David Brooks and his “moral bucket list”

photo-69

In a piece for Sunday’s New York Times, columnist David Brooks writes about “The Moral Bucket List,” a sort of personal reckoning he has experienced about the importance of leading a meaningful, positively impactful life:

ABOUT once a month I run across a person who radiates an inner light. . . . When I meet such a person it brightens my whole day.

A few years ago I realized that I wanted to be a bit more like those people. I realized that if I wanted to do that I was going to have to work harder to save my own soul. I was going to have to have the sort of moral adventures that produce that kind of goodness. I was going to have to be better at balancing my life.

He goes on to talk about two main sets of virtues:

It occurred to me that there were two sets of virtues, the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful.

A life built primarily around the résumé virtues, suggests Brooks, will prove to be a more empty one.

Brooks’s moral bucket list is comprised of the “experiences one should have on the way toward the richest possible inner life.” They include a shift toward humility, confronting self-defeat and our own weaknesses, accepting “redemptive assistance from outside,” experiencing and giving “energizing love” with others, finding our callings, and embracing a sense of conscience.

In his opinion piece, he introduces exemplars of these virtues, such as General and President Dwight Eisenhower overcoming a severe temper, Catholic social activist Dorothy Day surmounting an early life of indulgence and reckless behavior, and U.S. Labor Secretary Frances Perkins deciding to devote her life to workers’ rights.

It’s an excellent article, very appropriate and wise for the age in which we live.

On the political scale, Brooks is regarded as a moderate to conservative commentator. Yet, to his great credit, he cites the lives and examples of men and women spanning a broad political and social spectrum, both in the article and in his new book that expounds upon these ideas and stories, The Road to Character (2015). Brooks’s article caused me to run out and buy the book, and my preliminary page flips tell me that it will be a worthwhile read.

Positive echoes

Brooks’s moral bucket list concept intersects nicely with the messages of other authors I’ve written about, who urge upon us the importance of finding our life purposes, living compassionate lives, and making a positive difference with the time we are here. I think these works are most resonant to those in the second half of life (or close to it), but anyone may benefit from them. For more:

Defining, refining, creating, and redefining your “body of work” (2015)

Taking stock at midlife: Time for reading assignments (2014)

Holiday reads: Fueling heart, mind, and soul (2014)

“The Shift: Ambition to Meaning” (2014)

Transitions and inner callings (2014)

“Follow your bliss”? Parsing Joseph Campbell’s famous advice (2012)

What’s your legacy work? (And how can you de-clutter way to it?) (2011)

***

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Working Notes: Upcoming speaking appearances and a nice kudo

Hello dear readers, I wanted to quickly share a few items about upcoming speaking appearances, as well as a surprise kudo.

The Mara Dolan Show, Monday at 10:30 a.m.

Today (Monday) at around 10:30 a.m. eastern I’ll be making my second appearance this year on the Mara Dolan Show, 980 WCAP radio in Massachusetts. I’ll be giving an update on the status of the Healthy Workplace Bill in the Bay State and talking about therapeutic jurisprudence, the school of legal thought that examines the psychological impacts of law, public policy, and legal systems.

I was a guest on Mara’s show in January, talking about workplace bullying, and I enjoyed our conversation very much. She’s a highly respected, very knowledgeable political commentator with a background in law and social work.

[4/15/15 Editor’s Note: You may listen to the segment, about 12 minutes, here.]

Work, Stress, and Health Conference, Atlanta, May 2015

This is a repeat of an earlier note that I’ll be presenting at one of my favorite events, the biennial “Work, Stress and Health” conference, co-sponsored by the American Psychological Association, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and Society for Occupational Health Psychology. This year’s conference will be held on May 6-9 in Atlanta.

I’ll chairing and presenting on two symposium panels, one on the impact of emerging workplace bullying legislation on employee relations stakeholders (with Gary Namie, Ellen Pinkos Cobb, and Maureen Duffy), and another on coaching as an intervention strategy for workplace bullying (with John-Robert Curtin, Ivonne Moreno-Velazquez, and Jessi Eden Brown).

In addition, I just accepted an invitation to moderate a panel on organizational justice featuring Karolus O. Kraan, Bram P. I. Fleuren, and Dr. Peter L. Schnall.

International Congress of Law and Mental Health, Vienna, Austria, July 2015

I’ll be taking a long plane flight to Vienna, Austria, for the 2015 International Congress of Law and Mental Health, a biennial, global gathering of academicians, practitioners, judges, and students hosted by the International Academy of Law and Mental Health on July 12-17. I’ll be on a panel that examines how therapeutic jurisprudence (TJ) perspectives can be integrated into law teaching and legal education. My paper will examine how TJ can be included in continuing legal education programs for practicing attorneys.

Top 30 list

Last week, I was doing some online research on workplace bullying when I found this feature by Dr. Tanja Babic, “The 30 Most Influential Industrial and Organizational Psychologists Alive Today,” on Human Resources MBA, a website and blog for individuals interested in training and degree programs in HR work. I was delighted to see Gary Namie of the Workplace Bullying Institute listed at No. 5. Gary’s contributions to our understanding of workplace bullying have been singular and definitive.

I scrolled down the rest of the list and was stunned to find myself at No. 30. Especially given that my formal training is in law and public policy, I am honored to be included on a list of influential people in I/O psychology.

Here’s the January 2015 news release announcing the article and listing.

Unemployed at midlife, “faking normal”…and sometimes bullied, too

Screenshot from Next Avenue.org

Screenshot from Next Avenue.org (Photo: DY)

In a plaintive commentary posted on Next Avenue earlier this year, Lizzy White writes about professional, middle-aged women who have lost their jobs and are struggling to make ends meet as they search for work:

You know her.

She is in your friendship circle, hidden in plain sight.

She is 55, broke and tired of trying to keep up appearances. Faking normal is wearing her out.

To look at her, you wouldn’t know that her electricity was cut off last week for non-payment or that she meets the eligibility requirements for food stamps. Her clothes are still impeccable, bought in the good times when she was still making money.

To be sure, the effects of the economic meltdown that began some seven years ago continue to be felt by men and women in almost every income level and vocational category. But those of my generation (late Boomers in their 50s), and notably unmarried women within that group, have felt its impact especially hard, with livelihoods and careers interrupted or ended at what should be periods of peak earning potential. White continues:

She lives without cable, a gym membership and nail appointments. She’s discovered she can do her own hair.

There are no retirement savings, no nest egg; she exhausted that long ago. There is no expensive condo from which to draw equity and no husband to back her up.

Months of slow pay and no pay have decimated her credit. Bill collectors call constantly, reading verbatim from a script, expressing polite sympathy for her plight — before demanding payment arrangements that she can’t possibly meet.

White provides more facts and figures to document the income disparities and disproportionate caregiving responsibilities that often put women in a less advantaged position than their male counterparts. It’s an important piece, and the comments posted below it are worth reading as well, including those who rightly point out that middle-aged men who have experienced job losses are facing these circumstances, too.

The bullying effect

This topic intersects with workplace bullying, because middle-aged workers endure a lot of it. When work abuse culminates in their termination or departure, they often face multi-level challenges in trying to pull themselves together and obtain new employment.

Two years ago, I summarized Workplace Bullying Institute instant poll results showing that workers in the 40s and 50s are frequent bullying targets. The 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.

Five years ago, I suggested that unmarried women may be specially vulnerable to being bullied at work, especially if they have kids:

Let’s start with the observation that truly abusive bullies often have a knack for sniffing out vulnerable individuals. Then we look at potential targets: Demographically speaking, is there any group more vulnerable than single women raising kids? They already are juggling work and caregiving, their schedules seem timed down to the minute, and not infrequently they are struggling financially — especially if there is no father in the picture.

Unmarried women without children may not be as economically desperate to hold onto their jobs, but they can be very vulnerable as well. Women in general remain underpaid compared to male counterparts. Those who came out of busted marriages may have re-entered the workforce later in life. In any event, they are less likely to have someone to fall back on if bullied out of a job.

Over the years, I’ve encountered many women in their 50s who have been bullied out of their jobs and then face the daunting challenges of recovering from the experience in terms of psychological well-being, employment, and personal finances. For those individuals, “faking normal” may require wearing a mask that feels like a heavy weight, in addition to carrying the burdens of their situations generally.

Sad, disturbing stuff

This makes for pretty unpleasant and unsettling reading, especially if you’re on the north side of 50. These challenges are hitting my generation of late Boomers especially hard.

Decades ago, many of us entered the workforce in the heart of a severe recession. At the same time, employers were cutting back or eliminating pensions and other benefit plans. For those going to school, loans were supplanting need-based grants and scholarships as the primary form of financial aid.

And now this group has experienced an even more severe economic downturn during the heart of what should be its peak earning years.

It distresses me greatly that we have not summoned the collective will to make this a major political and public policy issue. What will it take to make it so?

Mainstreaming psychological well-being in the law: TJ’s challenge

Screenshot from https://mainstreamtj.wordpress.com (Photo: DY)

Screenshot from https://mainstreamtj.wordpress.com (Photo: DY)

What if our laws and legal systems focused on creating psychologically healthy outcomes for parties involved in legal matters and for society as a whole? What if considerations of economics (leaning right) and rights (leaning left) in creating law and policy were screened through the lens of psychological well-being of people affected by those laws and policies?

Long-time readers may recognize that I have aligned myself with therapeutic jurisprudence (“TJ”),  a school of legal thought that examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of the law, legal practice, and legal education. In essence, TJ asks if our laws and legal systems lead to psychologically healthy results, and it implicitly favors initiatives designed to make them so.

I discovered the TJ community as a result of my work on workplace bullying and employment law & policy, and I have found it to be a welcoming and natural home for my legal scholarship and public education work.

Now I have taken this affiliation a step further by joining the Advisory Group of the International Therapeutic Jurisprudence in the Mainstream Project, which “seeks to promote the use of Therapeutic Jurisprudence…approaches in mainstream legal settings through a variety of activities,” including a blog (photo above) and:

  • Linking the latest research and resources with the people who are doing this work “on the ground” in courts and tribunals – judges, lawyers, prosecutors, managers, staff and court support workers.
  • Encouraging and sharing TJ scholarship among academic and students in law and other disciplines.
  • Linking people with expertise in this area with others who want to explore how TJ can make their courts and tribunals more effective.

The Project is the brainchild of TJ co-founder and law professor David Wexler (Puerto Rico), Australian magistrate judge Pauline Spencer (Victoria), and law professor and retired judge Michael Jones (Arizona).

The Project’s Advisory Group (list and bios here) is drawn from 18 countries and “includes judges, lawyers and prosecutors, academics and students in the field of law and other fields such as psychology.”

TJ’s challenge

How do we make the promotion of psychologically healthy outcomes a prime objective for our laws and legal systems?

In a field so dominated by considerations of logic, reasoning, economics, rights, and procedure, psychology and human emotion are often regarded with some discomfort for their lack of precision and, well, messiness.

And yet, it makes perfect sense to me that the psychological well-being of individuals and society as a whole should be a primary lens through which we view and develop the law and its institutions. This is far from being the dominant viewpoint among lawyers, judges, and policy makers, but that reality only makes it more important for us to gather together (often virtually) to promote the mainstreaming of TJ.

This is among the many reasons why I am delighted to be more closely affiliated with this global assemblage of lawyers, professors, judges, and students. They inspire me with their dedication to the hard work of making the world a better place.

*** 

Of possible interest

I’ve written two law review articles expressly built around ideas of therapeutic jurisprudence. They can be freely accessed here:

Therapeutic Jurisprudence and the Practice of Legal Scholarship (University of Memphis Law Review, 2010).

Employment Law as if People Mattered: Bringing Therapeutic Jurisprudence into the Workplace (Florida Coastal Law Review, 2010).

Cornerstone OnDemand study: The impact of toxic employees

A new study conducted by the personnel management software firm Cornerstone OnDemand — “Toxic Employees in the Workplace” — provides further evidence of the harm that toxic workers can inflict on co-workers and organizations alike. For those of us specially concerned with workplace bullying, the Cornerstone study raises challenges and questions that should be considered.

Cornerstone accessed employment datasets on some 63,000 individuals and identified those who were terminated for toxic behaviors, which it defined as “misconduct, workplace violence, drug or alcohol abuse, sexual harassment, falsification of documents, fraud and other violations of company policy.” Here are the major findings, as summarized in a company news release:

  • Good employees are 54 percent more likely to quit when they work with a toxic employee, if the proportion of toxic employees on their team grows by as little as a 1:20 ratio
  • By making their co-workers significantly more likely to leave, toxic employees lead to rising replacement costs; hiring a single toxic employee onto a team of 20 workers costs approximately $12,800, whereas hiring a non-toxic employee costs an employer an average of $4,000;
  • Toxic employees have a negligible effect on the performance of their co-workers, which suggests that they have a stronger influence on stress and burnout than on day-to-day task completion.

Although the report emphasizes behaviors such as “sexual harassment, drug/alcohol use, and workplace violence” because they are “severe enough to be cause for termination,” it acknowledges that other forms of misconduct  — “for example, workplace bullying” — can “destroy the social fabric of the organization” and undermine the work performances of others.

Go here for a pdf of the full 16-page Cornerstone report.

Observations

The Cornerstone study is a welcomed addition to the body of corporate-sponsored research on toxic workplace behaviors, but it presents real limitations in its assumptions and classifications. For example:

First, the full report emphasizes the “one bad apple” theme about how a single toxic worker can cause considerable harm. This may be true, but toxic behaviors at work are more often enabled by unhealthy organizational cultures. Also, rare is the rogue outlier who can singlehandedly turn an otherwise happy, thriving workplace into a horror show, except when that individual happens to be a high ranking executive or manager.

Second, to pick up on the preceding point, the report largely blows by the question of toxic behaviors by top execs, managers, and supervisors; it implicitly places the “toxic employee” at the co-worker level. We know, however, that a lot of sexual harassment, fraud, bullying, and other misconduct is perpetrated by those in higher positions. As I’ve noted previously here, studies show that psychopathic tendencies generally increase the higher we go up the organizational chart. (See my 2013 post, “Is the ‘psychopath boss’ theme overhyped?”)

Finally, the study largely equates workplace bullying with various forms of incivility, such as behaving rudely. However, we know that on the spectrum of interpersonal mistreatment, bullying is much more harmful and destructive than incivility. Nevertheless, the study accurately reflects that bullying usually is not treated as a terminable form of misconduct. This is especially the case when practiced by organizationally protected managers and supervisors.

Can workplace bullying harm the offspring of women who are targeted during pregnancy?

How does workplace bullying affect the health of an unborn baby? Studies examining possible links between negative health outcomes to the children of women who experienced considerable stress at work during pregnancy suggest that this question merits our attention.

In a recent piece for The Atlantic magazine, “Should You Bring Your Unborn Baby to Work?,” Moises Velazquez-Manoff observes that research on the work stress/pregnancy question is inconsistent, but sufficient to raise concerns:

In 2012, a study of female orthopedic surgeons found that those who worked more than 60 hours a week while pregnant had nearly five times the risk of preterm birth—meaning delivery before 37 weeks of gestation, which can indicate unfavorable conditions in the womb and predict ill health throughout a child’s life—compared with those who worked less. But one glaring problem with this study was that it surveyed women after they gave birth, asking them to remember how much they had worked during pregnancy.

A 2009 study from Ireland that followed 676 pregnant women was better designed. Experiencing two or more work-related stressors—including shift work, temporary work, or working 40 hours or more a week—was associated with a more than fivefold increased risk of preterm birth. A much larger subsequent study from Denmark, however, found no such relationship between “job strain” and preterm birth.

What was I to think? I called up Sylvia Guendelman, a professor of maternal and child health at the University of California at Berkeley. The research could be inconsistent, she said. “But the bulk of evidence seems to suggest that something is there.”

Especially given that workplace bullying can trigger severe stress reactions far beyond those of “normally” stressful work situations, this body of developing research serves as a yellow flag, at the very least, to pregnant women who are experiencing workplace bullying.

Yehuda studies: Stress reactions can be transmitted to unborn children

Even if the workplace studies have methodological issues or yield contrasting findings, other research appears to confirm that women who experienced psychological trauma during pregnancy may transmit stress reactions to their children.

Noted trauma expert Rachel Yehuda led a team of researchers who studied the effects of the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks on pregnant women who were at or near the site and who experienced post-traumatic stress disorder as a consequence. They found that these stress reactions can be transmitted to their unborn children. As reported by The Guardian newspaper in 2011:

…(T)he children of women who were traumatised as a result of 9/11 subsequently exhibit an increased distress response when shown novel stimuli. Again, this was related to the stage of pregnancy – those with the largest distress response were the ones born to mothers who were in their second or third trimester when exposed to the World Trade Centre attacks.

Previous trauma research led by Yehuda indicates a similar association between Holocaust survivors who experienced PTSD and increased risk for PTSD by their offspring.

“Something is there”

To borrow from Professor Guendelman (quoted in The Atlantic article), something is there.

Although concededly speculative, it makes intuitive sense for us to be connecting these dots. Workplace bullying is a form of targeted mistreatment that threatens one’s livelihood and sense of well being, and it has long been associated with symptoms consistent with PTSD. In severe, recurring forms, it has been likened to torture.

Furthermore, while it’s not clear whether the frequency of workplace bullying increases during pregnancy, it’s no secret that many employers do not greet news of a worker’s pregnancy with open arms. For example, as the Great Recession tore through the global economy, The Guardian noted an apparent increase in bullying faced by pregnant staff. (Legally, this is potentially significant, as many jurisdictions — including the U.S. — prohibit discrimination and harassment on the basis of pregnancy.)

Accordingly, this body of research on the effects of trauma on unborn children bears watching, for it potentially adds to our understanding of the harm that may be caused by workplace bullying, and thus could very well carry important implications for public health and public policy.

***

Related posts (click on titles to access full articles)

Trickle-down abuse: Workplace bullying, depression, and kids (2011) — “We know that severe workplace bullying can trigger or exacerbate clinical depression in its targets. But that’s not all: In making our case for taking this form of abuse seriously, we also need to acknowledge how children become the secondary victims of bullying-induced depression.”

Workplace bullying and families of targets (2011) — “Workplace bullying often creates victims in addition to the target of the abuse. In particular, close family members often pay a price as well, as personal relationships are severely tested and sometimes fractured. Many bullying targets, and those who have interviewed, counseled, and coached them, have known this for a long time. Now, emerging research is helping to build the evidence-based case.”

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