Brits say: Workplace stress, bullying, and violence are taking their toll

America certainly isn’t the only nation dealing with challenges to psychological health at work. Across the pond, workers in the United Kingdom face their own problems with stress, bullying, and violence on the job, as these recent studies indicate:

CIPD survey: Stress fueling long-term sick leave

Katie Allen reports for the Guardian newspaper (link here) on a survey conducted by Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) and SimplyHealth indicating that fear of layoffs is contributing to significant levels of employee stress:

Worries about job losses have helped stress become the most common cause of long-term sick leave in Britain, according to a report that underlines the pressures on workers in a deteriorating labour market.

Stress has overtaken other reasons for long-term absence such as repetitive strain injury and medical conditions such as cancer. Workers blame workloads and management styles….

Cardiff & Plymouth study: High levels of violence and aggression at work

A study conducted by Cardiff and Plymouth universities (link here) shows that British workers face significant levels of violence and other forms of aggression on the job:

One million Britons experienced workplace violence in the last two years, while millions more were subjected to intimidation, humiliation and rudeness, new research has shown.

Surprisingly, managers and professionals in well-paid full-time jobs are among the groups most at risk.

…The research, by Cardiff’s School of Social Sciences and Plymouth Business School, is based on face-to-face interviews with nearly 4,000 employees who were representative of the British workforce. Key findings included:

4.9 per cent had suffered violence in the workplace – the equivalent of more than 1 million workers – with 3.8 per cent injured as a result

Almost 30 per cent complained of impossible deadlines and unmanageable workloads

Nearly a quarter had been shouted at or experienced someone losing their temper

13.3 per cent had been intimidated by somebody in the workplace

CMI study: Bad management costing £19 billion per year

The November issue of the Chartered Management Institute newsletter (link here) reports that “(i)neffective management could be costing UK businesses over £19 billion per year in lost working hours.” Bullying is among the severe problems noted in the CMI survey:

The study of 2000 employees across the UK reveals that three quarters (75 per cent) of workers waste almost two hours out of their working week due to inefficient managers. Worst management practices responsible for time lost include unclear communication (33 per cent); lack of support (33 per cent); micro-management (26 per cent); and lack of direction (25 per cent).

…Alarmingly, the research also highlights that 13% of those surveyed have witnessed managers exhibiting discriminatory behaviour towards employees based on gender, race, age or sexual orientation and almost one third (27%) have witnessed managers bullying or harassing their employees.

The “butterfly effect” and working as an educator

I’ve just finished Stephen King’s new bestseller, 11/22/63, which centers on a modern day schoolteacher, Jake Epping, going back in time in an attempt to prevent the assassination of President Kennedy. Even though it weighs in at nearly 850 pages, it’s an absorbing tale. And like the best of popular fiction, it’s both accessible (i.e., perfect for a long Thanksgiving weekend) and thought provoking.

Although the challenge of saving the President is the main plot driver, the novel also offers a terrific backstory about Jake’s work as a teacher, and naturally I found myself dwelling upon it.

Butterfly effect

King’s novel, and many time travel tales in general, embrace the idea of the “butterfly effect.” In science, the butterfly effect theorizes that a butterfly’s wings potentially could create a tornado hundreds or thousands of miles away. In popular culture, it has come to represent the idea that small changes in choices or actions may trigger or lead to ripple effects of a profound and unanticipated nature.

I make no claim of expertise about the butterfly effect’s legitimacy as a scientific theory, but I have to say that as a social phenomenon, it makes intuitive sense to me. One thing leads to another, say two of my favorite educators about the art and process of learning, Drs. John Bilorusky and Cynthia Lawrence, and the butterfly effect takes that idea to more dramatic ends.

Of course, inherent in the butterfly effect is its unpredictability. We can’t necessarily foresee these significant events, and they will be a mix of good and bad. (Butterfly. Tornado. Only good if you’re a storm chaser or a bored weather reporter.) That’s what makes the theory so appealing for time travel stories.

The work of an educator

However, I also know as an educator that a good act one day can spawn further good acts by others in the years to come. Indeed, that’s what teaching, mentoring, and scholarship are all about: If we’ve been at this business long enough, then we’ve witnessed what happens when our work has a positive impact somewhere down the line.

In essence, being an educator is an ongoing act of faith. On a day-to-day basis, the benefits of our work to others may not always be evident. In fact, a class or course that didn’t go as well as we had hoped, or a publication that doesn’t appear to be attracting much attention, may well cause us to wonder if we’re spinning our wheels or wasting our time. But on occasion, perhaps on many occasions if we are fortunate, we are gifted with the realization that our work allows us to make a difference, even if we’ll never be aware of its full effects.

