NPR on work-life balance and shift work: Not bad, but what about unions?

National Public Radio’s Jennifer Ludden just concluded her very good three-part series on work-life balance with a segment on shift work.  Ludden’s piece opens with the story of Vickie Underwood, who had a stellar 22-year work record for an Atlanta-area printing plant until problems erupted when, at the end of her shift, she was asked to work overtime:

When she got off at 3 that afternoon, Underwood needed to hurry home to register her kids at two different schools and sign up the youngest for aftercare. The county was holding a one time all-day registration, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., to accommodate working parents — which is ironic, considering what happened at 2, with an hour to go in Underwood’s shift.

“I was asked to work three hours mandatory overtime. I mentioned to them that I had to register my kids for school, and they told me that I couldn’t leave,” Underwood says.

Underwood had worked last-minute overtime dozens of times before, but on this day she said no. Since school registration is mandatory, she didn’t really think she’d get in trouble. In fact, her bosses skipped right over any disciplinary measure and fired her.

Benefits of Family-Friendly Scheduling

The segment goes on to examine the benefits of providing lower wage shift workers with family-friendly scheduling support, referencing an ongoing study by the National Institutes of Health:

The NIH wanted to know whether this kind of flexibility at work can improve employee health, so they matched manager flexibility against various measures of employee well-being. [Study co-leader Ellen Kossek] says those with the most accommodating managers “had better physical health reports, better sleep quality, higher job satisfaction, and less stress over work-life conflicts.”

What about Unions?

Too many examinations of work-life balance concentrate on professional and executive workers, so kudos to NPR and Ludden for devoting a segment to shift workers.  However, in examining possible responses to the challenges workers face in navigating work and family, it would have been good to focus on the role of unions in negotiating family-friendly working arrangements for their members, rather than centering almost solely on management discretion.

By leaving it up to managers to offer such arrangements, workers are at the mercy of their employers.  Fortunately, Vickie Underwood was not in such a position:

Underwood fought a year without pay before finally getting her job back, and she was lucky to have a union backing her up.

Maybe the real message behind the story should’ve been the central roles that unions can play in negotiating working conditions for their members and supporting them when things go wrong.

Link to NPR story

Do school bullying laws pave the way for the Healthy Workplace Bill?

I’ve been pondering recent posts by attorney Michael Fox, host of the thoughtful and informative Jottings by an Employer’s Lawyer blog, who suggests that the growing attention to school bullying legislation may help pave the way for workplace bullying legislation.  On February 1, he wrote:

Although there are obvious differences between school and the workplace, and perhaps more importantly between students and employees, once it has become accepted that the appropriate tool for controlling bullying behavior is legislation, I am afraid it is only a matter of time before some state decides if it works for the schools, it will also work on the job. How far are we on the school front? According to Bully Police USA, 41 states already have legislation dealing with bullying in the schools.

On March 11 he responded to an $800,000 award in a school bullying case with this:

It has long been my view that the most likely path for a bullying cause of action recognized in the workplace (other than the continuous efforts of Professor David Yamada) is the widespread acceptance of anti-bullying legislation applicable to the schools.

…It may be yet awhile before the first state enacts anti-bullying legislation in the workplace, but having been following it for more than seven years…, I am beginning to think of it in terms of likely, if not inevitable.

For Michael, whose practice concentrates on representing employers, this isn’t a welcomed development.  He is no fan of workplace bullying, but he opposes workplace bullying legislation such as the Healthy Workplace Bill, preferring that employers deal with this problem voluntarily.

Time will tell if school bullying laws soften the way for workplace bullying laws, but I’m heartened by the fact that we’re starting to connect the dots on these forms of abusive behavior.  School bullying, workplace bullying, domestic abuse, child abuse…there are many ties that bind among these forms of mistreatment.

Fox’s February 1 post

Fox’s March 11 post

(These posts represent something of a cross-blog dialogue between Michael and me.  Michael was one of the first bloggers to welcome Minding the Workplace to the blogosphere, and our ongoing exchanges are evidence of how this medium — despite other examples to the contrary — can host honest differences of opinion in a respectful and friendly way.)

