“Can we help you with the problems we caused?” The ironies of employee assistance and wellness initiatives

Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) and employee wellness programs are among the features of many contemporary workplaces, especially larger organizations that are in a position to devote time and money to extended human resources operations. They can serve useful roles in creating healthier, more productive workplaces and in helping workers with personal problems and challenges. Many are staffed by dedicated, trained EAP and wellness practitioners.

In less-than-wonderful workplaces, however, EAPs and wellness initiatives can play an ironic role: They exist in part to deal with the dysfunctional and unhealthy aspects of the organization itself.

Briefly explained…

EAPs are designed to help workers deal with personal problems that may impact their job performance and health. They may include providing advice and consultation, short-term counseling, and referrals to other care providers.

Common employee wellness initiatives may include anti-smoking counseling, exercise classes, weight control assistance, and mindfulness programs.

But what if…

So here’s the rub: What if the problems and challenges that lead workers to contact an EAP or partake in a wellness program are triggered by work-related stress or even mistreatment?

I’m not talking about the everyday stress that is part of many jobs. Rather, I’m referring to acute situations that can be attributed, at least in significant part, to bad management, interpersonal abuse (such as sexual harassment or workplace bullying), and unhealthy organizational cultures.

For example, what if a worker is contacting the EAP because she’s being sexually harassed by her boss? What if a worker enrolls in a smoking cessation program because undue stress created by a dysfunctional work situation has fueled a nicotine habit?

“It’s all about you”

These scenarios highlight the limits of EAPs and wellness programs: The focus is typically on the individual. However well meaning and helpful at times, they often are constrained in addressing systemic problems that may prompt someone to seek help.

To draw on the examples above: What will an EAP director do if an alleged serial sexual harasser is the same person who hired her? If participants in a smoking cessation program repeatedly complain about work-related stress, will the program coordinator be able to raise concerns about an unhealthy organizational culture?

I’m not suggesting that we get rid of EAPs and wellness programs because of these inherent limitations; quite the contrary. However, I am very curious to know how many dysfunctional, unhealthy organizations look like pure gold on paper because they offer these useful benefits, without addressing some of the internal, core reasons for why their workers access them.

Triple jeopardy: Workplace bullying at midlife

(Drawing copyright Aaron Maeda)

Midlife correlates with an increased risk of being bullied at work, suggest the results of a Workplace Bullying Institute instant poll released earlier this month.

The instant poll asked visitors to the WBI website who have experienced workplace bullying to respond to a single question, “How old were you when the bullying at work began?” WBI collected 663 responses and reported the following:

The average age was 41.9 years. Targets in their 40’s comprised 30% of all targets; in their 50’s were 26.4%; under 30 years of age were 21.3%; those in their 30’s were 18.9%. The prime productive years are also the prime years for being [targeted] for bullying.

Dr. Gary Namie explained the rationale for conducting the instant poll:

For the 16 years of WBI operations, we have noticed that telephone callers seeking help with their workplace bullying problems are rarely young. They tend to be veteran workers with long careers. For a variety of reasons documented by other WBI studies older workers make ideal vulnerable targets. An earlier WBI study found the average age to be 41.

Triple jeopardy: Bullied and job seeking

It telling that so much of WBI’s contact base and website traffic comes from older workers who have taken the time to research and learn about what is happening to them. The implications of the bullying/middle age correlation are significant and daunting.

We have long known that job loss is the most common result of unresolved workplace bullying situations. The target either “chooses” to leave in order to avoid further abuse or is pushed out as the final step of a long course of mistreatment.

In addition, in this era of the Great Recession, older workers who lose their jobs face significant challenges obtaining comparable employment. Statistical data and anecdotal accounts relating to unemployment at middle age refute any assertion of a genuine economic “recovery.”

It follows that middle-aged bullying targets who lose their jobs often face a triple whammy:

First, even after leaving their jobs, many must confront the mental and physical health impacts of being treated abusively.

Second, they re-enter a job market increasingly hostile to older workers, while carrying the baggage of that terrible experience.

