Work, Stress and Health 2017 (Hello from Minneapolis!)

The biennial Work, Stress and Health conference, co-sponsored by the American Psychological Association (APA), National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and Society for Occupational Health Psychology (SOHP) is a continuing education highlight for me and an opportunity to share some of my work with colleagues from around the world. It also serves as ongoing proof that a large conference can be enjoyable and friendly, thanks to the great people organizing it and the wonderful folks it attracts.

The 2017 conference began today in Minneapolis with an afternoon opening session, and here are some of the highlights:

  • An opening panel on temporary jobs and the gig economy featured two excellent presentations: David Desario, founder of the Alliance for the Temporary Workforce discussed the elevated workplace health & safety risks faced by temp workers. He’ll be screening “A Day’s Work,” his documentary film about these (sometimes deadly) hazards, at the conference on Thursday afternoon. Journalist Sarah Kessler (Quartz), author of a forthcoming book about the gig economy, sketched out the nature of this small but growing sector, summing up the gig worker’s plight as “risk without the potential rewards of entrepreneurship.”
  • Among the award recipients was Dr. Larissa Barber (Northern Illinois U.), whose cutting-edge research and commentary on work-life issues has been discussed previously on this blog (e.g., here and here). Lacie, as she is known to her friends, was recognized for her early career accomplishments, a richly deserved honor. Dr. Julian Barling (Queen’s U., Canada), one of the earliest researchers on workplace mistreatment (among his many research topics), received an equally well-deserved lifetime achievement award.

I’ll be part of two panels at this year’s conference: One is on “Trauma-Informed Best Practices for Responding to Workplace Bullying and Mobbing,” a panel I organized with Drs. Maureen Duffy and Gary Namie. I included my panel paper in my last post. A second is on “Non-Standard Work Arrangements: A Discussion of Taxonomy and Research Priorities,” building on themes raised in the opening program on temp jobs and the gig economy. I was invited by NIOSH to discuss some of the legal aspects of this topic, including the oft-discussed distinctions between employee and independent contractor status.

Trauma-Informed Legal Perspectives on Workplace Bullying and Mobbing

At next week’s Work, Stress and Health Conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota, I’ll be presenting a short paper, “Trauma-Informed Legal Perspectives on Workplace Bullying and Mobbing,” on a panel with Drs. Maureen Duffy and Gary Namie. I’m happy to include the paper in its substantial entirety here. Regular readers of this blog will find a lot of material that I’ve already included in various chunks here, but I hope it will be interesting and informative nonetheless.

Introduction

Emerging insights about psychological trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder are informing our understanding of legal disputes involving workplace bullying and mobbing, as well as suggesting how trauma-informed employment lawyers, managers, and human resources personnel can be more effective in dealing with legal situations involving abusive work environments. Among other things, neuroscientific discoveries concerning psychological trauma carry potentially great significance for legal and benefit claims involving workplace bullying and mobbing.

Linking Workplace Bullying and Mobbing to Psychological Trauma

Workplace mobbing researchers Leymann & Gustafsson (1996) associated severe work abuse with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder early on in their pioneering work. Since then, scholars, mental health providers, and subject matter experts on workplace bullying and mobbing have made those connections as well (Hogh, Mikkelsen, and Hansen, 2011, pp. 115-17).

Targets of bullying and mobbing have described the trauma of work abuse through narrative descriptions of their experiences. For example, Tracy, Lutgen-Sandvik, and Alberts (2006) interviewed self-identified targets of work abuse. Targets’ accounts were “saturated” with references to “beating, physical abuse, and death” (Tracy, Lutgen-Sandvik, and Alberts, 2006, p. 160). The abuse process was described alternatively as a “game or battle,” a “nightmare,” “water torture,” and a “noxious substance” (Tracy, Lutgen-Sandvik, and Alberts, 2006, p. 159).