Responsibility

I don’t want to overstate our potential influence. Folks, it’s not like our students and readers are hanging on to our every word — a basic truth that too many educators forget or never learn. Nevertheless, we have a responsibility to put into the stream of human ideas and activity our best insights, understandings, and instructions.

And — even then — we have no guarantees how our lessons will be used or misused or forgotten. After all, butterflies are free, yes?

***

The butterfly effect and teaching

Heather A. Hass, “Teaching and the Butterfly Effect,” Chronicle of Higher Education (2004)

Paul D. Carrington, “Butterfly Effects: The Possibilities of Law Teaching in a Democracy,” Duke Law Journal (1992)

Wikipedia articles

Butterfly effect

Butterfly effect in popular culture

Book recommendation!

It has nothing to do with the main themes of this blog, but if you’re into time travel stories, check out Jack Finney’s classic illustrated novel, Time and Again (1970), which takes its protagonist back to New York City, circa 1882. Stephen King calls it the best time travel story ever written. For me, discovering the book some 25 years ago was a magical reading experience.

What does ABC’s “Revenge” teach us about workplace injustice?

I’ve never been a fan of soap operas, but a very soapy new primetime drama, ABC’s “Revenge,” has been a lock on my DVR this fall.

About “Revenge”

“Revenge” is the title, philosophy, and practice of this weekly guilty pleasure. The story features a young woman, Emily Thorne (played by Emily VanCamp), who mysteriously appears in the Hamptons, New York’s refuge for the ultra wealthy.

Emily is not who she says she is. She’s really Amanda Clarke, and years ago, when Amanda was still a girl, her rich, cutthroat neighbors framed her father for a horrific act of terrorism and essentially destroyed their lives. Emily/Amanda now has returned home to exact revenge on them, in brutally cool and calculated ways. (“Revenge” is said to be loosely patterned after Alexander Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo, but believe me, you don’t have to be familiar with the book to get into the show!)

Each new episode features intrigue, manipulation, and carefully planned acts of payback. It also highlights an ongoing cat fight, nay, death battle of the tigresses, between Emily and leading Hamptons socialite Victoria Grayson (played by Madeleine Stowe), a key operative in her father’s disgrace and demise.

This could be a giant recipe for an early series cancellation but for the pitch perfect performances by the lead actresses. VanCamp is the ideal cold-blooded avenger masquerading as the sharp, pretty, sweetheart-next-door. Stowe pulls off her Ice Queen of the Hamptons role — one that easily could become a caricature in the hands of a less-gifted performer — with just the right touch. And when Emily and Victoria are in the same room, well, if looks could kill…

Revenge vs. schadenfreude

Are fans of “Revenge” frustrated avengers pining for a chance to inflict payback on those who have hurt them? If so, then there are millions of us waiting in the wings.

Fortunately, I don’t think this is the case. It boils down to the difference between exacting revenge — i.e., taking an active part in the retribution — and experiencing schadenfreude, the German loanword defined as deriving joy or satisfaction from another’s misfortune. The former involves planning and participation, while the latter represents an emotional response.

For some, a successful act of revenge can result in schadenfreude. For others, schadenfreude is more comfortably experienced as the result of a misfortune visited upon someone by another party or initiative.

I believe that most viewers enjoy “Revenge” because it allows us to revel in a fictional version of the latter variety. After all, cutting through the soap, “Revenge” reminds us that plotting real-life payback easily becomes an all-consuming and blackhearted passion. It often requires the same overheated emotion as the act that inspired it, not to mention a heckuva lot of care and attention to detail if one does not want to get caught.

Furthermore, the vast majority recognize that carrying an unyielding need for vengeance can be a dark, heavy, and unhealthy burden. Even if we struggle to forgive our trespassers, we nevertheless understand the personal costs of devoting ourselves to visiting retribution upon them.

And yet, “Revenge” may satisfy some inner craving for schadenfreude, which allows us to eat our cake but not have to answer for the calories. When one of Emily’s brilliantly designed acts of payback succeeds, it’s hard not to say, hah hah, gotcha!

Workplace revenge fantasies

No doubt that when some viewers are relishing Emily’s latest success, they’re thinking about specific bosses or co-workers who treated them poorly or unfairly.

Indeed, some of the “bad boss” books that I’ve paged through over the years are full of revenge fantasies, imagined and realized. People construct, and occasionally act out, these fantasies because they lack the power to use organizational resources to make things right. And when institutions do not embrace fairness and accountability, those on the receiving end of perceived injustices are left to their own devices and coping skills.

These are no trifling concerns, as I hope this blog has demonstrated. Perceptions of organizational justice impact productivity and individual well-being. Careers, livelihoods, and paychecks are at stake, not to mention personal health and dignity.

