Why it’s important that AlterNet wrote on workplace bullying and abusive bosses

AlterNet, one of the leading progressive, online news aggregators and publishers, has run a lengthy piece on workplace bullying by Alyssa Figueroa, emphasizing the frequency and mental health impacts of abusive mistreatment at work. Here’s a snippet:

“Anything that affects 65 million Americans is an epidemic,” said Gary Namie, co-founder of the Workplace Bullying Institute. “But it’s an un-discussable epidemic because employers don’t want this discussed.”

Not talking about work abuse has, in turn, normalized the violence, fear and power structure inherent to the phenomenon.

As Namie said, “Work abuse doesn’t shock Americans anymore.”

…While we try to explain away work abuse, its victims are quietly suffering anxiety, depression and even PTSD. In one extreme example, Carrie Clark, a former teacher and school administrator, developed such severe PTSD she suffered permanent brain damage that left her with a speech impediment.

“It’s shameful when you’re being targeted at work. It’s such an embarrassment. That had never happened to me before. I loved working. … I had quite the career,” Clark said of the months she was targeted by her boss.

The article is a good one that covers a lot of ground, but pieces detailing the frequency and impact of workplace bullying are nothing new. What makes this especially noteworthy is its appearance on a politically progressive news site, connecting workplace bullying to larger issues of workers’ rights.

Although the effects of workplace bullying on workers and their families are well known, placing this issue on the liberal agenda has not been easy. Over the years, mainstream media, public health media, the business press, and to some extent, the legal press, have given workplace bullying far much more coverage than progressive and labor-oriented news sources.

So, hat’s off to AlterNet and to Alyssa Figueroa for this piece. I hope it sends a message to other progressive journalists that workplace bullying is a violation of human dignity and human rights that merits their attention.

The world of work during Boston’s record breaking winter

The lovely walk home from the subway, earlier this month

The lovely walk home from the subway, earlier this month, Jamaica Plain, Boston (Photo: DY)

With a bit of the white stuff falling upon us on Sunday evening, we did it: Boston broke its all-time record for snowfall! That’s 108.6 inches of snow, breaking the previous record of 107.6 inches during 1995-96. Oh boy, it’s time to celebrate, yes?! Like when the Patriots won the Super Bowl, or when the Red Sox won the World Series. Hip hip hooray!

Not.

Folks, this has been a brutal winter here. And it has wreaked havoc on the world of work.

The economic effect has been especially harsh on wage workers who either couldn’t get to work or found their places of employment closed down while the city dug out from the latest mega-storm. It also has been very harsh on retail businesses who depend on pedestrian foot traffic to buy goods and services.

If you’re in real estate, the market, well, kinda froze. After all, it’s hard to host an open house or a showing when the roads and public transportation are shut down.

Public workers involved in snow removal and public transportation had their work cut out for them. If you drove one of the city’s plow trucks during the four worst weeks of January and February, I wonder if you were ever permitted to leave your vehicle. Boston’s public transit system took some well-deserved criticisms, but the rank-and-file workers who helped to get things moving again deserved much praise.

There were multiple days when just about everything was shut down. How many thousands of meetings, appointments, and just about every other type of face-to-face event were cancelled during this time?

God have mercy on anyone who worked in customer service at Logan Airport.

Those of us who teach experienced unprecedented numbers of snow days. The first snow day was really cool. The second one, still a bit of a novelty. And then it got old fast. In higher ed, we’re doing make-up classes whenever we can squeeze them in. K-through-12 educators probably will be in their classrooms until August! (Just kidding, but only slightly.)

If you own a plow truck and a snowblower, you may have made a mint doing freelance jobs, like the guys who picked up a quick wad of cash from me when I realized that I could shovel for 12 hours and barely make a dent. Same thing if you did snow and ice removal from roofs. However, my guess is that you had your fill of that work even with the extra cash.

Maybe it’s the Cancerian in me talking, but I believe that someday, we’ll look back at this winter with a sort of fond nostalgia. Or maybe I’m just being delusional. Whatever, we’ll see.

Looking down my street at what is supposed to be the sidewalk, during one of the February blizzards, Jamaica Plain, Boston. (Photo: DY, 2015)

Looking at what is supposed to be the sidewalk alongside my building, during one of the February blizzards, Jamaica Plain, Boston. (Photo: DY, 2015)

Leaders who yammer “transparency”: The more we hear it, the less we see it

I’m afraid that this may come across as a bit of a rant, but I’ve reached the point that whenever a leader starts invoking “transparency” like a mantra, I assume that we’ll be seeing less and less of it.

So many senior managers and executives, public officials, and non-profit directors yammer endlessly about their commitment to transparency, especially when they assume their new positions. Their loyal subjects — worker bees, voters, and other everyday stakeholders — nod their heads approvingly, with renewed hope that positive change is in the air. My gosh, this time will be different. We’ll finally know what’s going on. We’ll be a part of it!

Often much sooner than later, a certain dissonance creeps into the rank-and-file. Hmm, our Great Leader keeps talking about transparency, but why don’t we know the details about what’s going on? The reality doesn’t seem to be matching the rhetoric.