Andrea Adams Trust on Workplace Bullying

The Andrea Adams Trust is a non-profit organization in England committed to the preventing workplace bullying.  It is named for the late Andrea Adams, the pioneering journalist who popularized the term workplace bullying in the late 1980s and early 1990s in a series of BBC broadcasts and in her book, Bullying at Work: How to Confront and Overcome It.

AAT has produced an excellent factsheet on workplace bullying (link below) that is worth a look even for those of us on the other side of the Atlantic.  Some of the informational highlights include:

• The effects of workplace bullying are
estimated to be responsible for between
one third to a half of all stress related
illnesses. UMIST

• More than two million people at work
consider themselves as being bullied. One
in four people report to have been bullied
within the last five years. UMIST

• Unofficial estimates put the cost of stress
related illness in the workplace as high as
twelve billion pounds or more.

• 18.9 million working days are lost each
year as a direct result of workplace bullying
UMIST. With 30 times more days lost to
industry than those lost through industrial

• 3.6% of salary budgets (national average) is
paid to people absent from work due to
stress related illness. DEPARTMENT OF


Website for Andrea Adams Trust

PDF for AAT factsheet on workplace bullying

Work in Fiction: Wherefore art thou?

Jennifer Schuessler, in an essay for the New York Times Book Review, examines how the world of work has appeared in works of fiction:

The literary novel needs more tinkers and tailors, the argument goes. (The best-seller list seems to take care of the soldiers and spies.) In a video introduction to the latest issue of Granta, dedicated to the theme of “Work,” John Freeman, the magazine’s editor, lamented the literary “invisibility” of daily toil. The essayist Alain de Botton, writing in The Boston Globe, recently called for a new literature “that can proclaim the intelligence, peculiarity, beauty and horror of the workplace.”

The essay raises important questions of how fiction shapes our worldview and how the underrepresentation of work themes in modern fiction deprives us of an opportunity to consider the experience of work outside of our own.

Link to full essay

Equality, Not High Income, Makes For Happier and Healthier Societies

Widening income and wealth gaps and exorbitant executive pay have been among the central qualities of our economy over the past few decades, with the middle class on the decline.  From the standpoint of what makes for a happier and healthier society, we are going in the wrong direction.  British epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson has been studying the effects of equality and inequality on societies:

In his latest book, The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, co-written with Kate Pickett, Wilkinson details the pernicious effects that inequality has on societies: eroding trust, increasing anxiety and illness, encouraging excessive consumption.

The good news is that increased equality has the opposite effect: statistics show that communities without large gaps between rich and poor are more resilient and their members live longer, happier lives.

In their book, Wilkinson and co-author Kate Pickett emphasize inequality’s psychosocial effects:

This is about the psychosocial effects of inequality—the impact of living with anxiety about our feelings of superiority or inferiority. It’s not the inferior housing that gives you heart disease, it’s the stress, the hopelessness, the anxiety, the depression you feel around that. The psychosocial effects of inequality affect the quality of human relationships. Because we are social beings, it’s the social environment and social relationships that are the most important stressors.

Yes! Magazine Interview with Wilkinson

Hat tip to Judy Richman

Healthy Workplace Bill encounters homophobia in Illinois

From Illinois, we have good news and bad news to report about the Healthy Workplace Bill, legislation that provides targets of severe workplace bullying with a legal claim against their employers and individual tormenters.

Good News

The good news is that the HWB has been passed by the Illinois Senate Labor Committee, putting it in position for a floor vote.  Every step further in the legislative process puts us one step closer to enacting the HWB into law.

Bad News

The bad news is that the anti-gay lobby is trying to use the HWB to advance its homophobic agenda.  The HWB protects everyone from a psychologically abusive work environment.  The anti-gay lobby does not want its minions to be liable for subjecting members of the LGBT community to abuse, and the HWB — enacted intact — would take that right away from them.

So, they are cloaking their bias in religion, attempting to amend the HWB with an exemption for their “religious voice.” Here’s a more detailed alert from the Illinois Healthy Workplace Advocates:

Lobbyists for the Illinois Family Institute [led by right-wing lobbying Ralph Rivera] and Concerned Christian Americans (Rev. Vanden Bosch) (both groups were original opponents of the Healthy Workplace Bill when it was HB 374) convinced lawmakers that they had the right to amend our bill to exempt individuals expressing their “religious voice” from being accused of bullying. In fact, these extremists are anti-gay and have stated on the CCA website:”Many of the ‘Bullying Programs’ are actually being used to promote and protect homosexuality in the workplace.” Write to Sen. Delgado telling him to tell these hate-mongerers to keep their hands off our legislation designed to provide dignity for EVERYONE!!

