Note: Readers looking for a post on the Today Show’s segment covering the July 30, 2010 suicide of Virginia literary journal editor Kevin Morrissey, reportedly due to workplace bullying, may go here.]

Wheatley’s call for fearlessness and engagement

In an August 2008 article, noted organizational change consultant and author Margaret Wheatley called upon organizations to act fearlessly and to embrace employee engagement instead of practicing authoritarian, top-down tactics:

If leaders took the time to engage people instead of clamping down on them, not only would employees perform better, they’d also be more innovative and focused. It would lead to less stress, less illness, and more productivity. All the actions right now are pushing the workforce toward increasing levels of disengagement. People show up to work to collect a pay check. The Gallup Organisation did a survey in the USA that indicated how people are feeling about their workplace. Last year, more than 70 percent of the American workforce felt disengaged, up from around 33 per cent in 2000. That’s what happens if you squeeze fewer people to do more work, give them shorter deadlines, measure their work using meaningless reports, and, to top it off, treat them with profound levels of disrespect.

This piece appeared right before the recession went into high gear.  If anything, the experience of work has become worse since that time, with more layoffs, stress, and bad management responses.  Wheatley’s advice is needed now more than ever to help us reverse course and build sustainable organizations.

For a link to “Fearlessness: the last organisational change strategy,” in Business Executive:

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