Emerging Neuroscientific Insights

In his 2014 book The Body Keeps the Score, trauma expert Dr. Bessel van der Kolk discusses research on how traumatic experiences impact the brain, which may include sharp cognitive impairments that undermine an individual’s ability to present information in an ordered manner (van der Kolk, 2014). Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) shows how psychological trauma activates parts of the brain associated with emotions (the so-called right side), while shutting down parts of the brain associated with speech and logical thinking (left side). These effects can be replicated well after the original traumatic event(s). Accordingly, an individual experiencing psychological trauma may be able to share emotions and impressions about the experience, while encountering great difficulty in setting out the narrative story behind it. Dr. van der Kolk calls it “the speechless horror” (van der Kolk, 2014, p. 43).

Emerging Significance for Employment Law and Legal Practice

These developing insights and discoveries concerning psychological trauma carry potentially great significance for legal and benefit claims involving workplace bullying and mobbing. They also raise potential opportunities and challenges for employment lawyers on both sides of the aisle who are dealing with alleged instances of bullying and mobbing.

Challenges

Mainstreaming fMRI technology – Although fMRI technology is used increasingly in research, its use in clinical settings lags far behind. More significantly for this discussion, its reliability as legal evidence has not yet been widely established, and in some instances has been questioned by courts.

Causation and before/after documentation – Most legal claims and some employee benefits (especially workers’ compensation) require sufficient evidence of causation between the legally significant workplace events and the complained-of harm or injury. In cases where PTSD is part of a claim for damages or worker benefits, the plaintiff or claimant may have to establish factual causation. Thus, if fMRI technology becomes significant in this realm, it may be necessary to have both “before” and “after” scans in order to show impairment due to work-related psychological trauma.

DSM-5 PTSD requirements – In the current edition of the DSM, the list of requisite predicate stressor events for a PTSD diagnosis continues to exclude many instances of non-physical bullying or mobbing: “death, threatened death, actual or threatened serious injury, or actual or threatened sexual violence.”

Potential Applications

Legal client counseling – Employment lawyers who gain a basic understanding of psychological trauma will be in a better position to talk to, interview, and counsel clients who are experiencing it.

Workplace anti-bullying legislation – Currently there is no general, direct legal claim for workplace bullying in the U.S. However, scientific evidence of how trauma can impair brain functioning supports passage of the Healthy Workplace Bill, model legislation I have authored that provides bullying targets a private legal claim for damages and creates legal incentives for employers to prevent and respond to bullying behaviors (Yamada, 2004; Yamada, 2013).

Workplace bullying-related litigation — Some bullying-related mistreatment may be legally actionable under employment discrimination laws, anti-retaliation and whistleblowing statutes, tort (personal injury) causes of action, and collective bargaining laws (Yamada, 2000; Yamada, 2013). Whenever these legal claims are raised in connection with bullying and mobbing situations, evidence of psychological trauma is relevant to prove emotional distress, health care-related damages, and potential decline in on-the-job productivity.

Workplace safety and health laws — Under the General Duty Clause, Section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) of 1970, a covered employer must provide employees with a place of employment that “is free from recognizable hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious harm to employees.” Brain imaging eventually may help to document the serious harm wrought by bullying and mobbing and thus bring it within the General Duty Clause of OSHA.

Workers’ compensation laws – Workers’ compensation laws provide benefits to workers who are injured in the course of and arising out of employment. The easiest type of WC claim is a physical injury leading to a physical impairment, such as a worker who severely injures an arm on the job and thus experiences a significant physical impairment as a result. The hardest type of WC claim is the so-called “mental-mental” scenario, e.g., non-physical forms of sexual harassment, bullying, etc., leading to mental impairments. Evidence of impaired brain functioning associated with trauma can help to buttress WC claims associated with bullying and mobbing.

 References

Hogh, A., Mikkelsen, E. G., & Hansen, A. M. (2011). Individual consequences of workplace bullying/mobbing. Bullying and harassment in the workplace: Developments in research, theory, and practice. (Einarsen, S., Hoel, H., Zapf, D., & Cooper, C., eds., Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press).

Leymann, H., & Gustafsson, A. (1996). Mobbing at work and the development of post-traumatic stress disorders. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 5(2), 251-275.

Tracy, S. J., Lutgen-Sandvik, P. & Alberts, J.K. (2006). Nightmares, demons and slaves: Exploring the painful metaphors of workplace bullying. Management Communication Quarterly, 20, 148-185.

Van der Kolk, B. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. (New York, NY: Penguin).