Maybe someone has the temerity to raise this discomfort at a staff meeting, town hall forum, or coffee hour. More often than not, the response will be a defensive one, perhaps with an explanation that would make George Orwell’s head spin. I’m being transparent by telling you that I choose not to share this with you!

Eventually, the Great Leader stops using the T word. It’s passé, a term of the past (i.e., beyond a year after the Great Leader’s arrival), and at this point unnecessary. Business as usual is once again the norm, except it’s possible that there’s even less transparency than ever before. That truth will become, uh, transparent to most, but by then the options for doing anything about it will be limited.

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For my less cynical take on transparency, see: Transparency may be a “win-win,” but too many organizational leaders don’t understand this (2014)

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Free course: The Science of Happiness

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Last fall I took a free online course, “The Science of Happiness,” facilitated and taught by leading authorities on positive psychology. I thought it would be enlightening and useful not only for work, but also for my life in general. I was not disappointed. It was an excellent course, well-conceived and clearly organized, with plenty of compelling content. I can recommend it enthusiastically to my readers.

After a successful rollout last fall, the course is now offered on a year-round basis through EdX. You may access it here.

The course is designed to “teach the ground-breaking science of positive psychology, which explores the roots of a happy and meaningful life.” The course intro further explains:

Created by UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, the course will zero in on a fundamental finding from positive psychology: that happiness is inextricably linked to having strong social connections and contributing to something bigger than yourself—the greater good. Students will learn about the cross-disciplinary research supporting this view, spanning the fields of psychology, neuroscience, evolutionary biology, and beyond.

What’s more, “The Science of Happiness” will offer students practical strategies for nurturing their own happiness. Research suggests that up to 40 percent of happiness depends on our habits and activities. So students will learn many different research-tested practices that foster social and emotional well-being—and the course will help them track their happiness along the way.

The lead instructors for the course are Drs. Dacher Keltner and Emiliana Simon-Thomas of the Greater Good Science Center at UC-Berkeley, and they appear frequently in short videos introducing segments of the course, summarizing material, and sharing their own expertise. They are very smart, down-to-earth, and likable. Short video lectures and articles from other experts are featured throughout the course. Quiz questions at the end of each unit, midterm and final exams, and optional homework exercises help to measure and expand your learning.

Although this is a non-credit course, it requires a fair amount of time each week, roughly 4-6 hours by my estimation. Although I finished the course and earned a certificate of completion, there were a few parts that I passed through rather quickly and am now returning to in order to get a more complete set of notes. However, it’s not necessary to complete the course in order to get something out of it; you can cherry pick your favorite units and leave it at that.

For a modest fee, you can earn a Verified Certificate that may enhance your resume. Health care professionals may be able to earn continuing education credits.

A note for skeptics: I would not have finished this course if it was all about superficial happy talk. This course gives us some tools for dealing with life’s ups and downs, and it is grounded in research and science. I found it to be a smart and insightful offering.

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Related post

I wrote about a lesson I learned from the course in “Not-so-random acts of kindness for the non-saintly among us” (2015).

U.K. report: Health care whistleblowers experience retaliatory bullying

In a recent article for The Guardian newspaper, Denis Campbell and Matthew Weaver highlight an independent investigative report finding that British National Health Service workers “who blow the whistle on substandard and dangerous practices are being ignored, bullied or even intimidated in a ‘climate of fear.'”

The investigation, led by Sir Robert Francis QC at the request of the Health Secretary, “reveal[s] how staff who have sounded the alarm about dangerous practices have found themselves shunned, suspended and sacked by hospital bosses instead of having their concerns taken seriously.”

Campbell and Weaver quoted Francis in a BBC interview, acknowledging the severe human costs of this retaliation:

“I’ve spoken to people who have not only lost their jobs, their livelihood, they’ve not been able to find other jobs to do. And I’m afraid in some cases have felt suicidal and become ill as a result.”

Recommendations

According to the official report website (which provides links to the executive summary and full report), Francis “sets out 20 Principles and Actions which aim to create the right conditions for NHS staff to speak up, share what works right across the NHS and get all organisations up to the standard of the best and provide redress when things go wrong in future.”

These include fostering a healthier organizational culture, better handling of individual complaints, and stronger legal protections.

Lessons reinforced

This report reinforces at least five lessons about whistleblowing, workplace bullying, and workplace retaliation:

First, even in a nation with more extensive worker protections, including some that address workplace bullying, bullying and intimidation are significant problems. The U.K. generally has been ahead of the U.S. in recognizing workplace bullying through its legal and labor dispute resolution systems, but the problems continue to exist.

Second, this is one more example of the heavy prices that some whistleblowers pay for raising concerns about improper, illegal, and/or unethical behavior. Workplace bullying is a common form of retaliation for whistleblowing.

Third, Francis’s observations about the effects of severe, bullying-type behaviors on individuals validates what we’ve known for years about the human costs of sustained, targeted work abuse. This includes the possibility of suicidal ideation.

Fourth, this underscores ongoing concerns about bullying behaviors in the health care sector, something we know a lot about here in the United States. Health care workers too often toil in stressed out, hostile, and bullying work environments.

