Brain science and the workplace: Neuroscience and neuroplasticity

If you’re interested in how the experience of work affects us, but you’re not into heavy science, get over the latter and become familiar with these two terms: Neuroscience and neuroplasticity. We’re going to be hearing a lot about both in the years to come.


Neuroscience is defined by as:

The study of the brain and nervous system, including molecular neuroscience, cellular neuroscience, cognitive neuroscience, psychophysics, computational modeling and diseases of the nervous system.

Neuroplasticity is defined as:

The brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. Neuroplasticity allows the neurons (nerve cells) in the brain to compensate for injury and disease and to adjust their activities in response to new situations or to changes in their environment.

In other words, we’re talking about the science of the brain, including how we can change it for the better and fix it after bad stuff happens.

Past blog posts

I try to avoid using too much jargon in writing articles for this blog, so the following pieces are not filled to the brim with references to neuroscience and neuroplasticity. Nonetheless, these concepts are at the heart of these posts:

In recovering from adversity, past adversity can fuel our resilience

Do organizations suppress our empathy?

Understanding the bullied brain

Bully rats, tasers, and stress

Why concentrated power at work is bad

Huge implications for workplace bullying

As the titles of the posts listed above suggest, this has huge implications for understanding and responding to workplace bullying.

Neuroscience gives us tools for understanding what workplace bullying does to people. For example, last year Dr. Gary Namie wrote on the Workplace Bullying Institute blog about a promising experimental tool for diagnosing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (link here):

Prolonged exposure to unremitting stress damages a person’s health. . . . In worst cases, trauma can result. . . . Now comes a potential new neuroscience tool to complement the diagnostic toolkit — MEG. MEG stands for magnetoencephalography. PTSD can be detected with 97% accuracy using this non-invasive, but still experimental, procedure.  MEG measures the magnetic signals produced by the activity of the brain.

Similarly, emerging understanding of neuroplasticity — in this context, applying insights to help counsel and heal bullying targets — gives us hope for breakthroughs toward helping those with PTSD, a condition so difficult to treat that often has left even the most optimistic trauma experts in a state of frustration.

Legal significance

Words not only can hurt, but also when delivered in a malicious, sustained, and targeted way, they can impair brain functioning. In short, psychological torture causes brain damage. Thus, as these discoveries and developments become documented through published scientific research, neuroscience will help targets of bullying, harassment, mobbing, and abuse prove legal claims against their tormenters. It also will help them access workers’ compensation and disability benefits.

Organizational behavior and business practices

Insights from neuroscience increasingly will inform the study of organizational behavior and business management practices. In an article for Strategy + Business about neuroscience and organizational culture (link here, free registration), Jeffrey Schwartz, Pablo Gaito, and Doug Lennick wrote:

When corporate leaders talk about change, they usually have a desired result in mind . . .. They know that if they are to achieve this result, people throughout the company need to change their behavior and practices, and that can’t happen by simple decree. How, then, does it happen? In the last few years, insights from neuroscience have begun to answer that question. New behaviors can be put in place, but only by reframing attitudes that are so entrenched that they are almost literally embedded in the physical pathways of employees’ neurons.

A next big thing

So folks, this is a Next Big Thing. Stay tuned, because we’re going to be learning a lot of interesting stuff about ourselves, and this knowledge may lead us to ways of improving our lives at work and elsewhere.

What policy objectives should workplace bullying legislation advance?

With growing discussion about the enactment of workplace bullying legislation occurring both in the U.S. and in other nations, it is fitting to identify some of the broad objectives that any such law should be designed to further.

When I was drafting the Healthy Workplace Bill, I identified a cluster of public policy goals that should inform the substance of an anti-bullying law. These four figured most prominently:


Prevention is the most important goal. The law should encourage employers to use preventive measures to reduce the likelihood of workplace bullying. These include developing and enforcing policies, educating employees, and supporting a workplace culture that values employee dignity. If bullying is prevented, then workers and employers alike will benefit, and all stakeholders are spared burdensome litigation.