Third, these challenges often have a significant impact on their personal finances, requiring them to draw heavily upon savings and retirement accounts to stay afloat.

A good number of faithful readers of this blog fall into this general description. Their accounts pepper the comments to many posts.

Although “middle aged” is a term that few in their 40s and 50s are eager to embrace, this phase of life typically is marked by high levels of personal and occupational achievement and productivity. The specter of workplace bullying during the ongoing economic crisis, however, tells a very different story.


You can read the full WBI instant poll report by Gary Namie here.

Related posts

Not “Set for Life”: Boomers face layoffs, discrimination, and bullying at work (2012)

Singled out? Workplace bullying, economic insecurity, and the unmarried woman (2010)

Working Notes: Co-workers as government spies (heh), legality of employer surveillance tactics, and password protection advice

There’s a spy/surveillance/privacy theme running through these offerings:

WSJ Marketwatch on workers as government spies (just kidding)

In a delightfully tongue-in-cheek piece for the Wall Street Journal‘s MarketWatch column, Brett Arends quotes from disruptive tactics specified in a World War II-era U.S. intelligence manual for agents to identify 10 signs that your co-worker may be a government spy, with a mission to destroy productivity. For example:

  • “They love committee meetings.”
  • “They nitpick.”
  • “They delay everything with endless worries.”
  • “Mismanage.”

For each of the 10 signs, Arends quotes directly from the intelligence manual! It’s hilarious stuff, and the quotes really nail it. Hence Arends’s serious point: There is no justification for the maddening, crazy-making behaviors that undermine morale and productivity at work.

Workplace Fairness on surveillance at work

Recently Workplace Fairness updated its Q&A page on the legality of various potential surveillance practices at work, including monitoring of phone calls and e-mails and on-site videotaping. Here are some of the questions addressed:

  • “Can my employer videotape me?”
  • “Can my employer monitor my telephone calls?”
  • “Can my employer monitor my computer and e-mail activities?”

There are 11 questions in all. To access the page, you may have to click a quick online legal disclaimer.

Next Avenue on password protection

Here’s one for the do as I say, not as I do department: Betsy Mikel, blogging for Next Avenue, provides a very useful, detailed advice column on creating and storing secure online passwords. Here’s a piece of it:

There are some guidelines for creating a strong password as well as ways to remember all your new (or old) passwords. Online passwords should:

    • Contain at least eight characters, preferably more.
    • Be composed of a combination of letters, numbers and symbols (like * or $ or #).
    • Include a combination of uppercase and lowercase letters.
    • Not be an actual word.
    • Not use your real name, username or personal information, like your birthday, license plate number or address.

Not too long ago, I wouldn’t have considered this a work-related concern. But even for online information sources related to my work, the number of password-protected sites has grown exponentially. I’m sure I’m not alone in this regard.

Workplace bullying: Addressing the annual conference of the Association of Labor Relations Agencies


Yesterday I had the privilege of presenting a speech on workplace bullying at the 62nd annual conference of the Association of Labor Relations Agencies in Washington, D.C. It was a wonderful opportunity to discuss this topic with some 200 of the most accomplished labor relations commissioners, attorneys, and officials in North America.

The ALRA describes itself as “an association of impartial government agencies in the United States and Canada responsible for administering labor-management relations laws or services.” It promotes interagency cooperation, “high professional standards,” “public interest in labor relations,” “improved employer-employee relationships,” and “peaceful resolution of employment and labor disputes.” The annual conference provides its members with continuing education on labor relations topics and opportunities to network and share information.

My remarks

I was part of “Advocates Day” (agenda here), a component of every ALRA conference that invites people outside of the organization to discuss developing labor relations issues. I started with a basic overview about workplace bullying and its effects on workers and organizations, went into a quick summary of U.S. and Canadian legal developments, and closed with a cluster of personal observations about workplace bullying.

The speech was very well received. Despite that my talk came at the end of a long day of distinguished panelists and speakers, the delegates were engaged and attentive, and our conversations spilled over to the reception that followed.

