Morning coffee thoughts

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Periodically I like to justify my coffee habit by writing about the vital brew, and this Monday morning seems as good a time as any to share some musings.

It made Civil War soldiers more alert and ready

In the splendid Soldiers Blue & Gray (1988), historian James I. Robertson quotes Union surgeon A.C. Swartwelder on the benefits of coffee:

“I am thoroughly convinced that a pint of good coffee is a better beverage for the soldier than all the rye, bourbon, brandy…or any alcoholic nostrum that ever flowed from a worm…. It has no equal as a preparation for a hard day’s march, nor any rival as a restorative after one.”

However, observes Robertson, Southern troops rarely had adequate supplies of coffee, thanks to the effectiveness of a Union blockade. All too often they had to make do with ersatz coffee “brewed from peanuts, potatoes, peas, corn, and rye.” Yikers.

The Union, of course, won the Civil War. Just sayin’.

But can it kill you?

Michael Kelley reports for Business Insider on a Mayo Clinic study that found drinking more than four cups a day may be hazardous to your (er, my) health:

People under 55 who drink an average of more than than four cups of coffee a day raise the risk of dying from all causes, according to a study published in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings.

Researchers led by Steven Blair at the University of South Carolina found that people aged under 55 who drank more than 28 cups a week saw a 56% increase in death from all causes.

However, the authors of the study acknowledge they don’t know why this is so, noting that risk factors associated with heavy coffee consumption, such as cigarette and alcohol use, poor diet, and less sleep, may be at play. (Or being a Civil War soldier. See above.)

Personally, I prefer this study

Alexander Abad-Santos, blogging for The Atlantic, responds to news of the Mayo study by citing last year’s National Institutes of Health findings:

It was just last year that the National Institutes of Health told us that coffee was a life-extender. The Atlantic‘s Brian Fung (now at WaPo) explained that the doctors and researchers at the NIH found (what appears to be) conflicting information:

According to research published today in the New England Journal of Medicine, people who drank four or five cups of coffee a day tended to live longer than those who drank only a cup or less. The benefit was more pronounced for women, but men also stand to gain somewhat from pounding joe.

Coffee-drinking men cut their risk for death by 12 percent after four to five cups of java, according to the study, which was led by the National Institutes of Health’s Neal Freedman. Women who drank the same amount had their the risk of death reduced by 16 percent.

The sounds of coffee

You know the whole deal about writers and coffee houses? Well, it may involve more than just a desire to channel one’s inner Hemingway…

Consider Coffitivity, a neat little site where you can play and download the sounds of a coffee house. The rationale? The Coffitivity folks link to research indicating that an ideal level of ambient noise can actually enable, rather than detract from, our productivity. They say that “the mix of calm and commotion in an environment like a coffee house is proven to be just what you need to get those creative juices flowing.”

I was alerted to Coffitivity by industrial/organizational psychology professor Kathleen Rospenda (Illinois-Chicago), who responded to my recent Facebook post pondering why noises in libraries distract me, while noises in cafes help me stay on task. I don’t know if Kathy discovered the site as part of her scholarly research agenda, but citing her credentials gives this blog piece more street cred.

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Related posts

Happy Monday: Top 10 coffee drinking occupations (2012)

Coffee and work (2011)

Notes on the workplace anti-bullying movement

(image courtesy of clipart barn.com)

If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, then you’ve figured out that workplace bullying and related issues of human dignity at work have become focal points of my career. During the past 15 years, I have witnessed, and closely participated in, the forging of a grassroots U.S. workplace anti-bullying movement. I’ve also become part of a global network of educators, researchers, and practitioners who are responding to workplace bullying and mobbing through research, public education, advocacy, and applied best practices.

These experiences have been defining ones, personally and professionally. They have also taught me a lot about the challenges of organizing a movement and building public support for it. I’d like to step back for a brief moment to share some of those insights and observations, centering on the types of people who have been drawn to be a part of this. Concededly, these are fairly broad generalizations, and I apologize in advance to anyone who believes I’m overstating my points. But here goes:

Maturity

The workplace anti-bullying movement is mature in its composition. It is comprised disproportionately of individuals who have been around the block, mostly in their 30s and beyond, extending through traditional retirement years. Almost all have experienced, witnessed, or otherwise dealt with workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse, and as a result they tend to possess an instinctive level of understanding about the workplace and forms of mistreatment within it.

However, they often lack some of the youthful energies of, say, a group of twentysomethings who are ready to take the world by storm. Life gets busy and more complicated. Folks who are busy with work, families, and other obligations are less likely to be running up the steps of a state capitol building or picketing a bad employer on a regular basis.

