A workshop as annual ritual

The annual group shot, here honoring a request to ham it up a bit. (Photo: Anna Strout)

For over a decade, the annual December workshop of Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HDHS) has become an increasingly significant event in my life. HDHS is a global, transdisciplinary network of scholars, practitioners, artists, and students dedicated to advancing human dignity and reducing humiliation in our society. The two-day workshop occurs each year at Teachers College of Columbia University in New York City, attracting dozens of people from across the country and around the world. I have written about this workshop regularly on this blog, and for good reason: It is one of the most welcomed gatherings of the year for me.

Last week, the workshop beckoned again, and I hopped on an Amtrak train from Boston to New York. My participation would begin with a Wednesday board of directors meeting. In recent years, I have become more deeply involved with HDHS. Service on the board is now one manifestation of that closer engagement. The board meeting also serves as a nice lead-in to the workshop.

In a marvelous little book titled Rituals For Beginners (2016), author Richard Webster defines a ritual as “an action, or series of actions, performed in a prearranged, prescribed manner.” He adds that rituals help us to appreciate life. Most of them “involve an element of gratitude” for experiences that we might otherwise take for granted. 

Well, last Thursday morning, as I exited the subway stop at Columbia’s campus and walked up Broadway toward Teachers College for a Day 1 of the workshop, I had an epiphany: This is no longer “just” an annual event for me. Rather, it has become a meaningful ritual, a renewing, educational, and connective experience with friends old and new. While each year’s workshop provides plenty of variety, its essential format and timing provide a reassuring continuity, in the company of a pretty amazing group of people.

Here’s a brief rundown of my experience of the workshop:

Approaching the halls of Columbia University Teachers College (photo: DY)

With a breakfast sandwich and coffee from a nearby food truck in hand, I walk over to venerable Teachers College, whose International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution graciously hosts this gathering. Founded in 1887, Teachers College was the nation’s first full-fledged graduate school of education. It has since branched out into offerings on health, psychology, and conflict resolution. Its buildings aren’t shiny new digs, but rather older, unpretentious structures that speak of tradition and history. Those surroundings add to the ritual element of the experience.

Linda Hartling and Evelin Lindner open the workshop (photo: Anna Strout)

Our workshop opens with a warm welcome from two individuals who are at the center of HDHS, Linda Hartling (director) and Evelin Lindner (founder and president). Evelin is a social scientist and writer, trained in both medicine and psychology. She travels the world doing workshops, giving lectures, and supporting the work of other change agents. Linda is a clinical psychologist and authority on relational-cultural theory. I frequently cite her brilliant paper, co-authored with Elizabeth Sparks (link here), describing organizational cultures in a relational context.

A pre-planned dignilogue in action (photo: Anna Strout)

The closest things we have to formal panel discussions are “pre-planned dignilogues,” which allow speakers to briskly (as in seven minutes each!) describe a project, publication, or initiative they’re working on, followed by Q&A. Pictured above, criminal justice professor Tony Gaskew (U. of Pittsburgh) is describing his “Life Support” project for individuals in Pennsylvania who have been sentenced to life in prison for crimes committed as juveniles.

I used my dignilogue talk to describe a new course that I’ll be teaching at Suffolk University Law School next semester, a “Law and Psychology Lab” that offers students opportunities to do practical projects applying psychological insights to law and public policy. 

A co-created dignilogue on improvisation and movement (photo: DY)

Our workshop also features “co-created dignilogues,” i.e., extended group discussions and presentations on topics developed each day by workshop participants. In the photo above, Beth Boynton, a nurse and medical improv instructor, is helping to facilitate a co-created dignilogue performance on improvisation and movement.

The gift of music from students at P.S. 10 in Brooklyn (photo: Anna Strout)

One of our Thursday evening traditions has been a musical performance by students from P.S. 10 in Brooklyn, led by their devoted music director, Fred Ellis, who happens to be a notable singer, musician, and song writer in his own right. Here are the kids doing one of their numbers, with Fred on the guitar.