Relief to targets

The legal system should provide a means of relief to targets who are subjected to severely abusive treatment. This should include monetary damages, mental health counseling, and, where applicable, reinstatement to the target’s original position.

Prompt and fair resolution

The law should encourage prompt resolution of bullying disputes, with procedures designed to be fair to all parties, and with strong protections against retaliation for workers who report instances of bullying.


Finally, bullies and employers who enable them should be held responsible for their actions. This will have a deterrent effect and further encourage the use of preventive measures to discourage bullying behavior.


I believe this is a good starting place for considering the role of the law in responding to workplace bullying. These policy objectives have been well-received by commentators around the world, ranging from scholars in fields such as law and industrial psychology, to the World Health Organization (see below for link).


For a free pdf copy of the World Health Organization’s publication Raising Awareness of Psychological Harassment at Work, go here.

My three major law review articles on workplace bullying and the law extensively discuss the public policy objectives and implications of workplace bullying legislation, including the Healthy Workplace Bill. They can be downloaded without charge by clicking the titles:

The Phenomenon of ‘Workplace Bullying’ and the Need for Status-Blind Hostile Work Environment Protection– Georgetown Law Journal, 2000

Crafting a Legislative Response to Workplace Bullying– Employee Rights and Employment Policy Journal, 2004

Workplace Bullying and American Employment Law: A Ten-Year Progress Report and Assessment – Comparative Labor Law & Policy Journal, 2010

Work on TV: “Mad Men” and “The Dick Van Dyke Show”


I’m about to sound like a geeky professor, but I’d like us to compare and contrast two television programs, one currently airing, the other a vintage classic.

Here are two American television shows portraying early-to-mid 1960s families, featuring a husband who commutes from Long Island to Manhattan every day to a job doing creative, well-compensated work, a beautiful work-at-home housewife, and adorable children.

We’re basically talking about the same programs, several decades apart, right?

Yeah, right.

Mad Men

First there’s “Mad Men,” AMC’s one-hour drama about the lives of Manhattan advertising executives in the 1960s, currently one of the most talked-about shows on the small screen.

In “Mad Men” you have the tortured, manipulative Don Draper (played by Jon Hamm) and his troubled, ice princess wife, Betty Draper (January Jones).

In the world of Madison Avenue advertising, Don Draper and his colleagues create ad campaigns, compete with other agencies for accounts, and spend a lot of time drinking, smoking, and carousing.

The Dick Van Dyke Show

And then there’s the “Dick Van Dyke Show,” a classic sitcom from the 1960s centered on the lives of writers for a television comedy/variety hour, “The Alan Brady Show.”

In the “Dick Van Dyke Show” you have the boyish and klutzy Rob Petrie (Dick Van Dyke) and his wholesome beauty of a wife, Laura Petrie (Mary Tyler Moore).

In the world of producing a network television show, Rob Petrie and his colleagues write comedy sketches, spend time with each other’s families, and sometimes perform at the boss’s parties.

Representations of work and society

Is there an objective truth about the worlds of high-stakes creative work at that time and place, and if so, does either television program accurately reflect it?

“Mad Men” is dark and brooding, both at work and at home. It can be fairly brutal in portraying the experiences of women and other “minorities” (racial, religious, and sexual) in that world of advertising.

The “Dick Van Dyke Show” presents an idyllic world of fun at work and almost picture-perfect suburban bliss at home. Occasionally the show delved into issues of difference, especially the changing roles of women and religious diversity (mainly through the Jewish faith of fellow comedy writer Buddy Sorrell, played by Maury Amsterdam), but almost always with a light touch.

My verdict? Both are brilliant, entertaining shows. But while the world of the “Dick Van Dyke Show” is a happy, fun place to be, the world of “Mad Men” is a lot closer to the truth.


You can watch both television shows via cable networks, DVD sets, and Netflix subscriptions. For “Mad Men” especially, I recommend starting from the beginning of the series to understand all the story arcs.

Left brain, meet right brain: Dan Pink’s Whole New Mind

For a long time I’ve meaning to write up a quick post on Dan Pink’s 2005 bestseller, A Whole New Mind: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age. In essence, Pink — trained as a lawyer but making his living as a writer — suggests that a new set of aptitudes will be necessary to succeed in the times to come.