Bruises and (sometimes) scars

As I and others have written over and again, severe, sustained workplace abuse can be destructive to personal health, livelihoods, and social relationships. The psychological injuries that sometimes result, such as depression and PTSD, are very real. The damage can spill into one’s home life, and adversely affect the well-being of family and friends.

For some bullying targets, getting involved in anti-bullying advocacy and public education work can be empowering. For others, it hits too close to home; the personal baggage is too raw. There is no reason for anyone in this position to apologize for that. The important thing is for each person to make self-care their highest priority.

Politically (somewhat) varied

On the political spectrum, it appears that the bulk of anti-bullying activists range from the center to the left. But there are plenty who regard themselves as conservatives or libertarians, and many others who do not identify with political labels. The diversity of political views and perspectives makes this, very honestly, a cross-partisan movement.

Many associated with this movement have learned the skills of public education and advocacy by trial and error. A good number of effective advocates had never considered themselves “activist types” before joining this movement.

When it comes to organizational support for the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB), we see clearer political lines being drawn. Labor unions, worker advocacy groups, and civil rights organizations constitute the overwhelming share of institutional endorsers of the HWB. Management-side trade associations tied to business and conservative interests are most likely to oppose it, sometimes vigorously.

Grassroots orientation

The movement has a grounded, grassroots quality to it. It is not heavily populated by financial, political, or academic elites.

Even the leading North American educational and advocacy organization, the Workplace Bullying Institute, is a small operation led by a handful of core individuals. This is in stark contrast to other causes supported by large, well-funded centers and think tanks.

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, it is telling that much of the academic research concerning workplace bullying is produced by professors at regional and state colleges and universities, not the Ivy League or its equivalents. Many of these professors have had a fair amount of work experience before becoming full-time academics, and they are producing relevant, accessible research and scholarship. Practitioners in fields such as psychology, business management, and labor relations have brought their practical experience to the table in adding important findings and commentary to our understanding of these workplace dynamics and their effects on individuals.

I say with all fondness that we make for a ragtag bunch! It means, however, that the doors to boardrooms, executive suites, and halls of government do not automatically open for us. Nudging or pushing them open remains the ongoing challenge for this mature, bruised, cross-partisan, and grassroots movement.

Fifteen years ago, a form of workplace mistreatment that affected so many didn’t even have a label, at least here in the U.S. We’ve made a lot of progress since then. Stay tuned, there’s a lot more to come.

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This post was slightly revised in January 2018.

What higher education’s obsession with technology often overlooks

Perhaps it’s the unseasonably cool weather we’re having here in Boston, but I’m already looking ahead to the start of the new school year. On my radar screen today was the topic of technology in higher education.

Given the skyrocketing costs of higher education and the potential use of the Internet and our electronic gadgetry to deliver courses in flexible, less expensive formats, it’s not surprising that technology remains all the rage in colleges and universities. At institutions emphasizing online learning, of course, this is de rigueur. But even traditional, brick & mortar universities often deluge their faculty with messages promoting the use of technology in instruction, and distance learning is being pushed like never before.

While I believe that affordable, high quality, face-to-face learning remains the ideal, I support flexible and distance learning options as useful alternatives, especially for adults who are busy with jobs and families. In fact, I have benefited personally from excellent distance learning programs completed as an adult student.

What’s missing

Nevertheless, higher ed’s infatuation with technology often neglects the interpersonal role of the educational process. On this note, let me once again invoke one of my favorite books about education, Parker J. Palmer’s The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life (10th ann. ed., 2007). Parker offers this short statement of purpose in his first chapter:

This book builds on a simple premise: good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher.

The rest of the book espouses that philosophy, while recognizing that contemporary education at all levels resists it. Palmer takes on a culture of teaching “that fears the personal and seeks safety in the technical, the distant, the abstract.”

The heart of higher learning

Whether it’s a traditional classroom offering, a small seminar, an online course, a skills workshop, or an independent study project, the personal qualities of the instructor usually account for the difference between a poor or mediocre course and a good or even excellent one.  They go well beyond mere techniques, which can be more or less learned. Rather, they bring into play, as Palmer notes, the teacher’s identity and integrity. If we want to create valuable, memorable learning experiences for our students, we would do well to pay greater attention to this aspect of the educational enterprise.

Workplace bullying targets winning unemployment benefits appeals in New York State

Thanks to a developing line of administrative appeal decisions, workers in New York State who resign their jobs due to bullying and employer abuse could still retain eligibility for unemployment benefits.

