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.

Abuse survivors can draw inspiration from John McCain’s life story

Here in America, the death of U.S. Senator John McCain is dominating the news, and rightly so. He has been a major political figure for several decades, marked by a penchant for outspokenness and independence that formed his trademark public image. Most of the McCain remembrances are looking at the broad arcs of his life and career, but upon reading Robert D. McFadden’s feature-length obituary for the New York Times, another thing hit me: He was a trauma survivor.

It’s a well-known part of McCain’s story that he survived more than five years as a POW during the Vietnam War. McCain was a fighter pilot, and during a mission over Hanoi in July 1967, his plane took a missile hit. He managed to eject, but he suffered two broken arms and a shattered knee in the process. He was quickly captured by the North Vietnamese, who immediately set upon him. McFadden writes:

Mr. McCain was stripped to his skivvies, kicked and spat upon, then bayoneted in the left ankle and groin. A North Vietnamese soldier struck him with his rifle butt, breaking a shoulder. A woman tried to give him a cup of tea as a photographer snapped pictures. Carried to a truck, Mr. McCain was driven to Hoa Lo, the prison compound its American inmates had labeled the Hanoi Hilton.

There he was denied medical care. His knee swelled to the size and color of a football. He lapsed in and out of consciousness for days. When he awoke in a cell infested with roaches and rats, he was interrogated and beaten. The beatings continued for days. He gave his name, rank and serial number and defied his tormentors with curses.

After two weeks, a doctor, without anesthesia, tried to set his right arm, broken in three places, but gave up in frustration and encased it in a plaster cast. He was moved to another site and tended by two American prisoners of war, who brought him back from near death.

This was only the beginning of years of continuous torture and beatings, including two years of solitary confinement.

McCain had chances for early release, thanks to his father’s status as a high-ranking U.S. Navy admiral. He refused:

When Admiral McCain became the Pacific Theater commander…, his son was offered early repatriation repeatedly. Commander McCain refused, following a military code that prisoners were to be released in the order taken. He was beaten frequently and tortured with ropes.

(Think about it: How many of us would decline repeated chances to jump the line while facing ongoing torture?)

With the Vietnam War coming to an end, McCain was finally released in March 1973. After a long convalescence, he would return to active duty in the Navy. Eventually, of course, he decided to enter politics.

Trauma survivor and critic of torture tactics

When John McCain was convalescing from his years as a POW, our knowledge of psychological trauma was in its infancy. Among other things, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder would not enter the psychiatric nomenclature until the 1980s — informed strongly by the experiences of Vietnam veterans.

Thus, it’s fair to surmise that much of the focus of McCain’s recovery was on his physical health. But make no mistake about it, he was also a trauma survivor. Despite the horrific physical and psychological abuse that he endured as a POW, he would go on to lead a full and rich life, including long, distinguished service as a U.S. Senator and the Republican Party nomination for President in 2008.

It is worth noting that throughout his political career, McCain was an outspoken critic of the use of torture tactics to interrogate prisoners and those suspected of engaging in terrorist activities. This criticism did not sit well with many people during the post-9/11 era, but McCain persisted. He knew damn well what it felt like to be on the receiving end.

Standing up to a bully at the U.S. Naval Academy

Stories of McCain’s rebellious streak at the U.S. Naval Academy are apparently the stuff of legend. He piled up a mountain of demerits and disciplinary measures as he resisted the strictures of officer training. Tucked into that colorful history of barely escaping expulsion is a story of standing up to bullying, as recounted in an Arizona Republic profile of McCain by Dan Nowicki and Bill Muller:

It’s 1955 in Annapolis, Maryland, and Midshipman John McCain and his roommate, Frank Gamboa, were eating lunch at the mess hall at the U.S. Naval Academy. A first class man, a “firstie” in Navy parlance, began dressing down a Filipino steward.

Gamboa hardly noticed the exchange, but young John McCain was paying close attention. Since the steward was an enlisted man, he couldn’t fight back. The firstie was being a bully, a no-no at the Naval Academy.

The man outranked everyone at the table. McCain and Gamboa were barely past being plebes, the school’s lowest rank. Fearing trouble, other underclassmen ate quickly and left. The browbeating continued.

Finally, McCain could take no more.

“Hey, why don’t you pick on someone your own size?” McCain blurted.

There was a moment of silent shock at the table.

“What did you say?” replied the firstie.

“Why don’t you stop picking on him?” McCain said. “He’s doing the best he can.”

“What is your name, mister?” snapped the firstie, an open threat to put McCain on report.