Left brain and right brain

Pink starts by pointing out how “left-brain” dominant occupations such as lawyer, accountant, and engineer have been touted as traditional pathways to steady incomes and professional success.

He then suggests that our technological, economic, and labor market structures are changing dramatically, to the point where a good number of left-brain tasks increasingly are being outsourced or even performed by computer programs. (A software program that can do your taxes is an obvious example of the latter.)

Pink goes on to opine that the attractive opportunities of tomorrow will emphasize creative, artistic, and holistic “right-brain” senses.

The six right-brain senses

Here are the six key right-brain abilities, according to Pink:

  • Design (combining utility and significance to maximize appeal)
  • Story (placing facts in context, delivered with emotional impact)
  • Symphony (“the ability to put together the pieces”)
  • Empathy (putting yourself in another’s shoes)
  • Play (understanding the importance of games, humor, and joyfulness)
  • Meaning (taking spirituality and happiness seriously)

OK, so it’s somewhat abstract

I haven’t put a lot of meat on the bones of this summary of A Whole New Mind, but if you spend some time with it, the examples in the book will fill in the substance.

When I consider Pink’s take on these qualities, I cannot help but think of the marketing success of the Apple computer company. Diehard fans of Macs, iPads, and iPhones probably know what I mean by this. Or walk into an Apple store and see that genius at work for yourself.

In any event, I’m not claiming that I buy into this worldview completely. But I find Pink’s thesis very intriguing and certainly worthy of consideration.

Family and friends of workplace bullying suicide victims support Healthy Workplace Bill

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.

Maria Morrissey on Kevin Morrissey

Maria Morrissey has become an advocate for the Healthy Workplace Bill in the aftermath of her brother’s suicide, which has been linked to his work experience at the University of Virginia’s Virginia Quarterly Review, a literary magazine.  As reported by Veronica Lewin for the Legislative Gazette (link here):

When she and [Kevin’s] friend Waldo went through his apartment they found a clue next to his suicide note: a copy of the book “Working with the Self-Absorbed: How to Handle Narcissistic Personalities on the Job.”

…According to Maria, the book was underlined and filled with notes, suggesting Kevin read the book in an attempt to end the workplace torment he dealt with for three years.

“We both got chills feeling like that was Kevin saying please carry on this fight, I can’t do it anymore.”

Katherine Hermes on Marlene Braun

Kathy Hermes, a college professor in Connecticut and coordinator of the Connecticut Healthy Workplace Advocates, spoke at the press conference about Marlene Braun. As reported by the Legislative Gazette:

Marlene Braun shot herself and her three dogs after being a target of bullying in her office. Katherine Hermes, Braun’s friend, said the bullying started after Braun sent an e-mail correcting a factual mistake her boss had made without copying him into the document.

“This may sound trivial, but a lot of workplace bullying starts with trivialities,” said Hermes.

…Braun often told Hermes about her work environment. Braun’s boss often ordered her out of the room during meetings and took her name off memos she had written and submitted them as his own. After an offsite meeting, Hermes said Braun’s boss cornered her outside of her truck and screamed at her.

Multiple victims

We have a considerable body of evidence documenting what severe workplace bullying can do to its direct targets. But we also need to grasp how workplace bullying can have a destructive effect on personal relationships with spouses and partners, other family members, and friends.

And when those so-called third parties understand what the target is experiencing, they often suffer with the target — what psychology experts call “secondary trauma.”

Oftentimes, that secondary harm does not become evident until stories like these emerge. Just as we have seen with school bullying, it often takes an act as desperate and horrific as suicide to bring the human costs of workplace bullying to public attention.

In these tragedies, we can hope and pray that the victims are at peace. But their surviving relatives and friends must bear the pain of those losses. Some have channeled their mourning and grief into a commitment to effect change. Others are struggling more privately.

For more information

Kevin Morrissey

The Hook, a Virginia weekly, has followed closely the story of the Kevin Morrissey suicide and aftermath. In particular, editor Dave McNair has written several thorough investigative pieces, including here (initial investigative piece, August 2010), here (analyzing the University of Virginia’s internal report, October 2010), and here (looking at the future of the literary journal, April 2011).