Under New York State labor law, workers who voluntarily resign without good cause are presumptively ineligible to receive unemployment benefits. Most other states follow a similar rule. Of course, this frequently leaves targets of workplace bullying in a bind when it comes to qualifying for unemployment benefits. All too often, quitting is the only way to escape the abuse.

That’s why I was so pleased to hear from James Williams, an attorney with Legal Services of Central New York, who sent news of a recent decision in a case he argued before the New York Unemployment Insurance Appeal Board.

Case Details

The claimant appealed a denial of unemployment benefits holding that he voluntarily resigned his job with a local government entity, without good cause. The Administrative Law Judge overruled the denial of benefits, rendering these findings and a decision:

The undisputed credible evidence establishes that the claimant left employment voluntarily . . . after being notified . . . that he was on probation, because he felt bullied, harassed and set up by his supervisor. I credit the claimant’s credible sworn testimony that his supervisor’s repeated criticism and scolding of him in a raised voice made him feel bullied and harassed, especially in the presence of other employees. I further credit the claimant’s credible sworn testimony that the supervisor’s actions including pointing and reprimanding him, consisted of the word “stupid”, and other language which embarrassed the claimant and that the claimant believed he was being ridiculed by the supervisor. An employee is not obligated to subject himself to such behavior. Given that the claimant had complained to the employer about the supervisor’s behavior just two months earlier, and that the supervisor’s mistreatment not only continued, but escalated, I conclude that the claimant had good cause within the meaning of the unemployment insurance Law to quit when he did. Additionally, while disagreeing with a reprimand or criticism about work performance may not always constitute good cause to quit, receiving reprimands in the presence of one’s co-workers may be. . . . Under the circumstances herein, the supervisor’s treatment of the claimant exceeded the bounds of propriety, with the result that the claimant had good cause to quit. His unemployment ended under nondisqualifying conditions.

Other Decisions

Attorney Williams relied upon previous decisions by the full Appeal Board holding that disrespectful and bullying-type behaviors that exceed the bounds of propriety (that appears to be the key phrase) may constitute good cause to voluntarily leave a job and thus not disqualify someone from receiving unemployment benefits. They may be accessed at the Unemployment Insurance Appeal Board website:

Jim added in an e-mail that potential New York claimants who may fit this scenario “are advised to take steps to try and save their jobs prior to quitting.  They will want to be able to show to the Department of Labor and to an ALJ that they took steps to try to change the situation – complaining to management, human resources, etc. – before quitting.”

Using These Decisions

The reasoning in these decisions is limited to unemployment benefits cases. Furthermore, the holdings of these cases are not binding upon unemployment benefits claims in other states. However, they can be brought to the attention of unemployment insurance agencies elsewhere as persuasive precedent.

In addition, this serves as an important lesson to those who may have been initially denied unemployment benefits after leaving a job due to bullying behaviors. It is not uncommon for initial denials to be reversed on appeal, and these cases provide genuine reason for optimism in situations involving abusive work environments.

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Many thanks to Jim Williams, a former colleague at the Labor Bureau of the New York State Attorney General’s Office many years ago, for litigating these unemployment insurance cases and for bringing them to my attention. It is inspiring to see a former colleague continuing to do work that makes a positive difference in the lives of others.

Working Notes: Workplace bullying by taser, interns & sexual harassment, and more

Hello, dear readers! Here are several items of possible interest:

Alternet on alleged workplace bullying by taser in Texas

A claim of workplace bullying by taser is a first in my recollection, but here goes. Rod Bastanmehr reports for Alternet on a Texas man who has filed a lawsuit claiming he was repeatedly abused at work:

Bradley Jones, a 45-year-old Texas man is suing Republican state lawmaker Patricia Harless and her husband over what he cites as months of attacks and abuse while working for them. The couple owns Fred Finger Motors, which Jones has worked at since 2009, and are now facing assault and battery charges, as well as failure to provide a safe workplace.

. . . Jones’s suit argues that Sam Harless provided other employees with a taser, and that Harless would often film them sneaking up and using it on him. The series of incidents lasted over a period of nine months, with many of the videos posted online (though they have since been taken down).

MainStreet on workplace bullying

Susan Kreimer serves up a terrific overview of workplace bullying for MainStreet. Gary Namie (Workplace Bullying Institute), Pam Lutgen-Sandvik (North Dakota St U), and I were interviewed for it. Here’s a piece of my advice for bullying targets:

Because bullying situations and work environments vary, so do the strategies for self-defense. Employees who feel targeted “should read up on workplace bullying, try to understand what’s happening to them, avoid making rash decisions or engaging in reckless responses that may backfire, and instead attempt to assess their options carefully after doing their homework,” Yamada says.