I was pleased about the response at another level, too: This is one more sign that workplace bullying is entering the mainstream of North American labor and employee relations. Ten years ago, this speaking invitation would not have transpired.

The conference

At a time when, at least in the U.S., the very concept of collective bargaining is being challenged by extremist forces, how refreshing it was to be part of a conference that embraces a commitment to healthy labor relations. Multiple speakers shared stories and perspectives about how management and labor can work together toward common interests and attempt to resolve differences in peaceful ways.

In my judgment, the Canadian perspective cannot be overlooked, and it’s good for we Americans to be exposed to it. My Canadian colleagues will be quick to admit that labor relations up north fall short of utopia, but they do manage to practice their craft with fewer sharp elbows than in the U.S.

Many thanks

I’d like to give a special shout out to the Program Committee, with affiliations noted to show the breadth of agencies that are part of the ALRA: Co-Chairs Scott Blake (Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, U.S.) and Jennifer Webster (Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, Canada), and members Ernie DuBester (Federal Labor Relations Authority), Gary Shinners (National Labor Relations Board), Pat Sims (National Mediation Board), Catherine Gilbert (Ontario Labor Relations Board), Jennifer Abruzzo (National Labor Relations Board) and Danielle Carne (Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission).

I had not traveled within the circles of the ALRA before this. Thus, it was a leap of faith for them to give me a generous one-hour time slot. (Put it this way: If your sole speaker for a featured, 60-minute slot is a dud, you’ll be hearing about it!) This enabled me to give a talk with real substance, while leaving time for a lively Q&A segment. It was an honor to be a part of the day.

Nurses and workplace bullying

If asked to identify an occupational group that has been pro-active in addressing workplace bullying and related behaviors, nurses would quickly come to mind.

Over the years I’ve had many interactions with nurses of different certification levels and with organizations that represent their interests, ranging from participation in workshops and conferences to individual exchanges. Here in Massachusetts, for example, I’ve spoken at programs on bullying at work sponsored by the Massachusetts Nurses Association and the Massachusetts Association of Registered Nurses, and the latter has endorsed the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill.

Uniquely situated

Nurses are uniquely situated to address workplace bullying for several reasons:

First, bullying is common in the healthcare workplace, and nurses are on the receiving end of it from doctors and other nurses. This is no small matter to them.

Second, nurses are at the heart of healthcare workplaces. They see a lot and they know a lot, and they are in a position to understand how organizational dots connect.

Third, many nurses are unionized. This provides them with a structure for raising concerns about mistreatment at work through advocacy, member education, and collective bargaining.

Finally, nurses are part of a professional structure that includes health care associations and colleges of nursing. These entities can play a key role in education, prevention, and response.

Lots of blog posts!

I’ve written many posts about nurses, workplace bullying, and related topics on this blog. Here is a good sampling:

Nurse can proceed with age discrimination claim against employer seeking “rising stars,” federal court holds (2013)

Why we need psychologically healthy workplaces in the healthcare sector (2012)

U of Cincinnati conference examines workplace violence, bullying, and incivility in healthcare (2012)

Cheryl Dellasega’s When Nurses Hurt Nurses (2011)

Nurse writes about bullying by doctors, other doctors respond (2011)

Nursing as a Calling: Aspirations and Realities (2010)

Workplace bullying in healthcare IV: Nurses bullied and responding (2009)

Organizational insularity is politically color-blind

Tunnel vision. Circling the wagons. Willful ignorance. The terms have different meanings, but they represent prongs of a core problem: Organizational insularity.

On Sunday, Robert Reich — former U.S. Secretary of Labor and now a professor (UC-Berkeley) and public affairs commentator — posted this on his Facebook page:

I’m a fan of the President’s, but I worry about the insularity and distrust of outsiders that seems to pervade the White House — not unlike the insularity and paranoia that gripped the Nixon White House. The Obama administration’s obsession with leaks has led to more than twice as many prosecutions as there were in all previous administrations combined. Its relentlessness has extended to demanding that reporters provide the names of their sources, wiretapping, and aggressively pursuing all leakers. And like Nixon, Obama relies on a close-knit group of advisers; most of his Cabinet is invisible, and there’s little or no access by or outreach to others. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting Obama shares Nixon’s beliefs or personality failings. But the parallels are striking, and they frankly worry me. A democracy requires a vigilant press, an informed public, and a president who continually reaches outward for new perspectives and constructive criticism.