Marlene Braun

The Workplace Bullying Institute has compiled an extensive online archive of information about Marlene Braun, here.

Friends of Marlene Braun maintain a Facebook page with information about her death and ongoing support of the workplace bullying movement, here.

To support the Healthy Workplace Bill

To join the legislative campaign to enact the Healthy Workplace Bill in your state, go here.

The dismantling of America’s middle class

It has become something of a cliché — especially during political campaign seasons — to say that America is losing its middle class.

Unfortunately, mounting evidence suggests that this is becoming true.

New America Foundation study

Peter Gorenstein, writing for the Daily Ticker (Yahoo! News, link here), highlights snippets from the New America Foundation’s new report, The American Middle Class Under Stress:

— There are 8.5 million people receiving unemployment insurance and over 40 million receiving food stamps.

— At the current pace of job creation, the economy won’t return to full employment until 2018.

— Middle-income jobs are disappearing from the economy. The share of middle-income jobs in the United States has fallen from 52% in 1980 to 42% in 2010.

Go here to access a pdf of the full New America Foundation report, written by Sherle R. Schwenninger and Samuel Sherraden.


Related posts

When Boomers retire (or try to): America’s coming train wreck

Jobs, Unemployment, and the Great Recession

Are we staring at a long-term era of scarcity?

Nurse writes about bullying by doctors, and other doctors respond

In a New York Times op-ed piece (link here), oncology nurse Theresa Brown recounts a recent situation when a patient “jokingly asked his doctor whom he should yell at” because a test result was late:

Turning and pointing at the patient’s nurse, the doctor replied, “If you want to scream at anyone, scream at her.”

…As we walked out of the patient’s room I asked the doctor if I could quote him in an article. “Sure,” he answered. “It’s a time-honored tradition — blame the nurse whenever anything goes wrong.”

Brown goes on to discuss what many regular readers of this blog know already, namely, that workplace bullying is a significant problem in healthcare and that nurses frequently are on the receiving end of it from doctors.

Brown’s op-ed is sparking responses:

Blame med school

Physician Kevin Pho, in his blog (link here), acknowledges that bullying is a problem in healthcare but criticizes Brown for blaming doctors. Instead, he notes the prevalence of bullying among nurses and points a finger at medical education:

…blame should be directed towards the physician education system, rather than doctors themselves.  The hierarchical culture that perpetuates bullying goes back as far as medical school, when as students, future doctors are trained in a pecking order not unlike the military.

Good point

Pho makes a good point: It begins in med school. Indeed, modeling and validation of individual behavior start during one’s socialization into a profession. Whether we’re talking doctors, military officers, lawyers, or professors, messages are sent early in one’s training about the “proper” ways in which to act and work with others.

Offender as victim

Physician Ford Vox, blogging for The Atlantic (link here) is less diplomatic. He suggests that Brown’s concerns don’t add up to a lot:

So in 2011 a New York Times op-ed blaming doctors for sparking negative hospital cultures is rather passé and makes you wonder what makes it worth running such a ho-hum opinion, especially on a Sunday.

He goes on to characterize her concern dismissively, referring to it as a “gripe” and taking issue with her “bland, well-worn generalization” about the status of doctors.

Ah, yes

And then Vox lowers the (predictable) boom:

What’s concerning and ethically dubious about Brown’s personal anecdote is its specificity.

Specificity? Huh?! Brown never identifies where she works, either in the text of the article or in the short bio line that follows.

Nevertheless, Vox elevates this into an ethical lapse because he was able to go on the Internet and find out where Brown works. He continues:

She gives enough detail in the column that many people at her hospital, especially “the entire medical team” present at the time, will know precisely whom she’s making an example out of. Using her platform at the Times, Brown just succeeded in royally bullying back the physician she’s just publicly accused.

Voilà!!! Vox manages to turn the offender into a victim and, in remarkable judo-like fashion, flips this into a question of Brown’s ethics.

