Workplace wellness and workplace bullying

When you hear the term “employee wellness,” do you also think about “workplace bullying”?

That question has been buzzing through my head since yesterday, when it was my pleasure to speak at a program on creating healthy workplaces, sponsored by the New England Work & Family Association (NEWFA) — a group of human resources and wellness program professionals committed to supporting work-life balance — and hosted by the Boston College Center for Work and Family.

A tale of two halves

The first half of the program was an interesting panel discussion about workplace wellness programs, featuring presentations by NEWFA members who have developed and managed wellness programs. We heard about a variety of useful, pro-active initiatives, including health education and coaching (e.g., nutrition, exercise, smoking cessation), stress reduction, and mindfulness training.

The second half of the program was my presentation about workplace bullying and the challenges facing HR. Although I framed my remarks within the context of promoting healthy workplaces, it was clear that my piece was about the “dark” side of work. How else to describe a phenomenon that reduces productivity and morale and triggers a long list of negative health outcomes?

Will the twain meet?

Both pieces of the program related to the same general topic, namely, the creation and sustenance of healthy workplaces that embrace both productivity and employee well-being.  However, I couldn’t help but notice how the room tensed up as my talk explored the details about workplace bullying.

As I told the group, workplace bullying is a very threatening topic to many organizations, especially when the behavior is frequent and comes from a top-down direction. After all, boss-to-subordinate bullying is the most common combination, at least in the U.S. Furthermore, bullying and mobbing behaviors tend to be fueled by organizational cultures that enable or even encourage them. In short, bullying at work often points to responsibility at the top.

Contrasts in dealing with senior management

Perhaps this explains a fundamental difference in how and why senior management is consulted by HR.

Speakers on the panel about employee wellness explained that they often didn’t have to go to top management for specific approval about every new initiative they developed. In some cases, they simply went ahead with a program that eventually would become a regular offering, with no apparent pushback from the corner office.

When I talked about incorporating workplace bullying prevention and response into HR practices and training, however, I saw knowing nods in response to my advice to assess management tolerance for such initiatives and to consult legal counsel on liability exposure.

An integrated perspective

Perhaps I’m making excuses for the pizza I enjoyed the other night, but I don’t think we can de-couple bad habits such as unhealthy eating and smoking from undue stress at work. Indeed, it strikes me as ironic that we can talk more openly about wellness programs designed to reduce stress and improve health habits, while sometimes sweeping under the rug work-related conditions — such as bullying — that create a need for them.

In short, the quest for healthy workplaces cannot ignore fundamental conditions of work. It’s why I am thankful that NEWFA and Boston College created a program that allowed us to consider the workplace in a more balanced light.

16 responses

  1. David
    That is great work!! i think at least from my experience one of the major reasons HR struggles with getting anywhere with executives when it comes to bullying issues is that they are told to hush up, i know this first hand, i saw it happen at my job. Bullies like the one that tortured me, do not want to lose their percieved power, they live for it and it is a major source of their fuel. I know i have said this before, but i cannot say it enough, when workplaces get back to nurturing healthy work habits, encouraging growth in their employees, apppreciating their employees strengths, helping them with their weaknesses, help them learn and grow, stop bullying and psychologically imprisoning them, create a work environment where employees want to come to work and are excited about it, compensating employees for good work and long hours, etc. America will thrive in many ways, healthcare will see a huge advantage and so will the American family. The American family suffers dearly when a Parent is being abused at work. It is not rocket science, i have asked my former employer many times, just tell me what you want done and i will do it, leave the useless mind games and politics out of the job, it is unproductive and a waste of time. Lets focus on the need of the job and why we are their. But bullies cannot do that because they thrive on power and they get it from torture, bullying, playing head games, setting people up for failure, over working, controlling,harrassing amongst other things. It is how they thrive, very unfortunate for the American employee or any employee for that matter in any part of the world. We need this law David, please keep up your tremendous effort and thank you again for all you do!!!!!

  2. People would be shocked to know that the ease of bullying and the level of manipulation of perception can create an employment situation where the rights of an employee to receive protection from the American Disability Act are minimized. People who are protected by this law and experience damage to their health from bullying, can be told that the damages to their health are not illegal because the motivation of bullying is not discrimination, it is personal. This means the employer can not be sued for damages, hostile work environment, and the person with all the increased damages to their health does not get any compensation for all their expenses and hardship. Many government employers are exempt from being sued for punitive damages as well. The employee is quite advantaged and the compromised return to work employee can be very damaged in many ways with little legal recourse. The employer can transfer the employee and that is the limit to their obligation. Of course, the retaliation in the next section can continue, the employee gets more weakened by minimal accommodations, and this in turn sets up accusations of limited character and not meeting productivity standards. Senior Managers need to know about the signs of bullying and health damages, economic costs, and provide ethical oversight to this group of vulnerable employees. Informed, committed leadership is a simple solution and needed to intervene in the prolonged hardship.

  3. I’m sure that we are aware that there are also some good organisations, managers, leaders etc, however I should start by saying that I agree 100% with the article and Mel’s comments.

    Obviously for the purpose of preventing workplace bullying it’s only natural to concentrate on what’s wrong rather than those who are happy to embrace workplace wellness, although in my experience you will still find bad practices within good organisations.

    Apart from not wanting to tar everyone with the same brush, although I am in agreement with you, my point is that due to the culture, developed or nurtured, within a company some managers and individuals aren’t even aware that they are bullying, the same as some people don’t realise that they are being bullied.

    Any programme would hopefully include this as a consideration when expecting compliance from groups who are unaware of their own actions. This of course, is an opinion, but I have had success in developing individuals on the affect of their actions.