NPR on how power can short circuit empathy

Here’s a piece that’s relevant to bullying bosses and nasty CEOs. Chris Benderev reports for National Public Radio on a new study by Canadian researchers showing how power changes brain responses:

Even the smallest dose of power can change a person. You’ve probably seen it. Someone gets a promotion or a bit of fame and then, suddenly, they’re a little less friendly to the people beneath them.

So here’s a question that may seem too simple: Why?

…[I]f you ask Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada, he might give you another explanation: Power fundamentally changes how the brain operates.

Obhi and his colleagues, Jeremy Hogeveen and Michael Inzlicht, have a new study showing evidence to support that claim.

ProPublica on unpaid interns & sexual harassment protections

Blair Hickman and Christie Thompson write for ProPublica (here, via Salon magazine) on how unpaid interns are unprotected by federal discrimination and sexual harassment laws. They interviewed me for the piece:

In 1994, Bridget O’Connor began an internship at Rockland Psychiatric Center, where one of the doctors allegedly began to refer to her as Miss Sexual Harassment, told her that she should participate in an orgy, and suggested that she remove her clothing before meeting with him. Other women in the office made similar claims.

Yet when O’Connor filed a lawsuit, her sexual harassment claims were dismissed because she was an unpaid intern. A federal appeals court affirmed the decision to throw out the claim.

Unpaid interns miss out on wages and employment benefits, but they can also find themselves in “legal limbo” when it comes to civil rights, according to law professor and intern labor rights advocate David Yamada. The O’Connor decision (the leading ruling on the matter, according to Yamada) held that because they don’t get a paycheck, unpaid interns are not “employees” under the Civil Rights Act – and thus, they’re not protected.

So here’s the twist that I explain in greater detail in my 2002 law review article on the rights of interns: Employers who violate minimum wage laws by failing to compensate their interns can then turn around and claim insulation from  sexual harassment claims by saying that because the interns aren’t paid, they have no standing to sue under the federal employment discrimination laws!

TMZ Sports on an all-star lawsuit

TMZ Sports reports on a lawsuit brought against Major League Baseball for failure to pay some 2,000 people who :

Major League Baseball put roughly 2,000 people to work during  All-Star weekend in NYC last month and illegally paid them with giveaway items  like shirts and hats INSTEAD of cash, so says a new lawsuit.

. . . In the suit, John Chen says he worked  17 hours in 4 days at the All-Star Weekend festival — doing everything from  stamping wrists to stuffing flyers into bags and even filing paperwork … all  assignments that would otherwise have to be done by paid employees.

. . . Basically, Chen believes the concept of a  “volunteer” workforce violates federal and state labor laws — and the  “volunteers” should be paid at least minimum wage … which, in NY, is $7.25 per  hour.

This is a spin on the unpaid intern issue, but it carries slightly different implications. Surely Major League Baseball can afford to pay these people the minimum wage for their work on this lucrative, marquee event. In addition, it also says something troubling about the willingness of people to provide free labor to a wealthy, profit-making organization. Is it the appeal of basking in the reflected glow of athletic and celebrity glory?

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New essay

I recently posted a draft of a new essay, “If It Matters, Write About It: Using Legal Scholarship to Effect Social Change,” which will be published in a new student periodical at Suffolk University Law School to which I’m serving as faculty advisor. Here’s the abstract, and go here to download the essay:

Abstract: 
This essay centers on the concept of “intellectual activism,” discussing how legal scholarship can be used as the foundation for social change work. It recounts and reflects upon the author’s ongoing work in advancing issues such as workplace bullying and the rights of student interns. It concludes with advice on how to be effective in an intellectual activist mode. The essay will be published in the inaugural issue of Bearing Witness: A Journal of Law and Social Responsibility, a new student-run periodical at Suffolk University Law School.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 9

Slow blogging and slow media

Blogging first became popular roughly a decade ago as a way to share instantaneous news and commentary on breaking stories. It continues to serve that useful journalistic purpose, but it also has evolved into a medium for synthesizing information and for reflective commentary, analysis, and opinion. I believe that this latter mode describes how some readers use blogs in connection with their work, hobbies, and avocations. Blogging in this manner encourages more contemplative writing that will be relevant well beyond its initial posting date.

To characterize this use of the blogging format, I’d like to invoke two terms, slow blogging and slow media, that capture how we can use social media to temper the pace of our tech-fueled, hurry-up society.

Slow blogging

The philosophy and practice of slow blogging has been beautifully articulated in the Slow Blogging Manifesto by Todd Sieling. Here are a few snippets:

Slow Blogging is a rejection of immediacy. It is an affirmation that not all things worth reading are written quickly, and that many thoughts are best served after being fully baked and worded in an even temperament.