Link to Illinois Healthy Workplace Advocates webpage

The service sector and workplace bullying

I have long believed that service sector work enables workplace bullying, especially where performance evaluations include a significant subjective component.  Let’s take a closer look at this.

Assembly line

When you work in a factory or manufacturing plant, or some other job that requires physical labor and/or product output, your performance as a rank-and-file worker can be more easily evaluated.  The work may not be glamorous or easy, but if you do your part in keeping the line moving, you have done your job successfully.  While bullying certainly is no stranger to the assembly line, at least the work itself is more easily measured.


But service sector work performance can be harder to evaluate, especially at the margins.  Subjective judgments often come into play, and people may disagree even on the criteria that should be applied.  Staff, managers, and other categories of workers may find themselves subjected to imprecise, inconsistent, and shifting standards.  Such standards can become nuclear weapons in the hands of workplace bullies.

Classic scenario

A classic bullying scenario is that of an office worker with consistently strong evaluations who supposedly goes into a performance tailspin soon after a new manager comes on board.  She may be a staff member or lower-level administrator, and for whatever reason her new boss has taken a dislike to her.  Suddenly small errors become large transgressions, areas of strength become areas of weakness, and her boss’s mistakes are blamed on her.

If she expresses anger about the resulting feedback, she is tagged as being “difficult,” no longer a “team player.”  She, not her boss, is blamed for the inevitable tensions that mount.

In many such cases, this person will be pushed out of her job, and the bullying boss will remain, backed by a feckless HR manager who simply is following marching orders. Even if the boss is a serial abuser who prompts repeated “voluntary” or forced departures,  all too many organizations will ignore the pattern.


Organizations that want to avoid these scenarios would do well to consider what qualities they want in their managers and to develop fair, transparent standards for evaluation.  They can adopt and evenhandedly enforce workplace bullying policies.  Above all, organizational leaders can send a message that bullying behaviors and unfair treatment will not be condoned.

But that may not be enough.  Workers still need a voice and protections, independent of management discretion.  However, until we see meaningful legal reform, most workers will have few rights to contest this kind of mistreatment.  Unionization is a possibility for some.  As I have written on many occasions, unions are slowly starting to “get it” in terms of addressing workplace bullying.

The typical American office is far from “bully-proofed.”  Until we see more pro-active responses to bullying in the service sector, all too many workers will find little shelter from the abuse in their cubicles and work stations.

Thinking about retail work: Working behind the counter

Traveling causes me to think a lot about the experience of working in the service sector. As someone who doesn’t cook often and spends too much time on the road (er, in the air), I get more than a few of my meals, snacks, and cups of coffee from delis, convenience stores, cafes, food courts, and (though I’ve cut down considerably!) fast-food places. Here are some random thoughts and reactions:


I may rail about the omnipresence of Starbucks and the way they’ve crowded out some of the independent cafes, but I cannot recall ever receiving rude service there.  The (usually) young folks who work behind the counter are typically friendly, courteous, and efficient, and they get the orders right.

True, a few of them may come across as overly cheery, especially in this age of “whatever” indifference, but when I see an attitude like that on display, one of my thoughts is “that kid is going to be successful.”  Why? Because even in that comparatively low-paying job with its finite set of basic job skills, that young individual is developing socially intelligent work habits that will pay off in the workplace.

Fast Food Restaurants and Food Courts

What is it about these settings that dehumanizes too many workers and customers alike?  The same workers can take orders from the same customers for months or years on end, without any warm words or even much of a friendly acknowledgment between them.  All too often there is no personal connection or shared community; one group comes to eat, the other to work.

City Feed 

I contrast the fast food experience to that of going to the small healthy/organic convenience store across the street from my home, the City Feed & Supply (Jamaica Plain, Boston), labeled by one of my friends as my “extended refrigerator.”  Whether it’s ordering a cup of coffee, hot chocolate, or a sandwich, the service is personal and friendly.  In the literally hundreds (thousands?) of times I’ve been there, I’ve never had an unpleasant experience.