Yamada, D. C. (2000). The phenomenon of “workplace bullying” and the need for status-blind hostile work environment protection. Georgetown Law Journal, 88(3), 475-536.

Yamada, D. C. (2004). Crafting a legislative response to workplace bullying. Employee Rights and Employment Policy Journal, 8(2), 475-521.

Yamada, D. C. (2013). Emerging American legal responses to workplace bullying. Temple Political & Civil Rights Law Review, 22(2), 329-354.

Workplace bullying and mobbing: Resources for HR

Earlier this spring, I promised a post about resources for human resources professionals who want to learn more about workplace bullying and mobbing and how to incorporate that knowledge into their organizational employee relations practices. As I’ve written here often, I am skeptical about HR’s role in preventing and responding to bullying and mobbing behaviors, given how many horrific stories I’ve witnessed and heard about from those who have experienced these forms of mistreatment. Nevertheless, excellent resources are available, and I’m happy to share some of them.

Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie have co-authored The Bully-Free Workplace: Stop Jerks, Weasels, and Snakes From Killing Your Organization (2011), an employer-oriented complement to their groundbreaking, worker-centered The Bully at Work (rev. ed. 2009). The Bully-Free Workplace sets out the Namies’ basic blueprint for employers that want to take workplace bullying seriously. In addition, the Namie’s Workplace Bullying Institute website includes a treasure trove of resources and services for employers.

Drs. Maureen Duffy and Len Sperry have written the most insightful book on workplace mobbing behaviors, Overcoming Mobbing: A Recovery Guide for Workplace Aggression and Bullying (2014). Their book is slanted toward employees, but it also includes significant advice for organizations that want to address mobbing behaviors.

Drs. Teresa Daniel and Gary Metcalf have co-authored Stop Bullying at Work: Strategies and Tools for HR, Legal, & Risk Management Professionals (2nd ed., 2016). Their helpful guidebook is published by the Society for Human Resource Management, and it provides the most insider, management-oriented perspective among the three books recommended here.

Several years ago, I worked with the American Psychological Association’s Center for Organizational Excellence to create a web page of resources for organizations that want learn more about workplace bullying. The page includes links to articles and websites, book lists, and a three-minute educational video (click above) that can be used in training programs.

Lessons from “Spotlight” for combating interpersonal abuse

Dear readers, I’ve been on the road a lot lately and not able to write as often as usual, but this evening I finished re-watching “Spotlight,” the superb 2015 movie about the Boston Globe’s investigation of the widespread sexual abuse of children committed by priests in the Catholic Church. The title refers to the Globe’s Spotlight investigative team, which spent months pursuing leads and interviewing individuals before going public with its findings in January 2002. Although the Globe was not the only journalistic player in this saga, it took the dedicated resources of the Spotlight team to document the abuse and a cover-up going all the way up to the Archdiocese and Cardinal Bernard Law.

The individual performances in “Spotlight” are outstanding. Michael Keaton (editor “Robby” Robinson), Mark Ruffalo (reporter Mike Rezendes), Rachel McAdams (reporter Sacha Pfeiffer), Liev Schreiber (editor-in-chief Marty Baron), and Stanley Tucci (lawyer Mitch Garabedian) are among those who deliver serious, believable, and understated performances. The movie doesn’t pull punches about the gruesomeness of what occurred here. Nevertheless, it avoids lapsing into overly prurient detail or Catholic-bashing. It lets the story speak for itself, ranging from the impact of sexual abuse on the victims, to the enabling culture of a city, to the powerful institutional role played by the Church in the long-term cover up.

The movie also provides some important food for thought about how to combat systematic abuse, including bullying and abuse in the workplace and other settings. (If you haven’t seen the movie, there are some spoilers ahead.)

First, as I wrote last week, abuse tends to be fueled, enabled, empowered, and protected by corrupt systems. There’s a brilliant scene in the movie where Mitch Garabedian, a lawyer for the child victims of priest abuse, tells Globe reporter Mike Rezendes that “…if it takes village to raise a child, then it takes a village to abuse one.”

Second, muckraking investigative journalism and dedicated, smart legal advocacy still make for a powerful combination. The Globe‘s reporters benefited greatly from the legal advocacy and investigations of lawyers who had taken cases on behalf of the victims.