Reporting on the HDHS conference in Brazil (photo: Anna Strout)

In addition to organizing the annual NYC workshop, every year HDHS holds a conference outside of the United States, typically in a country facing compelling social and political issues. This year’s conference was in Brazil, and it turned into something of a roving caravan in the Amazon. In the photo above, Gabriela Saab, a human rights and international law scholar and the newest member of the HDHS board, is sharing stories of her Amazon experience. (Go here for more.)

Michael Britton presents the annual Donald Klein lecture (photo: Anna Strout)

Psychologist Michael Britton is the presenter of the annual Donald Klein Memorial Lecture. Each year, Michael delivers a masterful, wise, and deeply humane talk about the state of the world, using an integrated perspective. This year, he focused on global warming and climate change and our roles in responding to it. It was the most cogent, holistic assessment of the topic that I’ve heard yet. (To watch the 43-minute lecture, go here. It will be time well spent.)

Claudia Cohen accepting her HDHS award (photo: DY)

Every year, HDHS presents a member of this community with its lifetime achievement award. This year’s deserving awardee was Claudia Cohen, a longtime HDHS workshop contributor. Claudia recently retired from a distinguished career at Teachers College, where she focused on organizational cultures and conflict resolution, and she is now doing anti-racism work in her home state of New Jersey.

Special guest Bill Baird (photo: Anna Strout)

On occasion, we are blessed with cameo appearances by noteworthy people. This year’s surprise guest was Bill Baird, often touted as the father of the reproductive rights movement. His pioneering advocacy work includes three victories before the U.S. Supreme Court. He’s pictured above with Evelin Lindner.

Good friends reconnecting (photo: DY)

The workshop serves as a reunion for old friends and an opportunity to make new friends for everyone. Pictured above, Linda Hartling and Bhante Chipamong Chowdhury, a Buddhist activist/monk and HDHS board member, share a moment. These impromptu conversations occur throughout the workshop and fuel both fellowship and future collaborations. 

I am grateful for the many treasured connections I have made through this workshop over the years. For those who are regular participants, these ties build and strengthen. We may also keep in touch through emails, social media, and occasional face-to-face get togethers during the rest of the year, but it’s this December workshop that brings us together in the most meaningful way. 

Our closing circle, with some singing to conclude our time together (photo: Anna Strout)

In recent years, we’ve been closing the workshop with music as well. Above, I’m helping to lead our group in singing “What a Wonderful World,” which has become something of a tradition. Infusing the workshop with more music and singing helps to counterbalance the difficult subjects that are often the focus of our discussions.

In both direct and indirect ways, the HDHS workshop supports the work I do on workplace bullying and mobbing. Overall, the event reaffirms the critical importance of advancing human dignity in our society. It is deeply instructive and inspiring to hear others talk about their work in addressing abuse, mistreatment, and injustice in so many other settings. In addition, I have frequently discussed my workplace anti-bullying initiatives and found that topic to be very well received. It is validating to me that folks who are doing such important work in their own realms understand the significance of workplace abuse. On occasion, I’m able to share more of my work with fellow participants who are experiencing difficult work situations in their own lives.

Even I can be a work of art! (photo: Anna Strout)

And if you’ll excuse a personal indulgence, we’re now adding some art to the mix as well! Anna Strout, our devoted photographer and a gifted educator, activist, and artist, masterminded a project of trace drawings from photographs she took during the workshop. Here I am posing with her drawing of me!

So, this is a snapshot of what this workshop has come to mean for me. Such is the good power of this gathering that each year, I return to Boston reinvigorated for the work that I get to do. Rituals delivering that kind of energetic renewal are very special indeed. 

***

Want to learn more? You may go here for a closer look at our 2019 workshop agenda. You also may go here to access videos of workshop events.

“How can I make a living doing workplace anti-bullying work?”