Finally, the report’s recommendations remind us that reform and problem solving must be a multifaceted endeavor. This includes broader questions of organizational culture, specific measures and best practices, and effective legal protections.

Advocacy for the Healthy Workplace Bill in Massachusetts

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Many of those familiar with the challenges of legislative advocacy and the realities of the legislative process know that until a bill is actually enacted into law, progress is measured in terms that may not be evident to the general public, but that nonetheless constitute important, tangible steps forward. The history of the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill in Massachusetts illustrates this point by way of steady, painstaking, sometimes halting moves ahead.

Growing legislative support

Massachusetts first considered the HWB during the 2009-10 session, when a solitary state senator filed the bill. Support grew during the 2011-12 session, when 13 legislators sponsored or co-sponsored the HWB. The number of sponsors and co-sponsored tripled to 39 during the 2013-14 session. During the two most recent sessions, the HWB proceeded through the committee process to where it was moving toward a full floor vote in the state House of Representatives. The HWB has been re-filed for the 2015-16 session, and this time 58 senators and representatives have signed on as sponsors or co-sponsors.

Greater public attention

In the midst of this growing support within the legislature, the HWB attracted greater attention from the local media, especially during the 2013-14 legislative session. Examples included a lengthy lead editorial in the Sunday Boston Globe, ultimately recommending a cautious approach to enacting workplace bullying legislation; a Globe feature article on HWB activists; and extended radio and television interview segments. The HWB has also attracted active support from labor and worker advocacy organizations, including SEIU/NAGE, the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (MassCOSH), and the Boston Teachers Union. SEIU/NAGE has served as the point organization for building support within the State House, including tasking its veteran lobbyists to advocate for the bill among legislators and staff members.

Little things

At times, the little things reveal growing support for, and interest in, proposed legislation. For example, when MassCOSH, a major catalyst for workplace safety and health policy in Massachusetts, endorsed the Healthy Workplace Bill and invited advocates for the Healthy Workplace Bill to be part of its annual legislative lobbying days, it sent a clear message that the HWB had become a presence within the State House and that workplace bullying was now part of the discussion on worker safety.

2015-16 legislative sponsors

Furthermore, when the initial list of sponsors and co-sponsors for the HWB for the 2015-16 session appeared short (fewer than ten) amidst considerable change in the composition of the legislature and the election of a new Governor, concerted efforts by the bill’s main sponsor, Representative Ellen Story, and key grassroots supporters resulted in 58 legislative sponsors and co-sponsors, a surprising increase of 19 from the previous session. The ability to build the sponsorship list in a short period of time confirmed that this is no longer a novelty bill.

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As developments in Massachusetts and other states show, the overall movement in the United States is gravitating toward the enactment of workplace bullying legislation. In this sense, America is gradually catching up with many other nations that have enacted workplace anti-bullying laws, primarily during the past 15 years. Workplace bullying has not quite entered the mainstream of American employment law, but the potential for doing so is now very real.

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Forthcoming law review essay

The commentary above was adapted from a draft of my forthcoming law review essay, “Workplace Bullying and the Law: U.S. Legislative Developments 2013-15,” to be published in the Employee Rights and Employment Policy Journal. You may access a pdf of the draft, as well as copies of many of my other scholarly articles, without charge from my Social Science Research Network page.

Massachusetts Healthy Workplace Advocates

To learn more about advocacy efforts in support of the Healthy Workplace Bill in Massachusetts, go to the campaign’s website or Facebook page.

For more about the national campaign to enact the Healthy Workplace Bill, go here

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University of East Anglia study: Workplace bullying can make targets more vulnerable to future abuse

A new University of East Anglia (U.K.) study of 348 workers indicates that the experience of workplace bullying can make targets more vulnerable to future abuse.

In a media briefing, Dr. Ana Sanz Vergel, UAE business school lecturer and co-author of the study (published in Anxiety, Stress & Coping: An International Journalabstract here) summarizes the findings and explains some of their implications:

This study shows that the relationship between workplace bullying and the psychological impact on victims is much more complex than expected.

…Workplace bullying leads to poor health because the victim is exposed to a very stressful situation – resulting in anxiety and lack of vigour. We wanted to see whether deteriorated health could make the employee an easy target for bullying. For example, the victim may have less energy to respond to difficult situations and therefore receive less support from colleagues or supervisors.

…We found that being exposed to workplace bullying leads to deteriorated mental health and decreased well-being. But at the same time, showing anxious behaviour puts the victim in a weak position and makes them an easy target – leading to a spiral of abuse.

We are by no means victim-blaming here. Clearly employers need to have strong policies against workplace bullying. But training programmes to help victims learn coping mechanisms could help to break the vicious cycle.

Here’s yet more evidence of the need to provide more effective assistance to those who have experienced workplace bullying. Therapy, counseling, and coaching are all potentially viable options, especially if we can do a better job of educating practitioners about the effects of work abuse and options for addressing it. In addition, as I’ve suggested before, perhaps we need to introduce resilience training for those entering the workforce, especially in fields such as health care and education where bullying is common.

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