How harmful thought patterns about workplace bullying and mobbing may accelerate the aging process

In a piece for Ideas.Ted.com (link here), Elizabeth Blackburn (Salk Institute) and Elissa Epel (UC-San Francisco Aging, Metabolism and Emotions Center) explain how our negative thoughts can expedite the aging process. Blackburn, a physician and Nobel Prize recipient, and Epel, a psychologist, are co-authors of The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer (2017).

I’m going to cut & paste a bit of brain science from Drs. Blackburn and Epel to explain the role of telomeres in influencing the aging process:

Deep within the genetic heart of all our cells are telomeres, or repeating segments of noncoding DNA that live at the ends of the chromosomes. They form caps at the ends of the chromosomes and keep the genetic material from unraveling. Shortening with each cell division, they help determine how fast a cell ages. When they become too short, the cell stops dividing altogether. This isn’t the only reason a cell can become senescent — there are other stresses on cells we don’t yet understand very well — but short telomeres are one of the major reasons human cells grow old.

In essence, longer telomeres are good, and shorter telomeres are bad, at least if we care about aging. Blackburn and Epel then identify five thought patterns that lead to the shortening of telomeres:

  • “Scientists have learned that several thought patterns appear to be unhealthy for telomeres, and one of them is cynical hostility.”
  • “Pessimism is the second thought pattern that has been shown to have negative effects on telomeres.”
  • “Rumination — the act of rehashing problems over and over — is the third destructive thought pattern.”
  • “The fourth thought pattern is thought suppression, the attempt to push away unwanted thoughts and feelings.”
  • “The final thought pattern is mind wandering.”

Their full article goes into greater depth about the negative dynamics of each of these thought patterns. They also sum up the cumulative impact:

The negative thought patterns we’ve described are automatic, exaggerated and controlling.They take over your mind; it’s as if they tie a blindfold around your brain so you can’t see what is really going on around you.

Application to targets of workplace bullying and mobbing

All of the five thought patterns examined by Blackburn and Epel are relevant to the experiences of workplace bullying and mobbing. The first three — cynical hostility, pessimism, and rumination — are especially applicable to so many who have experienced severe work abuse.

Among other things, I’ve written about “(r)umination, obsession, and the challenge of getting ‘unstuck'” (link here) when dealing with bullying and mobbing at work. I’ve also written about what Caroline Myss calls “woundology,” referring to “good, caring, compassionate people who nevertheless could not get beyond wanting to be identified with, and to live in, their emotional wounds” (link here).

The good news (and it’s real)

The good news is that we know a lot more about how to treat trauma and promote healing. Blackburn and Epel discuss better thought awareness as one way toward dealing with these negative thought patterns. They cite research showing that telomeres can actually lengthen and posit that aging can be slowed or even reversed.

Furthermore, as I’ve discussed earlier, post-traumatic growth (link here) and healing-centered engagement (link here) are real processes that are changing the ways in which we look at possibilities for healing from trauma.

But it must come from within

In a piece for Thought Catalog (link here), self-help writer Brianna Wiest asserts that although trauma is not the victim’s fault, healing from it is their responsibility. Here are some of her reasons:

  • “Healing is our responsibility because if it isn’t, an unfair circumstance becomes an unlived life.”
  • “Healing is our responsibility because unprocessed pain gets transferred to everyone around us, and we are not going to allow what someone else did to us to become what we do to those we love.”
  • “Healing is our responsibility because we have this one life, this single shot to do something important.”
  • “Healing is our responsibility because if we want our lives to be different, sitting and waiting for someone else to make them so will not actually change them. It will only make us dependent and bitter.”
  • “Healing is our responsibility because we have the power to heal ourselves, even if we have previously been led to believe we don’t.”
  • “Healing is our responsibility because ‘healing’ is actually not returning to how and who we were before, it is becoming someone we have never been — someone stronger, someone wiser, someone kinder.”

I’m a bit uncomfortable about using the term “responsibility” in this context. It has a slightly finger-wagging, judgmental connotation to it. And yet, the underlying assumptions are true: Healing from trauma is possible only when the person who has experienced it is ready to work toward it. And when someone reaches that point, good things can happen.

Takeaway from Philly: The knowing-doing gap is everywhere

At the recent Work, Stress and Health Conference in Philadelphia, it took three keynote programs and a panel discussion for me to finally reach my “duh” moment: We have so much of the knowledge and understanding we need to create healthier, happier, and more productive workplaces. But the gap between insights gleaned from psychology, organizational behavior, and law and public policy on one hand, and the implementation of these ideas on the other, is vast.

The biennial Work, Stress and Health Conference (WSH) is co-sponsored by the American Psychological Association, National Institute for Occupational for Safety and Health, and Society for Occupational Health Psychology. As I’ve written before, this is one of my favorite conferences, a wonderful, recurring opportunity to share research and insights and to meet with scholars and practitioners who are doing great work. Many WSH participants have become valued friends and associates. In fact, my participation in the 2015 WSH conference led me to write about “conferences as community builders,” in a blog post that was reprinted in the APA’s Psychology Benefits Society blog (link here).

The huge knowing-doing gap

In the opening keynote, major priorities for labor and employment stakeholders were beautifully framed by Jeffrey Pfeffer (Stanford U.), expounding on themes raised in his 2018 book, Dying for a Paycheck. Here’s a short abstract of his speech:

The workplace is the fifth leading cause of death in the U.S., and many workplace practices are as harmful to health as second-hand smoke. Worse than the enormous physical and psychological toll on people and the enormous economic costs to companies and society, is that no one seems to care as work arrangements move toward less, rather than more, healthful environments.

