Coronavirus: Timelines toward normalcy and choices for society

(image courtesy of clipartmag.com)

I’m neither a public health expert nor a physician, but whenever I hear people asking when life will return to normal, I keep coming back to three requirements regarding the coronavirus:

  • The availability of inexpensive, fast, and readily available testing — ideally accurate do-at-home tests;
  • Effective therapeutic treatments that can stop infections from turning into severe cases that require hospitalization and invasive ventilator treatment; and,
  • An effective preventive vaccine, hopefully one that provides blanket protection along the lines of the polio vaccine, but in any event more effective than seasonal flu shots.

Until we have these three pieces in place, I cannot imagine life regaining a strong semblance of normalcy. Instead, at best we will experience periodic outbreaks that require us to return to social distancing and shelter-at-home practices.

So what’s the timeline on these needed public health developments? Based on way too much surfing around for information and informed opinion about the virus, I think it’s reasonable to expect (1) widely available testing kits by the end of the year; (2) therapeutic treatments later this year or early in 2021; and (3) a vaccine available sometime in 2021.

If I’m right, it means that we’re going to be in this mode of living for some time. Accordingly, this increasingly will start to feel like wartime-style deprivation and sacrifice. The world of work will continue to be profoundly affected. Displaced workers and shut-down businesses will need ongoing public subsidies during this time.

I hope that I am very wrong. I hope that our heroic doctors and medical researchers will improvise miraculous treatments in the coming weeks. I hope they will make brilliant discoveries on the vaccine front that can be quickly screened for safety and provided to the public.

More realistically, I think we should hope for the best but prepare ourselves for a longer haul. Among other things, our planning should include creating a much stronger social safety net for supporting individuals, small businesses and non-profits, and our cultural and educational institutions. 

In other words, how we deal with the weeks and months to come — individually and collectively — will define the character of our society for many years, well after we’ve quashed this damnable virus. Let generosity, compassion, and care be our guiding lights.

Academic home work: Of Zoom and coronavirus

Law and Psychology Lab at Suffolk Law goes online

Well folks, my work as a law professor these days often boils down to one word: Zoom.

If you’re aware of what’s going on at colleges and universities around the world during the coronavirus crisis, then you’ve likely heard of a videoconferencing platform called Zoom. Zoom is a fairly easy-to-use system that allows us to hold classes, meetings, and seminars in real time. In order to safeguard public health, we’re experiencing a sudden, massive migration of instruction to online formats, and Zoom has been the most popular platform for delivering courses. Suffolk University here in Boston is no exception.

Yesterday I taught two classes, Employment Law and Law and Psychology Lab, on Zoom. I’ve included above the “class picture” I took of our Law and Psychology Lab session last evening — with the students’ kind permission, of course!

How does this compare with face-to-face teaching? Let me start by saying that I appreciate having a serviceable online platform that allows us to create a decent semblance of an in-person class session. Without Zoom and similar services, our only other option would be to record and post lectures. While some professors are doing this, I’m attempting, to the degree possible, to maintain a regular class schedule with live sessions.

Furthermore, I’m proud that our students are doing their best to navigate these very difficult and uncertain circumstances. Not only has the mode of instruction changed dramatically, but also important matters such jobs and summer internships, scheduling of bar examinations, and the like remain unsettled. A lot of plans have been thrown into disarray. I have long said that the classic Suffolk Law student is smart, hardworking, and not entitled. Those characteristics are being put to the test right now.

Of course, I’m grateful that I can work and receive a paycheck at a time when unemployment rates are soaring to stunning levels and businesses are taking a beating. While I am confident that we’ll see effective treatments and vaccines for this virus, until they arrive on the scene, our economy will be in upheaval. The process of re-opening our economic lives (not to mention our social and civic lives) will take time as well.

Indeed, I look forward to the day when we can return to our physical classrooms. I think a lot of our students feel the same way. I’m hearing that the experience of attending classes via video conferencing is proving to be tiring. Some of us are reporting headaches from so much time spent in front of computer screens. I think I will need to engage in healthier social distancing from my laptop during the upcoming weeks and months.

In any event, mine are but small adjustments compared to the challenges facing health care providers and other essential workers who are putting themselves on the line for us every day, as well as the millions who are scrambling to pay rent and basic living expenses. For those of us able to work from home, our jobs — our responsibilities, I’d say — include making the best of this situation, being generous when it comes to supporting others, and practicing safe health habits for the benefit of all.

Life and work during coronavirus: We need large supplies of kindness

(image courtesy of cliparting.com)

Dear Readers, for the past few days I’ve been mulling over what to write about the coronavirus (COVID-19) situation and its relation to the everyday experience of work.

But as I took sparsely populated Boston subway trains to and from my university office today, I realized that all I wanted to say is that we need to be kind to each other during this challenging and scary time.