Of course, had Brown not volunteered enough details to explain the context of the bullying situation she described, Vox might’ve criticized her for being vague and making a mountain out of a molehill. But as those familiar with workplace bullying know, context matters.

If I ever become a nurse, I sure as heck hope that I’m never assigned to Dr. Vox. He sounds like, well, a bully.

The good news

Think about it: A Sunday op-ed piece about workplace bullying in the New York Times, followed by responsive blog posts from the Boston Globe and The Atlantic. If you’re wondering whether the workplace bullying movement has gained traction over the years, this is evidence of its success.


Bullying in healthcare

I’ve written a lot on this blog about bullying in healthcare. For a four-part series of posts on this topic, start here.

Also of possible interest

Nursing as a Calling: Aspirations and Realities


Hat tip to Katherine Hermes, Connecticut Healthy Workplace Advocates, for the Vox blog post.

Organizational culture and disaster: Lessons from the Gulf and from Japan

In determining the underlying causes of workplace safety disasters, organizational culture matters. The tragic realities of that basic truth are emerging in assessments of the last year’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion and the ongoing dangers concerning Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

Deepwater Horizon oil rig

The U.S. Coast Guard has weighed in with a report on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion that killed 11 workers and caused millions of gallons of oil to pour into the Gulf. Michael Kunzelman of the Associated Press reports (via Yahoo! News, link here):

Flaws in Transocean Ltd.’s emergency training and equipment and a poor safety culture contributed to the deadly Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion that led to the Gulf oil spill, according to a Coast Guard report released Friday.


The report doesn’t explore the root causes of the well blowout, which triggered the explosions that killed 11 workers and sent millions of gallons of oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico. But the Coast Guard said numerous actions by Transocean and the rig’s crew affected their ability to prevent or limit the disaster.

Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant

Even as the struggle continues to prevent greater disaster arising out of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, questions are being raised about cozy connections between the nation’s nuclear power companies, regulatory officials, and the government. As Norimitsu Onishi and Ken Belson report for the New York Times (link here):

Investigators may take months or years to decide to what extent safety problems or weak regulation contributed to the disaster at Daiichi, the worst of its kind since Chernobyl. But as troubles at the plant and fears over radiation continue to rattle the nation, the Japanese are increasingly raising the possibility that a culture of complicity made the plant especially vulnerable to the natural disaster that struck the country on March 11.

Highlighted in the piece is the story of a Japanese-American nuclear inspector who, in 2000, expressed concerns about the safety of the plant. Japan’s nuclear safety agency revealed the identity of the inspector to company officials in apparent violation of a safety law shielding whistle blowers and allowed the company to conduct its own investigation.

How quickly we forget

Often lost in the justifiable concern over the environmental impact of these disasters is the fact that workers are put at grave risk, often involving severe injuries and fatalities. Eleven workers died at the Deepwater Horizon oil rig. And in Japan, we can only begin to speculate about the harm done to the Japanese workers who have bravely worked to contain the meltdown.

In a way, it recalls public reaction to Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel, The Jungle. Sinclair wrote the novel to spotlight the terrible working and living conditions confronting impoverished workers in the meatpacking industry. Instead, it led to widespread alarm about the safety of the food supply, and even today many people associate the book solely with that concern.

A shout out to our public school teachers

Many years ago during a visit home to Indiana, I was running an errand with my mom, who was still teaching kindergarten at the time.

As we walked on the sidewalk, a stocky young man — he looked to be in the 6th or 7th grade — was coming toward us from the other direction. He looked at Mom and exclaimed with joy, “Mrs. Yamada!!!,” and proceeded to give her a big bear hug.

Mom had been his kindergarten teacher. Such was her impact on him that years later, he expressed his affection so naturally  — at an age when boys typically aren’t given to these displays.

The $320,000 kindergarten teacher

But it’s more than simply an emotional connection. A widely-cited study by Chetty, et al. (abstract here) involving nearly 12,000 Tennessee school children found that:

. . . kindergarten test scores are highly correlated with such outcomes as earnings at age 27, college attendance, home ownership, and retirement savings. . . . Students who were assigned to higher-quality classrooms (for example, with better teachers) have higher earnings, college attendance rates, and other outcomes.