“Revenge” doesn’t get into the institutional ripple effects; it’s all personal, either in-your-face or behind-your-back. Ultimately, it isn’t psychologically deep enough to teach us anything more profound than the costs of being obsessed with retribution. But that in itself is a valuable lesson, and it’s delivered in marvelously entertaining fashion to boot.

***

Go here to watch full episodes of “Revenge.”

Recycling: The Golden Rule at work, hanging together, and personal reinvention

With the holidays beckoning, here are three past articles that offer some positive ideas and messages:

1. What if we applied the Golden Rule at work? (October 2010) — Did you know this “rule” has its roots in many faith traditions?

2. Can communal responses to tough times lead us to better lives? (October 2010) — Hopeful, humane, and creative thinking for difficult times.

3. Seth Godin: Seven keys to personal reinvention (September 2010) — Better than a New Year’s resolution.

[Editor’s Note: In addition to maintaining a list of articles that have remained very popular on this blog — see the Popular and Notable Posts page — every month or so I’m recycling relevant posts from more than a year ago. Hopefully they will be of interest to newer readers.]

Evidence of economic inequality keeps piling up

Class warfare is a reality, and it is being visited upon the middle class and the poor. The dots keep connecting over and again, and it’s important to see how data, politics, and public policy interact:

The Poor

Whether using a traditional or new measure for gauging poverty, over 15 percent of Americans are officially poor, reports CNN’s Tami Luhby (link here):

There were more than 49 million Americans living in poverty in 2010, under an alternative measure released by the Census Bureau Monday.

That’s 16% of the nation, higher than the official poverty rate of 15.2%. The official rate, released in September, showed 46.6 million people living in poverty.

The new measure “includes various government benefits and expenses not captured by the official poverty rate.”

The Near Poor

There are millions more living on the brink. Jason DeParle, Robert Gebeloff, and Sabrina Tavernise report for New York Times (link here) on a significant group of Americans classified as “near poor”:

They drive cars, but seldom new ones. They earn paychecks, but not big ones. Many own homes. Most pay taxes. Half are married, and nearly half live in the suburbs. None are poor, but many describe themselves as barely scraping by.

New U.S. Census methods for calculating poverty label the near poor as those with less than 50 percent above the poverty line:

Perhaps the most startling differences between the old measure and the new involves data the government has not yet published, showing 51 million people with incomes less than 50 percent above the poverty line.

They conclude: “All told, that places 100 million people — one in three Americans — either in poverty or in the fretful zone just above it.”

The Shrinking Middle

Lucia Mutikani reports for Reuters (link here) on a Stanford University study of 117 metro areas, finding that middle-class neighborhoods are shrinking:

The share of families living in middle-income neighborhoods has dropped to 44 percent in 2007 from 65 percent in 1970, the Stanford University study showed.

. . . The study found that the proportion of families living in affluent neighborhoods doubled to 14 percent in 2007 from 7 percent in 1970.

During the same period, the share of families in poor residential areas increased to 17 percent from 8 percent.

The Expanding 0.1 Percent

Robert Lenzner, writing for Forbes (via Yahoo! News, here), explains that the top 0.1 percent receive roughly half of the capital gains, thus pointing to Bush-era capital gains tax cuts as chief culprits in benefiting America’s wealthiest:

Capital gains are the key ingredient of income disparity in the US– and the force behind the winner takes all mantra of our economic system. . . .

Income and wealth disparities become even more  absurd  if we look at the top 0.1% of the nation’s earners — rather than the more common 1%. The top 0.1% —  about 315,000 individuals out of 315 million — are making about half of all capital gains on the sale of shares or property after 1 year; and these capital gains make up 60% of the income made by the Forbes 400.

It’s crystal clear that the Bush tax reduction on capital gains and dividend income in 2003 was the cutting edge policy that has created the immense increase in net worth of corporate executives, Wall St. professionals and other entrepreneurs.

The impact on economic recovery

Even Business Week understands that widening inequality makes genuine economic recovery even harder, as David Lynch writes (link here):

The public discussion about the widening gap between rich and poor hasn’t been this loud since the Great Depression. . . . What many are missing is the actual impact rising inequality is having on the U.S. economy. Hint: It isn’t good.

. . . Thus the growing chasm in the U.S. between the haves and the have-nots has serious consequences. Societies that manage a narrower gap between rich and poor enjoy longer economic expansions, according to research published this year by the International Monetary Fund.

. . . Expansions fizzle sooner in less equal societies because they are more vulnerable to both financial crises and political instability.