I’m not quoting Reich to spur a dialogue on the current Administration. Rather, I think his words capture how organizational insularity and paranoia are not determined by political leanings. And ported over to workplaces generally, it’s why these qualities are present in the business, non-profit, and public sectors alike.

Of course, the opposite is when organizational leaders are so indecisive that they listen to everyone and go in multiple, sometimes inconsistent directions at once.

Both extremes are indicative of insecurity and a lack of direction.

Organizations and leaders should aim for that elusive sweet spot, balancing confidence in their agenda with inclusivity and a willingness to listen to critics. On some matters, you’ll know your stuff well enough to have a position, idea, or program that you’re committed to for the long haul, even in the face of contrary opinions. On other occasions, it may be helpful to cast a wider net. In any event, if you start pursuing your perceived critics and opponents obsessively, then it’s time to pull back and reset.

Inspiration in Amsterdam

Anne Frank House, Amsterdam

Anne Frank House, Amsterdam (photo: DY)

I just returned from the biennial Congress of the International Academy of Law and Mental Health in Amsterdam, Netherlands, where I found myself inspired and informed by a global assemblage of professors, lawyers, judges, mental health providers, graduate students, and others who are committed to using law and public policy to advance mental health.

I went to a lot of panels, as the conference was the focal point of trip. However, I did accompany one of my friends to the Anne Frank House, the one “must see” item on my list for this first-ever visit to Amsterdam.

The photo above doesn’t do the site justice. It is the interior, which has been recreated to show us how Anne and seven others lived in hiding for some two years, that is so compelling. I realize that I am among countless others to say it, but it was a very moving experience to stand in the same cramped spaces of the “Secret Annex” where they lived before they were discovered and arrested.

For me, the most chilling part of the tour was walking up the long, narrow stairwell to the Annex, located behind the moving bookcase that covered the entrance. It was the same walk their captors took to arrest them.

You can take your own virtual guided tour of the Annex here.

University of Amsterdam, Faculty of Law building

University of Amsterdam, Faculty of Law building (photo: DY)

As I’ve written before, my participation in this conference is tied to my affiliation with the therapeutic jurisprudence (TJ) movement, the school of legal thought that examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of our laws and legal systems. The conference included an ongoing series of 20 or so panels expressly related to TJ, stretching across the week.

In addition, the opening session — held at the University of Amsterdam’s law building shown above — had a special TJ connection. It featured the presentation of the Bruce Winick Award to Michael Perlin, by David Wexler.

These three individuals have played a critically important role in the development of therapeutic jurisprudence: Bruce Winick, who passed away in late 2010, taught at the University of Miami law school and co-founded the TJ movement with David Wexler, now at the University of Puerto Rico law school after many years at the University of Arizona. Awardee Michael Perlin, who teaches at the New York Law School in Manhattan, is among the world’s leading authorities on mental disability law.

One of Amsterdam's beautiful canals, early evening

One of Amsterdam’s beautiful canals, early Sunday evening (photo: DY)

Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t include at least one photo capturing the beauty of Amsterdam. I opted for a quieter Sunday evening view of one of the canals, a contrast to the younger, louder, anything goes atmosphere that pervades this part of the city. I’m not much of a party animal — I joked to my friends that the free wheeling recreational choices of Amsterdam were wasted on me! — but being in a historic, old world city does allow for some reflective moments. That certainly was the case here, buoyed by the ideas sparked at the conference.


Previous posts referencing this conference:

The ongoing disconnect: Employment law and worker well-being

The social responsibilities of intellectuals at a time of extraordinary human need

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