Third, it may take multiple documented, credible victim stories in order to take on powerful, abuse-sponsoring institutions. The Spotlight team’s investigation didn’t really take off until it became clear that the victim count ran into the many dozens.

Fourth, it’s important to follow the abuse and its cover-up to the highest possible organizational levels in order to have the strongest potential impact. Globe editor Marty Baron made clear to the Spotlight reporters that accountability should be traced, if possible, up to the Archdiocese and Cardinal Law.

“Spotlight” can currently be streamed via Netflix. For the collected Globe Spotlight Team coverage of the priest scandal, go here.

Bureaucracy, administrative bloat, and organizational productivity

Writing for the Harvard Business Review, management experts Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini ask:

How pervasive is bureaucracy in your organization? How much time and energy does it suck up? To what extent does it undermine resilience and innovation? Which processes are more trouble than they’re worth?

To help tease out answers to these questions, Hamel and Zanini break down the costs of excessive organizational bureaucracy into these seven categories:

1. Bloat: too many managers, administrators, and management layers

2. Friction: too much busywork that slows down decision making

3. Insularity: too much time spent on internal issues

4. Disempowerment: too many constraints on autonomy

5. Risk Aversion: too many barriers to risk taking

6. Inertia: too many impediments to proactive change

7. Politics: too much energy devoted to gaining power and influence

But they don’t stop there! In their piece they also offer an assessment instrument, dubbed the “bureaucracy mass index,” that can help organizations compare respective levels of bureaucratic overkill. The instrument is specially for large private sector organizations, but smaller businesses, public agencies, and non-profit employers may find it useful as well.

Academic workplaces

Oh my, does this resonate for me as a denizen of higher education, where administrative bloat and top-down bureaucracy have sucked so much of the vitality out of colleges and universities, not to mention fueled skyrocketing tuition. A (London) Times Higher Education review of Benjamin Ginsburg’s The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University (2011) captures a good chunk of this dynamic:

Administrators breed unless checked. . . . Administrative prestige is measured by the number of “reports” an administrator has, which is to say, how many people report to them. Deans need associate deans, assistant deans, deanlets and a bevy of secretarial staff, less to achieve anything truly useful than to enhance their prestige – and their salaries, because one’s pay goes up in proportion to the number of staff one directs.

It would be bad enough if the administrators were simply unproductive. . . . But The Fall of the Faculty regards many presidents, provosts, deans and their underlings as positively dangerous to the academic enterprise of teaching and research.

Ginsburg drew excerpts from his book to write a shorter piece on this topic — “Administrators Ate My Tuition” — for the Washington Monthly. (For two more good commentaries, check out these articles from The EvoLLLution and Chronicle of Higher Education.)

Administrators breed unless checked. What a brilliant line! How can those of us in bureaucratic work settings help to stop this needless bloat, unwise use of money, and harmful concentration of power?

Systems enable workplace bullying, so where are the systems to stop it?

(Image courtesy of Clipartpanda.com)

As I wrote earlier this year, workplace bullying and mobbing “usually cannot flourish without organizational sponsorship, enabling, or, at the very least, indifference.” Indeed, if we take this a step further, we see that workplace abuse is enabled by formal and informal systems of people and networks.

Those who study social work or organizational behavior learn about systems theory, which is basically a fancy way of saying that human roles and interactions are complex, interrelated, and intertwined, culminating in systems that produce certain results. With workplace bullying and mobbing, dysfunctional or hostile systems inflict injuries on targets and protect their abusers. Thus, a typical campaign of severe bullying or mobbing at work involves multiple players, including but hardly limited to:

  • The main aggressor(s);
  • The supervisor or boss of the main aggressor(s), in order to ratify and sometimes further the abuse;
  • On frequent occasion, peers recruited/pressured/incentivized to join in on the abuse;
  • Human resources personnel to bureaucratically process the abuse through review and discipline of the target;
  • Legal counsel to provide cover for the organization and sometimes direct additional intimidation toward the target;

These players join to create systems of abuse, sometimes tightly coordinated, other times acting in a sort of auto-pilot mode. Not infrequently, players outside of the workplace are enlisted to help out as well, thereby extending the system beyond the office or plant.