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Slow Blogging is a reversal of the disintegration into the one-liners and cutting turns of phrase that are often the early lives of our best ideas.

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Slow Blogging is a willingness to remain silent amid the daily outrages and ecstasies that fill nothing more than single moments in time, switching between banality, crushing heartbreak and end-of-the-world psychotic glee in the mere space between headlines.

Slow media

Slow blogging relates strongly to the concept of slow media that is circulating around the wired world. In the “Slow Media Manifesto,” co-authors Benedikt Köhler, Sabria David, and Jörg Blumtritt describe their philosophy this way:

The first decade of the 21st century, the so-called ‘naughties’, has brought profound changes to the technological foundations of the media landscape. The key buzzwords are networks, the Internet and social media. In the second decade, people will not search for new technologies allowing for even easier, faster and low-priced content production. Rather, appropriate reactions to this media revolution are to be developed and integrated politically, culturally and socially. The concept “Slow”, as in “Slow Food” and not as in “Slow Down”, is a key for this. Like “Slow Food”, Slow Media are not about fast consumption but about choosing the ingredients mindfully and preparing them in a concentrated manner. Slow Media are welcoming and hospitable. They like to share.

In other words, slow media emphasizes sustainability, quality, dialogue, and respect for its users. There’s a personal connection as well:

Slow Media ask for confidence and take their time to be credible. Behind Slow Media are real people. And you can feel that.

The heart quality of slow blogging

Informed by these thoughtful words, for me the concept of slow blogging means writing thoughtfully, reflectively, and connectively. It doesn’t dodge tough topics or avoid stating a strong opinion, but it attempts to steer clear of knee-jerk reactions and snarky provocation. It means writing posts that are relevant and interesting beyond the present. And it means interacting with your readers when time and opportunity permit. (This can be a challenge when work is piling up!) Although I sometimes fall short of following these precepts and practices, I regard them as worthy aspirations.

Blogging can be a modest, yet meaningful way of sharing information, ideas, and opinions for the longer term. If you’re a blogger, or if you’re thinking of starting a blog, then I hope this has inspired you to consider the deeper purposes of your writing in this form.

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Hat tip to writer and editor Jane Friedman, whose post introduced me to the slow media concept.

Want better productivity? Fewer, more focused meetings may help

As part of a terrific piece on managing workplace interruptions for Good Company, the online newsletter of the American Psychological Association’s Center for Organizational Excellence, Stacy Baer and Larissa Barber (Northern Illinois U.) suggest that fewer, more focused meetings can buoy individual and organizational productivity.

Less is more

Citing published research, they write about how workers regard meetings and the uses of meetings for organizations:

Meetings. Meetings are increasingly encouraged by organizations (Bettencourt, 1992). Research has shown that individuals who are more motivated to accomplish work goals are more likely to view meetings as interruptions (Rogelberg, Leach, Warr, and Burnfield, 2006). Those who are less goal-oriented tend to find meetings to be less of a nuisance. This trend suggests that meetings have the potential to be a source of wasted time. However, meetings are important for communication and collaboration between employees. Meetings are most effective when they are scheduled in advance, well-structured with an agenda, start and end on time and when employees in attendance are not under time pressure or otherwise distracted from the purpose of the meeting (Rogelberg et al., 2006).

Here are more of their recommendations for handling meetings:

Reduce Meeting Fatigue. Hold less frequent meetings. Much information can be more efficiently communicated through email than through time-wasting meetings (Rogelberg, Leach, Warr, & Burnfield, 2006). If meetings must take place, allot time before coming together for employees to consider the problems at hand and their suggested solutions to make the best use of meeting time (Girotra, 2010).

The full article covers other types of work interruptions, such as intrusions, distractions, and breaks, as well as the role of technology and physical design of workplaces. It’s a neat little primer for anyone interested in the topic.

Academe, are you listening?

As I read the commentary about meetings, I wished that every academic administrator in higher education would read it! As I wrote last year:

It is a well-documented trend that American colleges and universities increasingly are dominated by an “administrative class” that has been growing by leaps and bounds, even at schools that have cut, or sharply slowed the growth of, their full-time faculties.

. . . In a mundane yet significant sense, the addition of administrators usually means more meetings. After all, calling meetings and creating committees help to justify one’s position and provide ways to keep busy. Such efforts frequently generate endless exchanges of e-mails & memos and painful exercises in group “wordsmithing.”

Meetings are a necessary piece of organizational life. But good meetings are the exception to the norm. All too often, meetings are giant time and energy suckers. Fewer and smarter meetings would benefit everyone except those who like to sit in a room and yammer.

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