“Midshipman John McCain the Third,” McCain said, looking straight at the upperclassman. “What’s yours?”

The firstie saw the look in McCain’s eyes. And fled.

Today we’d call it “bystander intervention.” Back then it was simply standing up to a person who is picking on someone else. I don’t know if McCain’s life story includes other instances of intervening in bullying situations, but this one account shows that even as he resisted the disciplinary conventions of Naval Academy training, he was guided early on by something more than simple youthful rebelliousness.

Summing up

Surviving severe, ongoing abuse. Recovering from that abuse to lead a full, meaningful life. Standing up to a bully on behalf of someone being targeted. 

Regardless of our respective political beliefs, there’s something that we all can learn from these chapters of John McCain’s story.

Hopeful, informed dialogue on workplace bullying, mobbing, and incivility at FMCS conference

Lunch always tastes better after you’ve done your program! With co-facilitators and FMCS Commissioners Denise McKenney and Ligia Velazquez.

This week it was my pleasure to participate in a workshop, “Understanding the Civility Spectrum in the Workplace,” at the annual National Labor-Management Conference of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service in Chicago. The FMCS is an independent federal agency whose mission is to support labor-management peace and cooperation through mediation and conflict resolution services. My fellow co-facilitators were two FMCS Commissioners, Denise McKenney (also the agency’s Director of Equal Employment Opportunity) and Ligia Velazquez.

We opened with a framing of a “civility spectrum” that starts milder forms of incivility at work and runs all the way to bullying and mobbing behaviors. Our “formal” presentations quickly gave way to a very interactive discussion with a full room of practitioners from labor unions, management/human resources, and neutrals (mediators and arbitrators).

I titled this post “hopeful, informed dialogue” because that’s exactly what I came away with by participating in an exchange among labor relations professionals from different backgrounds. The discussion was insightful, knowledgeable, and respectful. People implicitly recognized that creating healthy workplaces requires an awareness of, and accountability for, individual behaviors, as well as effective policies and procedures at an organizational level. 

No, we didn’t develop any magic, one-size-fits-all answers on how to deal with incivility, bullying, and mobbing in the workplace. This stuff is too complicated and varied for easy fixes. But when I think back to my first forays into workplace bullying as a topic of study and research back in 1998 with Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie of the Workplace Bullying Institute, I can see how far we’ve come in terms of public education and understanding.

Planning and presenting this program with the folks at FMCS was a very collaborative experience. It was great to co-facilitate with Commissioners McKenney and Velazquez. Their ability to encourage dialogue and discussion contributed mightily toward the interactive nature of the session. In addition, Javier Ramirez (FMCS Manager of National/Field Programs, Initiatives and Innovation) and Heather Brown (FMCS Director of Education and Training) were instrumental in helping to put this together. I also appreciated the warm welcome extended to me by FMCS Director Richard Giacolone and his staff.

***

To Learn More

Here are some of the resources I listed in my handout for the FMCS program:

Articles

Many of my articles on workplace bullying and related topics are freely downloadable from my Social Sciences Research Network page, including:

  • David C. Yamada, Workplace Bullying and Ethical Leadership, Journal of Values-Based Leadership (2008)
  • David C. Yamada, The Phenomenon of “Workplace Bullying” and the Need for Status-Blind Hostile Work Environment Protection, Georgetown Law Journal (2000)
  • David C. Yamada, Emerging American Legal Responses to Workplace Bullying, Temple Political & Civil Rights Law Review (2013)

The Workplace Bullying Institute (Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie)

I have worked with WBI on a pro bono basis since 1998. Their website is a treasure trove of information and resources.

American Psychological Association, Center for Organizational Excellence

I served as a subject matter expert to the APA on the development of this resource webpage on workplace bullying, including an animated educational video, links, and book list.

Recommended Books

  • Maureen Duffy & David C. Yamada, eds., Workplace Bullying and Mobbing in the United States (Praeger/ABC-CLIO, 2018) (two-volume, multidisciplinary, multi-contributor book set).
  • Gary Namie & Ruth Namie, The Bully-Free Workplace (Wiley, 2011) (for employers)
  • Gary Namie & Ruth Namie, The Bully at Work (Sourcebooks, rev. ed. 2009) (for bullying targets)
  • Maureen Duffy & Len Sperry, Overcoming Mobbing: A Recovery Guide for Workplace Aggression and Bullying (Oxford U. Press, 2014)
  • Shelley D. Lane, Understanding Everyday Incivility (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017)
  • Christine Porath, Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace (Grand Central Publishing, 2016)
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