Countervailing power

On previous occasions here, I have invoked economist John Kenneth Galbraith’s theory of countervailing power. In the 1950s, Galbraith wrote that organized labor exercised “countervailing power” in the battle over the division of profits with the titans of business and investment. Today, some labor unions help to safeguard their members against bullying and mobbing; others get a failing grade in this regard. In any event, with less than 12 percent of the American workforce currently unionized, few workers can even theoretically turn to unions to protect them from mistreatment on the job.

Accordingly, most workers who face bullying at work today do so without any kind of protective system to stand up to the forces that are abusing them. Sure, they can retain a lawyer, seek counseling and health care, and otherwise attempt to create a “loose parts” network to help them, but the organized, countervailing power to which Galbraith referred isn’t present. If their employer doesn’t take work abuse seriously, they’re basically looking at a lonely fight.

I don’t have any easy answers at this point. Instead, I’ll simply say that we need to (1) revive the labor movement in the form of strong, pro-member unions that understand the harm wrought by work abuse; and (2) create other entities that can help bullied workers in a more powerful, assertive way. We also need plenty more public education about workplace bullying and mobbing in order to build widespread objection to these forms of interpersonal abuse. 

Bad bosses: The consistent jerk vs. Jekyll & Hyde

Workers of the world, given your druthers, would you rather have a boss who is a jerk all of the time or just part of the time? Believe it or not, it may be easier to deal with the full-time version.

Jena McGregor, writing for the “On Leadership” column of the Washington Post, reports on a research study by Fadel K. Matta, Brent A. ScottJason A. Colquitt, Joel Koopman, and Liana G. Passantino published in the Academy of Management Journal, finding “that employees are less stressed and have more job satisfaction when their bosses are always unfair than when their boss is unpredictable.”

One part of the study involved a lab experiment with college students getting feedback from a boss in simulated work environments:

To no one’s surprise, those who got the consistently nice feedback fared best when it came to the heart rate monitoring. But those who consistently heard how much it sucks to work with them did better than those who sometimes heard compliments and sometimes got burned.

The second part of the study surveyed actual workers in a variety of work settings and found the same thing:

Again, employees who had unpredictable managers were more likely to be stressed, dissatisfied with their jobs and emotionally exhausted than those who said they were always treated unfairly.

The Jekyll and Hyde boss

These research findings dovetail with what we’ve heard for years about bad bosses, workplace bullying, and workplace incivility, namely, that the Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde bosses may cause higher levels of stress and uncertainty than those whose behaviors are predictable and consistent. We tend to prefer certainty to uncertainty, perhaps even to the point of opting for a reliably jerky boss over one who offers kudos one day and rants the next. After all, many of us exercise such a preference in other human interactions, ranging from personal relationships to dealing with authority figures such as police officers.

So what lies beneath these Jekyll and Hyde behaviors? In a blog post earlier this year, business school professor Joel Brockner discusses a study by Szu Han Lin, Jingjing Ma, and Russell Johnson that offers two possible explanations. The first is “moral licensing”:

One is moral licensing, which is based on the idea that people want to think of themselves and their behavior as ethical or moral. Having behaved ethically, people are somewhat paradoxically free to behave less ethically, either because their prior behavior gave them moral credits in their psychological ledgers or because it proved them to be fine, upstanding citizens.

The second is personal resource depletion:

A second explanation is based on Roy Baumeister’s notion of ego depletion, which assumes that people have a limited amount of self-control resources. Ego depletion refers to how people exerting self-control in one situation are less able to do so in a subsequent situation. Ego depletion helps to explain, for instance, why employees tend to make more ethical decisions earlier rather than later in the day.

Of course, this also begs the question of whether too many employers hire too many bosses who have low levels of ethics and self-control to begin with, leaving a very thin margin of error in terms of everyday treatment of subordinates and peers. As I have mentioned frequently here, research indicates that the higher we go up the organizational chart, the more we find leaders who demonstrate anti-social and psychopathic qualities. Accordingly, the presence of bad bosses probably means that some employers are drawn to the wrong kind of people as potential managers and leaders in the first place. In such instances, they’re more likely to see Dr. Jekyll at the interview, with Mr. Hyde showing up for the first day of work.

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