Webpage for Workplace Bullying University training program, facilitated by Dr. Gary Namie

Over the past few months, I’ve had several conversations and exchanges with folks about options for making a living doing workplace anti-bullying work. My upshot? One should look to incorporate workplace bullying and mobbing projects and initiatives into an existing work portfolio, in a compatible vocation. Otherwise, it is more realistic to be doing anti-bullying work as a meaningful part-time avocation.

In essence, creating work opportunities in this realm requires two major elements: (1) a relevant vocation; and (2) specialized knowledge.

Vocation

The first key piece involves pursuing a vocation relevant to addressing workplace bullying and mobbing. My short list includes:

  • Mental health professionals, including licensed counselors, social workers, clinical psychologists, and psychiatrists;
  • Human resources and employee assistance professionals;
  • Labor union leaders and officials; 
  • Personal coaches and organizational consultants;
  • Lawyers (both plaintiff and defense) and dispute/conflict resolution specialists and ombudspersons; and,
  • Higher education faculty in pertinent fields of teaching and research.

My work as a law professor may be somewhat illustrative. I have concentrated my teaching in the employment and labor law field, and now I’m adding courses in law & psychology to the mix. I include some coverage of the legal implications of workplace bullying in these courses, but I don’t have time in a given course to make it a primary focal point. However, I’ve also made workplace bullying the leading focus of my scholarship, which, in turn, has led to the drafting of the Healthy Workplace Bill and related public education initiatives such as this blog. In this manner, at least part of my living has been made doing anti-bullying work. Other aspects of this work are more of a volunteer nature.

In terms of legal practice, generic workplace bullying unrelated to discriminatory behaviors or retaliation for whistleblowing remains largely legal in the U.S. This obviously limits how much time attorneys can devote to bullying-related cases. Consequently, I don’t know of any attorney who specializes in workplace bullying claims, although some lawyers pursue cases with elements of bullying behaviors, so long as they can find sufficient legal hooks, such as discriminatory intent.

Mental health and psychology currently offer more promise for sustainable work concerning workplace bullying and mobbing. There remains a crying need for mental health professionals who are both familiar with the dynamics of workplace bullying and trained in treating psychological trauma. Organizational psychologists can also include workplace bullying in their work for employers.

Specialized knowledge

The second key piece is developing a deep well of specialized knowledge about workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse. A wealth of research and expert commentary is now available for those who want to teach themselves about these topics. To help folks get started, I’ve compiled an updated recommended book list (link here) and worked with the American Psychological Association to create a resource page (link here).

In addition, I highly recommend attending an intensive program of training and education about workplace bullying. Workplace Bullying University (link here), a three-day workshop facilitated by Dr. Gary Namie of the Workplace Bullying Institute, offers an immersive, thorough, and interactive training program for professionals who seek graduate-level knowledge and insights. It is a pricey but worthy investment for those who want to devote a significant part of their professional practices to combating workplace bullying. (Go here for my write-up on a special edition of Workplace Bullying University last spring.)

In Canada, social worker and therapist Linda Crockett offers training programs on workplace bullying through her Alberta Bullying Resource Centre (link here), including programs specially developed for mental health providers. I interviewed Linda for this blog back in September (link here), during which she explained more about her work and services.

To this I must add another important note. In terms of gaining a knowledge base, it is not enough to have been a target of workplace abuse. As terrible as that experience was, a person’s own familiarity with it does not provide a sufficient grounding in what workplace bullying and mobbing are all about. Furthermore, a formal training program can help a target gauge whether they are ready to move into a helping or service mode concerning work abuse. If they are not ready, they can do harm to themselves and to others.

Additional thoughts on coaching

Coaching is a field in which seemingly anyone can hang out a shingle (nowadays, often in virtual fashion) and claim professional status. Various coach training programs and certification processes are completely optional endeavors.