Convenience store stop: what 40 cents can buy

I don’t know why this little transaction sticks with me, but here goes. During a storm chase one summer (I am learning how to chase tornadoes and bad weather), our group made one of our countless stops at a roadside convenience store.  I filled up a small cup of soda only halfway (too much liquid intake is taboo during chase times, as frequent bathroom stops can risk missing something worth seeing) and took it to the cashier.  The lady running the cash register looked at my half-filled cup and cheerfully said, “oh, I can’t charge you the full price,” and took about 40 cents off.

It was my decision not to fill the cup to the brim, and I had every expectation that I’d be charged the full price.  But it’s that kind of friendly courtesy in such an impersonalized world that makes your a day a little nicer…AND builds loyal customers.  If I had lived around there, I’d be happy to patronize that business over and again.  

Electronically preoccupied customers

Something bugs me about customers who are so preoccupied with their cell phone conversations or i-Pods that they can barely yammer out their order to a server or cashier before returning to their critically important tasks, or even display irritation when they are “interrupted” by a quick question about that order.

Not only is it a distressing sign of how we’ve become so wired that we’re sacrificing the quality of being present in the moment, but also it’s disrespectful, perhaps unintentionally, to the individual on the other side of the counter. It basically proclaims to that person, hey, I’m caught up in my little world, and you’re a prop there to serve me

On the way up or long-term destination?

For some, these jobs are a first step up the ladder.  For many younger people it’s a way to make some money for school, or perhaps an interim gig while waiting for a job that will put them more directly on the path to success, however they define it.

For others, it’s a longer term destination.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing: The job pays some of your bills, you punch in and punch out, and you can pretty much leave it behind you during the rest of your day.

But especially at fast food places in the heart of large cities, I often sense weariness and even anger and despair behind that counter. There’s a big difference between the college-bound kid working a first job at McDonald’s and an older person (or maybe even a younger person) for whom that job is about the best she’ll be able to do for quite some time, maybe forever.


No great insights or revelations here, but hopefully some deeper understanding of how people can bring very different circumstances to jobs that, on the surface, are very similar.

Ronald Riggio’s “Leadership 101” series at Psychology Today

Ronald Riggio, director of the Kravis Leadership Institute at Claremont McKenna College and host of Psychology Today‘s Cutting-Edge Leadership blog, is running a series of “Leadership 101” posts that tracks topics he’s covering in his upper-level seminar in leadership studies:

Each week we will post some of the lessons learned, review some of the class discussion, and wrestle with questions about leadership and its importance to society. In addition, students will work on developing their own leadership skills in the class, so there will be plenty of tips for your own leadership development.

In his Jan. 22 post, Riggio shares what he learned about his students’ favorite leaders: 

When I asked students in my leadership seminar which leader they most admired, the results were surprising – and quite different from previous years. Instead of selecting national, international, or even local leaders, nearly all students selected a leader who had had direct personal impact on them and their lives. In other words, the most admired leaders were relatives, coaches, mentors, or supervisors. Occasionally, students did mention a sports hero, but for the most part their “heroes” were leaders from their personal life histories.

It’s a neat little series of posts that presents some of the “best of” content and discussions in Riggio’s Claremont McKenna seminar.

Riggio’s Cutting-Edge Leadership blog

First of  Riggio’s “Leadership 101” posts

The climate at work

Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow, writing for the Boston Globe‘s Ideas section, penned an informative piece examining the experience of work and indoor air quality issues.  A few lead snippets:

Indeed, according to several surveys, the number one complaint about office environments is that it’s too cold. Number two: It’s too hot. Often, both complaints come from the same building, possibly even from neighbors in adjacent cubicles. . . .

Temperature is only one of the issues. Since everyone is breathing the same air, infections spread easily. Indoor air can also cause so-called Sick Building Syndrome – itchy skin, dry eyes, headaches. And ailing, uncomfortable employees are unlikely to be working up to their full potential. . . .

But according to growing number of architects and engineers, there’s an ingenious way to address all of these problems at once: provide all a building’s occupants with jurisdiction over their own “microclimates.”

If you work indoors, and/or manage people who do, you’ll find plenty of food for thought here.

Link to article

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