To offer a few examples: If folks are starting to work from home, please make an extra effort to express appreciation to those who must show up to work because they have no other choice. If you do patronize a business where workers rely on tip income, be generous if you can afford it, because it’s likely that they’re hurting. And by all means, please don’t hoard supplies of paper goods, food, hand sanitizer, and whatever. 

Life can be hard enough without a pandemic hanging over our heads. Hopefully we can minimize the impact of this virus while holding on to our best selves.

On forgiving yourself for dropping the ball

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Have you ever dropped the ball on a work-related project? I have, and it feels awful, even when I’ve had an understandable reason — usually related to being overcommitted and swamped. At times, the workload has been self-inflicted, the product of taking on too much or not being able to say no.

Typically, dropping the ball means that we’ve let others down by failing to do our piece of a project or delivering an inferior work contribution, due to lack of sufficient time or attention. Folks who have a tendency to overcommit or who may not be the best self-managers can be especially susceptible to dropping the ball. This includes people who have a strong sense of responsibility.

So what should we do when we drop the ball? I’ve given this some thought and come up with the following advice, while fully confessing that I haven’t necessarily practiced these points to perfection:

  • If you’re mortified and/or feeling guilty about dropping the ball, that’s good. It shows you have a conscience. Not everyone has that capacity.
  • In many instances, a sincere, honest apology is appropriate. It shows respect for the folks you’re working with or for, and it may well make you feel better and relieved.
  • If there are significant negative consequences — including practical, legal, or contractual ones — then owning up to the situation promptly is the best thing. It also may be possible to fix the situation.
  • Reflect upon how it happened and how to avoid similar problems in the future.

Above all, forgive yourself. Hold yourself responsible for your miscue and try to do better, but don’t let it be the bane of your existence.

Similarly, if someone drops the ball on you, try to be forgiving, especially if they apologize and explain what happened. After all, they probably feel bad and embarrassed on their end.

Of course, if you or someone else is dropping the ball all the time, then there’s probably a deeper or more systemic problem.

Ultimately, being responsible is a good thing, and so is cutting some slack for ourselves and others now and then.

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.”

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.

MTW Newsstand: October 2019

Every month, 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:

Eric Kuelker, “How Psychological Injuries Cause Physical Illness — And How Therapy Can Heal It,” Mad in America (2019) (link here) — “You and your loved ones now have a new future. Whether the psychological injury was early in your life or recent, whether your boss bullied you, or your business partner stole from you, whatever the nature of your emotional wound, a healthy new future is possible. Torn DNA can be woven together again, blood pressure can drop, gray matter in the brain can grow, and you can greatly reduce the risk of 7 of the 10 leading causes of early death.”

Michelle R. Smith, “Why many employees feel devalued even in booming job market,” AP News (2019) (link here) — “Economic research, government data and interviews with workers sketch a picture of lagging wages, eroding benefits and demands for employees to do more without more pay. The loyalty and security that many say they once felt from their employers have diminished, and with it some measure of their satisfaction.”

A. Pawlowski, “Why older women will rule the world: The future is female, MIT expert says,” NBC News (2019) (link here) — “Older women can sometimes feel like they’re invisible to workplaces and businesses, but they’re actually the trailblazers others should be watching, says Joseph F. Coughlin, director of the AgeLab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of the new book, “The Longevity Economy: Unlocking the World’s Fastest-Growing, Most Misunderstood Market.” As people get older, the future is female, he argues, with women better prepared for life after middle age than their male peers.”

Karen Weese, “America’s fastest growing jobs don’t pay a living wage,” The Week (2019) (link here) — Over the next 10 years, the occupations with the most job growth in America will not be the techy jobs that most of us think of as the jobs of the future, like, say, solar-panel technicians or software engineers. Instead, they’ll be the jobs held by the women in Hyde-Miller’s community center neighborhood: home health aide and personal care aide. More than one million new aides will be needed over the next decade, in addition to the 3.2 million already in the field, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Wednesday. What’s more, six of the 10 occupations providing the most new jobs over the next decade will pay less than $27,000 a year. That’s more than 15 million people, working hard at jobs that simply don’t pay the bills.”

Sherri Gordon, “6 Reasons Why People Are Bullied at Work,” verywellmind (2019) (link here) — “If you have experienced workplace bullying, you may be asking yourself “why me?” And you are not alone: workplace bullying impacts 54 million Americans every year. Here are some common reasons why people are targeted by workplace bullies.”

Bill Chappell, “U.S. Income Inequality Worsens, Widening To A New Gap,” NPR (2019) (link here) — “The gap between the richest and the poorest U.S. households is now the largest it’s been in the past 50 years — despite the median U.S. income hitting a new record in 2018, according to new data from the U.S. Census Bureau. . . . While many states didn’t see a change in income inequality last year, the income gap grew wider in nine states: Alabama, Arkansas, California, Kansas, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Texas and Virginia.”

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