  4. I am currently being targeted by a manager who clearly wants me out. I am a 57 year old female, and the manager is a 43 year old female. She seems to resent my 16 years of service and knowledge of the dept.

    It has been going on for quite some time, almost the 2 years she has been the manager. Unless I am in a protected class, I have little or no recourse, and live in a At Will Employment State. I am currently on FMLA due to depression and anxiety from trying to cope with this issue. She has ‘papered’ my file more in the last 2 years with write ups with petty little technicalities when I had zero issues the prior 14 years. She does not treat the others in my area with the same scrutiny. In fact a co-worker has said she is clearly out to get me.

    I have tried to go through the channels to complain, but it is no use. Her direct supervisor and he is behind her 100%, with an escalation of commitment at every turn. The HR department is clearly intimidated by management, and that is no longer a viable option. I hope your good work will be recognized here in Arizona, and future employees will have some relief.

  5. Dr. Yamada, kudos to you for speaking up!

    It is ironic that workplaces are concerned about diet and exercise and smoking-cessation programs while ignoring bullying behavior.

    So few people have courage. Thank you for being one of the few.

    • Been There, thank you, but you are being too kind…really! I have the benefit of being a tenured professor. With that privilege comes academic freedom, which (at least ideally) safeguards my employment status.

      I don’t take that protection for granted, as tenured profs have been bullied/mobbed out of their jobs, but it does give me more leeway to express my opinion than folks who can be fired at the whim of a manager.


      • Still, how many tenured professors prepare the draft language for a healthy workplace bill and broach the subject of bullying in a room full of people who would probably feel safer discussing healthy food choices (while craving pizza)?

        It takes guts to talk about the “dark” side. Maybe you get sick of the topic and maybe you don’t, but your dedication to the cause is laudable!

        I’m saying this for my sake – it makes me feel better to give something back to you.

        Thank you!

  6. Workplace wellness initiatives tend to focus on stress management within the workers’ control, whereas wellness initiatives within the employers’ control (like effective management of workplace bullying) are less likely to garner support from managenment. We are all aware that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, but it’s so much easier to place the burden on the victim of workplace stress…

  7. Kachina
    The reaosn employers like to place the burden on the employee is because often times it is upper management that is the bully and the way bullies work is by thriving on power, they do not want to lose that power and control and many times they emotionally cannot, because as part of their own illness that makes them bully, they need it to survive.

    • Too true. So the result is to treat the symptoms and ignore the cause of the symptoms. Not an effective strategy in the longer term. Have another valium and go back for more abuse…at least you’ll feel better about it.

      I must remember to curb my sarcasm…

      • Kachina
        While i understand your sarcasm and hidden humor, i would certainly never reccomend that anyone return to a bully situation. treatment is good if it helps and of course the long term solution is to get a law that will one day stop bullying in the workplace!! I understand where you are coming from, right now labor laws are thinking along the lines of take another valium and go back for more, learn to live with it, unfortunatley no amount of valium will prevent further longterm damage!! In fact from where i stand on the issue and from my own experience and from what i have been told by the experts, once bullied severely one may never return to an occupation with the same mind set and same outlook as we once had before we were put in that horrific position. There will always be longterm damage of some sort. However that does not neccesarily mean one may not be able to lead a productive life occupationally, it might mean we lead one differently than before, although some of us may not ever return to the same type of work or full time. It is a very sad and unfortunate result of longterm trauma and once lawmakers realize this and see that it is the truth, a law will eventually get passed.

      • Mel-

        I completely agree with you. That’s also why I exhausted all the stress-management control-at-the-worker options before I resigned from my toxic stress inducing workplace when my employer refused to do anything within their control to decrease the stresses I was experiencing. There were a myriad of possibilities, but since I was “managing” so well on my own end, I was not sick enough to qualify for medical accommodation or further stress leave. I knew that the resources available to me to manage the stresses were being depleted, and once I confirmed that the employer would NOT do anything to reduce the stresses I was routinely exposed to, I resigned. As a result, I was not eligible for unemployment benefits.

        From my perspective, it was a clear case of “your money or your life”. I committed financial suicide to preserve and extend my life and health. I am at a loss to explain events from the employers perspective…I worked in a field where recruitment and retention is a chronic problem, so it’s not even like there is an endless supply of workhorses they could work to death on the way to the glue factory!

        I believe that common sense and humanity will eventually win, but was not prepared to risk my life on it waiting i a toxic environment. I did the same thing many abuse victims of domestic violence do….I fled with whatever I could grab on the way out the door and no viable long term plan. It certainly is a different life…but at least I still have one.

      • Kachina
        I am so sorry for what you have gone through and are going through as a result of your former workplace experience. One of the things i have found in the last 16 months is that many or most people do not understand what we are going through except people like David Yamada or people on this site etc. that have good knowledge of what the effects are. That is why i am supporting every effort to get a law passed in NYS. It is not unlike bullying in school. How many kids have we heard about recently that have killed themselves due to being bullied. Bullying is painful, it is a form of trauma and repeadedly it changes who we are, that can be severely difficult for some people to handle. This world is hard enough to live in and to be successful in without our peers adding more stress and putting more obstacles in our way.For many it can become hopeless in their eyes. You will survive this and already have, unfortunatley employers at this point are not held responsible for punitive damages, they should be, because most people like you and I will need help getting back to a normal life, and it is costly!!! Shame on any and every Employer that allows any form of Harrasment, bullying, or innapropriate behavior in the workplace, they will get theirs someday too!! Hang in there.

    • Addendum…I made a lot of noise on the way out , and continue to lobby for changes. There HAS been a law passed in my jurisdiction since I left, and I like to think I played a part in that! It will happen for all of us as long as we keep the pressure on and refuse to be silenced.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: