Workplace bullying and mobbing: Rumination, obsession, and the challenge of getting “unstuck”

Seeking the light

Two weeks ago, I highlighted Janice Gilligan White’s insightful and hopeful writings about recovering and healing from severe workplace mobbing. Among other things, Janice’s recollections of obsessing over the details of her experiences capture what so many bullying and mobbing targets go through:

Getting past my own personal circumstance was very difficult for me. I found myself constantly trying to piece together every last detail of my story.

I had to decide how much more time I was willing to spend on all of it.

There is a truth to workplace bullying / mobbing I had to accept; much of what happened I would never know. The destruction of my career and reputation was done behind closed doors of which I had been denied access.

It’s part of common, larger dynamic that I’ve characterized as the challenge of getting “unstuck”:

One of the biggest challenges facing many people who have experienced severe workplace bullying is getting unstuck. Some may feel trapped, helpless, or victimized. Others may be caught in a cycle of anger, defiance, or battle-like conflict. Oftentimes, these thought patterns and behaviors are associated with psychological conditions including depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress.

A more clinically accurate term for much of this behavior might be rumination. Here’s what I wrote in 2015:

Bullying targets often ruminate obsessively about their situations. In a piece for the Greater Good Science Center, therapist Linda Graham defines rumination as “thinking the same negative worrisome thoughts over and over again.” She continues:

Rumination usually doesn’t solve what we’re worried about and, in fact, leaves us more vulnerable to staying in a funk, even becoming depressed. Rumination makes our view of events, and our feelings about ourselves, worse.

Graham encourages her clients to engage in self-compassion, which includes “evoking a sense of kindness and care toward one’s self.” Her full article delves deeper into nurturing practices of self-compassion, and for those who want to learn more, it is well worth a click and read.

For some targets, self-compassion practices will prove helpful and healing. For others, however, it’s awfully hard to avoid dwelling upon the negatives. I frequently invoke the findings of a 2006 study by communications professors Sarah Tracy, Pamela Lutgen-Sandvik, and Jess Alberts, who found that bullying targets’ narratives of their experiences “were saturated with metaphors of beating, physical abuse, and death.” That’s a pretty dark place to be, and it is not uncommon.

Work abuse can inflict considerable emotional harm. It’s no wonder that many targets of bullying and mobbing have trouble getting unstuck. However, finding their way toward doing so may be the key to their recovery and renewal. After all, to borrow the lyrics from a song by the band Creed, “…what consumes your thoughts controls your life.”

Related posts

Coping with workplace bullying and mobbing: Letting go of the story (but not completely) (2016)

Post-traumatic embitterment disorder as a consequence of workplace bullying (2015)

The obsessive filter of workplace bullying (2015)

 

The Great Recession: Are we looking at a repeat?

Ten years ago…

A decade ago, the world economy crashed. Fellow news junkies have no doubt noticed the surfeit of news articles reflecting back on the brutal unfolding of the Great Recession. For me, the Great Recession is such a defining chapter in my generation’s story that these pieces prompt vivid “where were you when…” remembrances of September 2008.

Watching from afar

I was in Hawaii at the time, and it was surreal.

I had been awarded a research sabbatical for that fall term. But before digging into my sabbatical work, I visited Maui for two weeks to help out and support a dear cousin who had lost her husband to cancer.

As we sorted through the many details that follow the passing of a loved one, regular TV programming was constantly interrupted by news coverage of the rapid economic collapse. It quickly became clear that this was no ordinary downturn, and that the world’s economic and financial structures were at risk of breaking apart.

To watch this unfold from one of the most beautiful places in the world, with a six-hour time difference between the East Coast and Hawaii, made for a disconnected and strange experience. You step outside into sunlight and palm trees and locals going about their business. You then watch the television news, with a lot of normally cool characters looking visibly shaken and fearful.

Today’s reality

So here we are, a decade later, looking back at the Great Recession and all the human and financial carnage it exacted. It would be nice to assume that we’ve learned from the massive debt bubbles and casino-style investing that helped to bring down the economy in 2008, and that somehow we’ve managed to reclaim those losses.

But there are two stark realities facing us today: First, although a booming stock market, record profits, and executive raises have fueled the net worths of the wealthy and upper middle class, a lot of middle-class, working-class, and poor people have never recovered from the last recession. As Alana Semuels wrote in “The Never-Ending Foreclosure,” a December 2017 piece in The Atlantic:

In the big picture, the U.S. economy has recovered from the Great Recession, which officially began a decade ago, in December of 2007. The current unemployment rate of 4.4 percent is lower than it was before the recession started, and there are more jobs in the economy than there were then (though the population is also bigger). But for some, the recession and its consequences are neverending, felt most strongly by families . . . who lost jobs and homes. Understanding what these families have experienced, and why recovery has been so evasive, is key to assessing the economic risks the nation faces. Despite ever-sunnier economic conditions overall, the Great Recession is still rattling American families. When the next economic crisis hits, the losses could be even more profound.

Secondly, a lot of knowledgeable people are saying that we are once again on the brink of a significant economic downturn. I won’t even attempt to link to the array of opinion pieces and analyses making this point. Just search “next recession,” and you’ll see what I mean. These assessments are coming from liberal, moderate, and conservative economists alike. Their biggest question is how bad will it be. It’s safe to say, however, that especially for the millions of people who never recovered from the last recession, the added punch will be extremely hard.

I know I’m sounding like a doomsayer, but I think we’re in for another rough go of it. My biggest question is whether we’ll come out of the next recession with a genuine civic and political commitment toward building an economy that works for everyone, not just for the wealthy and well-to-do.

…on-the-ground realities today

Johann Hari on the causes of, and healing responses to, depression

Depression is one of our most significant public health challenges. And as too many readers of this blog know from first-hand experience, depression is a common result of severe bullying, mobbing, and harassment at work. Fortunately, we are gaining a stronger understanding of depression and how to treat it. Contributing to a thoughtful and provocative discussion on this important topic is Johann Hari’s Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression — and the Unexpected Solutions (2018).

Hari is an investigative journalist who has lived with depression since childhood. His own experiences caused him to dig deep into understanding depression and anxiety and how we might respond to it. In essence, he includes, but goes beyond, potential organic causes of depression and looks for possible roots in our broader society. Consequently he is helping to prompt a more expansive exploration of depression and potential healing and treatment approaches.

I’m going to borrow from the book’s table of contents to outline his proposed causes and responses to depression:

Causes of Depression and Anxiety

  • “Disconnection from Meaningful Work”
  • “Disconnection from Other People”
  • “Disconnection from Meaningful Values”
  • “Disconnection from Childhood Trauma”
  • “Disconnection from Status and Respect”
  • “Disconnection from the Natural World”
  • “Disconnection from a Hopeful or Secure Future”
  • “The Real Roles of Genes and Brain Changes”

Reconnection as a “Different Kind of Antidepressant”

  • “To Other People”
  • “Social Prescribing”
  • “To Meaningful Work”
  • “To Meaningful Values”
  • “Sympathetic Joy, and Overcoming Addiction to the Self”
  • “Acknowledging and Overcoming Childhood Trauma”
  • “Restoring the Future”

Although I’m not a clinical psychologist, I’m confident in saying that Hari is onto something here with his research, analyses, and insights. Many of the chapter headings speak directly to the impacts of work abuse. I know that I’ll be spending more time with this book in order to build my understanding of depression and how we can respond to it.

Skipping Bible study? Ordering a deli platter? You may be violating company rules

Prepping for my WeWork interview

Periodically the media treats us to stories that illustrate the power of employers to control workers’ lives in ways that may have little to do with the actual product or service they are providing. This summer I spotted a couple of stories that fall into this category.

Thou shalt not skip Bible study

NPR’s Sasha Ingber reports on an Oregon construction company worker, Ryan Coleman, who filed a religious discrimination lawsuit after being fired for no longer attending Christian Bible study sessions, as required by his employer, Dahled Up Construction:

According to the complaint, he was hired as a painter in October 2017 and discovered on the job that he was required to attend Christian Bible study as part of his employment.

Coleman, who is half-Native American (Cherokee and Blackfoot), wasn’t comfortable with those terms, his attorney, Corinne Schram, told NPR. “He says his church is a sweat lodge, his bible is a drum, and that’s his form of worship to the creator,” Schram said.

According to the document, Coleman expressed his discomfort with attending the Bible study meetings and said the requirement was illegal, but business owner Joel Dahl insisted that he go anyway.

. . . After several months, Coleman finally refused to go to the religious sessions and was fired from the job, according to the filing.

Of sprouts and spinach leaves

WeWork is a company that rents co-working space to entrepreneurs and start-up business ventures. It has grown by leaps and bounds in cities where office real estate is expensive. As David Gelles reports for the New York Times, it also now limits company food and catering orders to vegetarian selections only:

WeWork is no longer a safe space for carnivores.

Earlier this month, the co-working juggernaut announced that it was essentially going vegetarian. The company will no longer serve red meat, pork or poultry at company functions, and it will not reimburse employees who want to order a hamburger during a lunch meeting.

In a memo to employees announcing the new policy, Miguel McKelvey, WeWork’s co-founder and chief culture officer, said the decision was driven largely by concerns for the environment, and, to a lesser extent, animal welfare.

Legal restrictions and management practices

Generally speaking, private sector employers enjoy wide leeway in setting company hiring and work policies, so long as they do not violate discrimination laws and similar protections.

The Bible study requirement directly implicates an employee’s right to be free of religious discrimination by an employer. The vegetarian food order requirement, however, does not appear to run afoul of any employment laws.

Legal distinctions aside, I think there’s a strong case for removing the company mandates in both situations. I respect that a business owner may want to create a company that embraces certain values. However, I also think that we need to give workers room to be themselves in their everyday choices.

It’s about getting the balance right.

Workplace bullying and mobbing: Recovery and possibilities for post-traumatic growth

What are the recovery prospects for targets of severe workplace bullying or mobbing who are experiencing psychological trauma? Can they access effective treatments and help? Can they recover and heal from their ordeals to live rich, meaningful lives?

A few short decades ago, many psychological trauma experts were pessimistic about our ability to treat PTSD and related conditions. Yes, they were learning a lot about trauma, its symptoms, and its effects. However, their growing body of research and understanding had yet to yield many answers on treatment and healing.

We have come a long way since then. Today, we are at a point where the term post-traumatic growth is becoming a reality for many of those who have faced deeply traumatic experiences. This, in turn, allows us to be optimistic about recovery prospects for workplace bullying and mobbing targets who are dealing with trauma.

YES! magazine

In a feature for the latest issue of YES! magazine, journalist Michaela Haas examines the latest research on post-traumatic growth, opening with the story of an army surgeon:

WHEN ARMY SURGEON RHONDA CORNUM REGAINED CONSCIOUSNESS AFTER HER HELICOPTER CRASHED, she looked up to see five Iraqi soldiers pointing rifles at her. It was 1991 and her Black Hawk had been shot down over the Iraqi desert. Dazed from blood loss, with a busted knee and two broken arms, the then-36-year-old medic was subjected to a mock execution by her captors, sexually assaulted, and kept prisoner in a bunker for a week.

Her crisis included textbook causes for post-traumatic stress — a near-death experience, sexual assault, utter helplessness — and yet, after her release and medical rehabilitation, she surprised psychiatrists by focusing on ways she improved. “I became a better doctor, a better parent, a better commander, probably a better person,” she says.

One might suspect Cornum was suppressing the real toll of her ordeal, but her experience is far from unique. “Post-­traumatic growth,” a term coined by University of North Carolina psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun, describes the surprising benefits many survivors discover in the process of healing from a traumatic event.

Haas then identifies and discusses seven “strategies trauma psychologists have found particularly helpful to turn struggle into strength”:

  • “Mindfulness”
  • “Vulnerability”
  • “Self-compassion”
  • “Finding meaning”
  • “Gratitude”
  • “A holistic approach”
  • “A team effort”

She elaborates upon each of these strategies, such the value of team support:

“Nobody ever does it alone,” civil rights icon Maya Angelou recognized, years after being raped at the age of 8. Resilience is always a team effort. Moving forward after a crisis depends not only on the individual’s resources and their genetic makeup or upbringing, but also on their connections to the people around them and the quality of support. The best kind of support encourages survivors to focus on their strength but doesn’t gloss over their wounds. Nothing is as powerful as knowing we are not alone.

It’s an excellent article, with plenty of useful content for folks who are recovering from the trauma of work abuse.

An exemplar

Janice Gilligan White, a survivor of workplace mobbing in the aviation industry, is emerging as an insightful and compassionate voice on recovering from abuse at work. In a series of guest pieces posted to Dr. Sophie Henshaw’s Free Spirited Me blog, Janice takes us through her journey of experiencing, understanding, and recovering from mobbing at work. In the process, she exemplifies a path of and toward post-traumatic growth.

I’m going to highlight her second entry, “How To Find Closure After Workplace Bullying,” as I believe it speaks to many readers who have experienced severe work abuse:

Closure after workplace bullying; it’s what every target desperately searches for. The elusive treasure chest filled with peace.

If not found, we risk our health. We can lose our connection to people and our ability to find fulfilling work. We can find ourselves stuck in a current state of discord, unable to move forward. 

At least, that’s what was happening to me.

She then examines her steps towards recovery, explaining each one:

  • “Leaving”
  • “Naming My Experience”
  • “Finding The Right Therapist/Coach”
  • “Getting Past The Obsession”
  • “Countering The Power Of Bullying By Reconnecting”
  • “Finding My Voice Again”

Janice’s closure is a work in progress. She finishes this post with “Final Words” that mark where she is and where she sees herself going:

While there is still a bit more work to do, I am getting closer than ever to finding closure after workplace bullying.

I need to discover what’s next after leaving my job, naming my experience, finding the right therapist / coach, getting past the obsession, countering the power of bullying by reconnecting and finding my voice again.

I don’t know what that is yet, but I see something beautiful glistening in the distance…

It’s the treasure chest. Unburied, unlocked, and filled with peace… And a far better life than I could have ever imagined prior to this event.

There’s a lot of wisdom, humanity, and hope in these words. I’d suggest checking out Janice’s other posts if they resonate with you.

***

Note: After I published this piece, Dr. Henshaw did a 24-minute interview with Janice, which they posted to Facebook.

Have we entered an “era of empathy” at work? (Uh, well, at least not yet)

Four years ago, business school professor Rita Gunther McGrath (Columbia U.) suggested in a piece for the Harvard Business Review that we are entering an “era of empathy” at work. I wasn’t sure what to make of that assertion when I first read her commentary, so I kept the article on file and told myself that I’d return to it someday. I figured this Labor Day weekend is a good time to revisit it.

According to Dr. McGrath, “we’ve seen three ‘ages’ of management since the industrial revolution, with each putting the emphasis on a different theme: execution, expertise, and empathy.”

The rise of an industrial economy prompted the era of execution, focussing on “execution of mass production, and managerial solutions such as specialization of labor, standardized processes, quality control, workflow planning, and rudimentary accounting were brought to bear.”

Then came the era of expertise, signaled by the emergence of university business schools and the establishment of journals such as the Harvard Business Review during the late 1800s and early 1900s. These developments marked “progress toward the belief that management was a discipline of growing evidence and evolving theory.”

Now, wrote McGrath, we have entered a third era, that of empathy:

Today, we are in the midst of another fundamental rethinking of what organizations are and for what purpose they exist. If organizations existed in the execution era to create scale and in the expertise era to provide advanced services, today many are looking to organizations to create complete and meaningful experiences. I would argue that management has entered a new era of empathy.

This quest for empathy extends to customers, certainly, but also changes the nature of the employment contract, and the value proposition for new employees. We are also grappling with widespread dissatisfaction with the institutions that have been built to date, many of which were designed for the business-as-machine era. They are seen as promoting inequality, pursuing profit at the expense of employees and customers, and being run for the benefit of owners of capital, rather than for a broader set of stakeholders. At this level, too, the challenge to management is to act with greater empathy.

The era of empathy hasn’t reached the workplace yet

As Dr. McGrath suggests, all the research, knowledge, and analytical tools are in place to usher in this age of empathy into the workplace: We’re aware of burgeoning income and wealth inequality. We’re aware of negative changes in employment relations, especially the demise of unions. We’re aware that bullying, mobbing, sexual harassment, and other forms of worker mistreatment continue to inflict huge individual and organizational tolls.

We’re also aware that treating employees with a baseline of dignity is a great way to grow and maintain a stable, productive, and loyal workforce.

But here’s the disconnect. Despite all this research, knowledge, and analysis, too many employers are preserving the status quo, or doing even worse. On this Labor Day weekend:

  • Income and wealth inequality continue to expand, especially as measured by the widening gap between highest and lowest paid employees in organizations;
  • Employers, backed by inadequate enforcement of labor laws, continue to vigorously oppose unions and collective bargaining;
  • Work abuse in the forms of bullying, mobbing, and harassment continues to ignored and sometimes fueled by too many senior managers and executives.

I don’t think the era of empathy is going to become a reality without workers demanding so. While certainly there are employers who do the right thing by their employees and reap the benefits (Costco comes to mind), all too many of their counterparts operate in a much different manner. The latter includes some of the giants of our labor market (e.g., Amazon and Walmart), who set the pace for others and can do better.

Put simply, we need a revived, energetic, inclusive, and creative labor movement to usher in these needed changes. Unions will be a big part of that revival, but so will other worker advocacy, civil rights, and religious groups, as well as networks of individuals connecting in person and online. It will also require electing to office those who value the interests of everyday workers over the interests of those vested in concentrations of wealth and power.

It’s a big, challenging task. Labor Day is a good time to rededicate ourselves to it.

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