Nevertheless, for those who wish to do coaching for targets of work abuse, relevant professional training is strongly urged. Several years ago I took a year-long leadership coaching course through the Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching (link here). I highly recommend it for anyone who wants to do personal coaching for bullying and mobbing targets. In fact, after going through this intensive training course (which includes both learning and practicing coaching techniques), I cannot imagine referring anyone to a coach who has not completed such a program.

***

We need more trained, dedicated, and knowledgeable individuals in fields relevant to employment relations and mental health to help prevent and respond to workplace bullying and mobbing. I hope this information is helpful to those who are contemplating possibilities for doing work in this field.

MTW Newsstand: December 2019

The “MTW Newsstand” brings you a curated selection of articles relevant to work, workers, and workplaces. Whenever possible, the materials are freely accessible. Here are this month’s offerings:

Daniel Moritz Rabson, “Working at Amazon: 189 Suicide Attempts, Mental Health Episodes Reportedly Took Place Over Five Years,” Newsweek (2019) (link here)  — “At least 189 instances of “suicide attempts, suicidal thoughts and other mental health episodes” prompted emergency responses at Amazon warehouses between October 2013 and October 2018, The Daily Beast reported. The 189 calls about Amazon employees, which Amazon tracked through police reports and emergency call logs, came from 46 Amazon warehouses in 17 states. These 46 facilities make up a quarter of such spaces around the country. Calls to 911 dispatchers detailed incidents in which Amazon workers tried to cut themselves and talked about killing themselves.”

Editorial, “We all must rise above bullying, coarse dialogue,” Lincoln Journal Star (2019) (link here) — “As Charlie Bowlby prepped for a heart surgery, his co-workers made him a toe tag and took bets on whether he’d survive. . . . Complications on the operating table claimed the 53-year-old’s life, one made more difficult by the actions of his co-workers. It’s a shame that anyone would have to suffer what Bowlby did. But he’s far from the only person to endure such bullying, with his story illustrating the tragic consequences of such deeds taken too far. In general, the coarsening of our dialogue – and our growing inability to have interpersonal communication – worries us, and it extends far beyond the workplace.”

Lena Solow, “The Scourge of Workers Wellness Programs,” New Republic (2019) (link here) — “But recent research suggests that wellness programs aren’t even accomplishing the goals of promoting health or increasing productivity. In a large-scale study, 33,000 employees at BJ’s Wholesale Club were randomly assigned to be in a group taking part in the BJ’s wellness plan or a control group that was not. The study, published in JAMA in April, found that while workers showed a bump in a few self-reported health activities, there were no significant changes in clinical measures of health, absenteeism, or work performance—all supposed money-savers for employers.”

Eric Ravenscraft, “How to deal with mental illness at work,” New York Times (2019) (link here) — “Fortunately, United States law provides some protections for people with mental illnesses — just as they do for any physical disability — but they go only so far. Here, we’ll go over some of the support you can expect from your employer, but we’ll also discuss strategies you can use to get through the day, even when you’re not feeling your best.”

Kathryn Heath & Brenda F. Wensil, “To Build an Inclusive Culture, Start with Inclusive Meetings,” Harvard Business Review (2019) (link here) — “Meetings matter. They are the forum where people come together to discuss ideas, make decisions, and be heard. Meetings are where culture forms, grows, and takes hold. So it stands to reason that if an organization desires a more inclusive culture — and leaders want to model inclusion — then meetings are the place to start. But, from what we’ve seen, executives often miss the mark.”

Peter Gosselin, “If You’re Over 50, Chances Are the Decision to Leave a Job Won’t be Yours,” ProPublica (2018) (link here) — “ProPublica and the Urban Institute, a Washington think tank, analyzed data from the Health and Retirement Study, or HRS, the premier source of quantitative information about aging in America. Since 1992, the study has followed a nationally representative sample of about 20,000 people from the time they turn 50 through the rest of their lives. Through 2016, our analysis found that between the time older workers enter the study and when they leave paid employment, 56 percent are laid off at least once or leave jobs under such financially damaging circumstances that it’s likely they were pushed out rather than choosing to go voluntarily.”

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