This became known as the “$320,000 kindergarten teacher study” because of its estimate that, as summarized by David Leonhardt of the New York Times (link here):

. . . a standout kindergarten teacher is worth about $320,000 a year. That’s the present value of the additional money that a full class of students can expect to earn over their careers. This estimate doesn’t take into account social gains, like better health and less crime.

The underpaid public school teacher

Even if some kindergarten teachers are worth that amount of money, it sure isn’t showing up in their paychecks. In fact, according to a new Economic Policy Institute study (link to pdf here), elementary and secondary school teachers earn about 12 percent less than professionals in other fields with similar amounts of education and experience.

The EPI study further reports that since 1960, the pay gap between teachers and other comparably educated individuals has widened considerably. For women, the figures are especially telling:

[The] pay gap between female public school teachers and comparably educated women—for whom the labor market dramatically changed over the 1960-2000 period—grew by nearly 28 percentage points, from a relative wage advantage of 14.7% in 1960 to a pay disadvantage of 13.2% in 2000.

A tough job

Okay, so not every public school teacher is a superstar educator — no vocation can support such a claim. But most are dedicated, competent professionals, and more than a few simply are remarkable.

And often they practice their craft under trying circumstances. Parker Palmer, in his superb book The Courage to Teach (10th ann. ed. 2007), had this to say about a teacher development project he engaged in with Michigan school teachers:

My two-year journey with public school teachers persuaded me beyond doubt that they and their kin are among the true culture heroes of our time. . . . Daily they are berated by politicians, the public, and the press for their alleged inadequacies and failures. And daily they return to their classrooms, opening their hearts and minds in hopes of helping children do the same.

Defendants in Phoebe Prince school bullying case enter plea bargains

In court proceedings covering two days, five of six defendants in the criminal prosecutions stemming from the 2010 suicide of Massachusetts teenager Phoebe Prince have entered into plea bargain agreements to bring the cases against them to a conclusion.

Prince was a 15-year-old student at South Hadley High School in Massachusetts at the time of her death. She was so mercilessly bullied by fellow students (in person and online) that she took her own life.

The Prince tragedy quickly became a national symbol of the harm caused by bullying in schools.

Wednesday, May 4

Peter Schworm reports for the Boston Globe (link here) that two of the individuals who bullied Prince, Sean Mulveyhill and Kayla Narey, entered guilty pleas:

  • Mulveyhill, 18, pled guilty to criminal harassment. He was ordered to perform 100 hours of community service and to serve one year of probation. Charges of statutory rape and violating Prince’s civil rights were dropped in return for the plea.
  • Narey, 18, also pled guilty to criminal harassment and was sentenced to a year of probation. Charges of violating Prince’s civil rights were dropped.

Mother’s anguished statement

Schworm reports that Anne O’Brien, Prince’s mother, delivered a victim impact statement in which she “lashed out” at Mulveyhill, accusing him “of being in a ‘predatory’ relationship with her daughter.” She “described her grief as an ‘unbelievable pain’ that will never subside.”

Although O’Brien signed off on the plea agreement, friends and family in Ireland (from where Phoebe emigrated) are outraged over the plea deals, believing that stiffer sentences were merited, report Marie Szaniszlo and Christine McConville for the Boston Herald (link here).

Go here for a Globe video story including O’Brien’s statement.

Thursday, May 5

The Herald‘s Marie Szaniszlo reports on three more guilty pleas taken the next day (link here)

In Franklin-Hampshire Juvenile Court, Sharon Velazquez, Flannery Mullins and Ashley Longe were sentenced to less than a year’s probation after they admitted to sufficient facts to misdemeanor charges in connection with Phoebe’s Jan. 14, 2010, death.

In addition, charges of statutory rape against Austin Renaud were dropped, with Phoebe’s family supporting the decision.


Previous blog posts

The school bullying suicide of Phoebe Prince, age 15

On Phoebe Prince: Divergent accounts of a tragedy

Newsweek on bullying and related behaviors

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