During his talk, Dr. Pfeffer identified workplace bullying and abuse as one of the most harmful work hazards.

He also referenced his previous writings on the “knowing-doing gap,” i.e., the gap between knowing the right thing to do and actually implementing it in organizations. Pfeffer developed this concept with fellow Stanford professor Robert Sutton (author of the popular bullying-related book, The No Asshole Rule). Throughout the conference, it struck me how the knowing-doing gap applies to virtually every aspect of employment relations.

The second day keynote featured Manal Azzi from the International Labour Organization (ILO). Dr. Azzi’s presentation, setting out the major initiatives of the ILO, captured how this global entity is serving as a base for enhancing the well-being of workers around the world. The ILO offers research, best practices, and policy solutions and fosters tripartite relationships between government, business, and labor. There are many keys to bridging the knowing-doing gap here.

The final day keynote program was a wide-ranging panel on work and technology, hosted by David Ballard of the APA. I was alarmed by the discussion of actual and potential employer excesses in terms of technology and employee surveillance. My main knowing-doing gap point is the obvious need for a revived labor movement to serve as a check on employer power, a point reinforced by panelist David LeGrande of the Communications Workers of America.

One path toward implementing solutions and best practices: Getting the word out

If we are to bridge this gap between knowledge and action, then greater sharing of research and insights via the media is part of our strategy. In that vein, I was part of a panel discussion, “Going Public: Sharing Our Work Through the Media,” also hosted by the APA’s David Ballard. I joined Angel Brownawell (APA), Carrie Bulger (Quinnipiac U.), Lisa Kath (San Diego State U.), and Gary Namie (Workplace Bullying Institute). From our program abstract, here’s a short preview of what we covered:

How can scholars, researchers, and practitioners in fields relevant to worker well-being and organizational performance engage the media, serve as subject matter experts, and help inform public understanding? How can we better translate research for the general public and promote our work in ethical and professionally appropriate ways? How can we build relationships with reporters that lead to being sought out as the experts of choice and how do we prepare for those opportunities when they arise?

The knowledge we need to create better organizations that embrace worker dignity is largely at our disposal. We need to mainstream those insights and understandings in the public dialogue about work, workers, and workplaces. Engaging the media in that effort can help us to bridge the knowing-doing gap.

Presented in Philly: “The Gradual But Inevitable March Toward Enacting Workplace Anti-Bullying Laws in the United States”

I just spent several days at the biennial Work, Stress and Health Conference, held this year in Philadelphia. The conference is co-sponsored by the American Psychological Association, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and the Society for Occupational Health Psychology. This is one of my very favorite conferences, and I’ve have more to say about this year’s gathering in a future post.

For now, I simply wanted to share part of a handout that I prepared for a conference symposium, “The U.S. Workplace Bullying Movement: Assessing Two Decades of Progress,” which also included Drs. Gary Namie, Loraleigh Keashly, and Maureen Duffy — all among the pioneers in our efforts to respond to workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse. My talk was a summary of our ongoing efforts to enact the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill in the United States, including a short timeline:

A Selective Timeline of Highlights

  • 2000 – Basic parameters for the eventual drafting of the Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB) are set out in David C. Yamada, The Phenomenon of “Workplace Bullying” and the Need for Status-Blind Hostile Work Environment Protection,” Georgetown Law Journal (2000).
  • 2002 – I draft and begin circulating early iterations of the HWB.
  • 2003-04 – California becomes the first state to consider the HWB.
  • 2003-present – Over 30 state and territorial legislatures have considered versions of the HWB.
  • Early 2000s – Various states consider bills designed to create study commissions and climate surveys about workplace bullying.
  • 2010 — New York State Senate passes HWB.
  • 2010 – Illinois State Senate passes a version of the HWB applying to public sector workers only.
  • 2010s – Several Employee Practices Liability Insurance policies start to cover liability for bullying-related claims.
  • 2011-12 – Massachusetts House of Representatives moves the HWB to a stage known as “third reading,” making it eligible for a floor vote in the House of Representatives.
  • 2012 – Prompted by the HWB grassroots advocacy movement, more than 100 U.S. local governmental entities issue proclamations endorsing “Freedom From Workplace Bullies Week.”
  • 2013 – Fulton County, Georgia county government (covering Greater Atlanta) adopts a workplace bullying ordinance covering public workers, using the operative definition from the HWB, and permitting discipline or termination of offending employees.
  • 2014 – California enacts legislation that requires employers with 50 or more employees to provide supervisory training and education about workplace bullying, using the operative definition from the HWB.
  • 2014 – New Hampshire governor vetoes problematic workplace bullying legislation that would have covered public sector workers.
  • 2015 – Utah enacts legislation requiring state agencies to train supervisors and employees about workplace bullying prevention, using the operative definition from the HWB.
  • 2019 – Building on a 2014 law covering state and local public employers, Tennessee enacts an odd statute that immunizes employers from bullying-related legal claims if they have adopted a model anti-bullying policy.
  • 2019-20 — Massachusetts HWB attracts 109 co-sponsors, out of 200 elected state legislators.
  • 2019-20 – Rhode Island State Senate passes the HWB.

To be sure, this has been a long haul. But we are nearing the day when a state legislature enacts the full version of the HWB, and when it does, other states will very likely follow. This will be the first workplace anti-bullying law in North America to provide a private right of action for damages for severely bullied workers and liability-reducing incentives for employers to act preventively and responsively toward bullying at work.  

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