Discrediting the messengers

Occupy Wall Street has spawned a nationwide (nay, worldwide) movement protesting this massive inequality. Thus, it’s no wonder that efforts are underway to discredit the movement. For example, Jonathan Larsen and Ken Olshansky report for MSNBC (link here) on a major lobbying firm that wants to take on the Occupiers, but only if the price is right:

A well-known Washington lobbying firm with links to the financial industry has proposed an $850,000 plan to take on Occupy Wall Street and politicians who might express sympathy for the protests, according to a memo obtained by the MSNBC program “Up w/ Chris Hayes.”

The proposal was written on the letterhead of the lobbying firm Clark Lytle Geduldig & Cranford and addressed to one of CLGC’s clients, the American Bankers Association.

CLGC’s memo proposes that the ABA pay CLGC $850,000 to conduct “opposition research” on Occupy Wall Street in order to construct “negative narratives” about the protests and allied politicians.

Stay alert

These are defining dynamics of our age. When will we get it, and when we will do something about it?

Penn State’s football program and university leadership: Signs of ethical collapse?

It’s a hard story to miss, but if somehow you did: A grand jury has charged Pennsylvania State University assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky with 40 counts of sexual assault against minors — in essence, alleging that he used the prominence of the football program and his non-profit organization to lure young boys into situations where he could abuse them.

Leading Penn State administrators and coaches — including now dismissed head coach and football legend Joe Paterno — are alleged to have played various roles in seeing that these abuses would not be brought to the attention of law enforcement authorities.

Obviously this is a story that will continue to attract abundant news coverage for months and years to come. (For representative coverage and commentary, see the current issue of Sports Illustrated, here.) However, we know enough to examine this from a standpoint of organizational ethics and integrity:

Signs of ethical collapse

In The Seven Signs of Ethical Collapse: How to Spot Moral Meltdowns in Companies…Before It’s Too Late (2006), business ethics & law professor Marianne Jennings identifies a cluster of factors indicative of an ethical meltdown:

  • Pressure to maintain numbers
  • Fear and silence
  • Larger than life CEO
  • Weak board of directors
  • Conflicts of interest
  • Innovation trumping any other priority, such as ethics
  • Belief that goodness in some areas atones for wrongdoing in others

How does Penn State stack up against these indicators?

At least four of these factors appear to be implicated:

“Pressure to maintain numbers” translates into football-ese as pressure to turn out nationally ranked teams year after year. On-the-field success in big-time college sports is a money maker for universities and a huge boon to their admissions offices.

We don’t know how much fear played into the alleged cover-up, but we sure know about the silence. As the facts unfold, it is clear that a number of people in significant leadership positions could’ve acted more decisively, but chose not to do so.

The firing of a “larger-than-life” coach in Joe Paterno certainly accounts for student riots at State College in the immediate aftermath of the decision, as well as the thousands of fans at the team’s last home game who brought signs in support of their ousted hero.

Some of these fans apparently believe that the success and fame of their football team on the field atone for the unfolding scandal of alleged child sex abuse and subsequent cover-ups. One also has to wonder if complicit university officials felt the same way.

The Penn State football website

Meanwhile, it’s all about the game on the Penn State official football website. When I looked at the front page earlier this week, I saw a cryptic reference to an “emotional week” and a preview of a touted matchup against Big Ten rival Ohio State.

The list of press releases was completely sanitized; you’ll find no mention of Paterno’s firing (much less the reason), just an announcement of a new head coach.

So, in Penn State’s corner of football cyberspace, it’s business as usual. A scandal involving cover-ups of alleged child sexual abuse can’t even be acknowledged. After all, the game must go on.

The experience of being bullied at work: Insights and silos

It’s a truism, but an accurate one: Experience is a powerful teacher when it comes to understanding workplace bullying. The line between those who “get it” and those who don’t often is drawn between individuals who have personally experienced this form of abuse or watched someone close to them endure it, versus those who claim to have never encountered bullying at work as a target or bystander.

For the former group, those experiences and observations form the primary lenses — intellectual and emotional — through which we understand this topic and screen additional messages related to it.

However, we also must recognize how our own experiences and observations can serve as silos, blocking us from viewing and incorporating into our understanding new information and insights about behaviors that are endlessly complex.

Some long-time readers and frequent commenters to this blog may be wondering, is he talking about me? The answer is no, it’s not about you (really!) — at least not individually. If anything, it’s more of a personal “memo to self”!

But seriously, this point applies to all of us who have drawn valuable insights about workplace bullying from direct or close secondary exposure. The lessons of our own lives must combine with the stories of others, academic research, and informed commentary to form our deepest possible understanding of workplace bullying, what it does to people and organizations, and what we can do about it.

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