When the workplace causes depression and anxiety

In a recent piece (link here) on coping with depression and anxiety in today’s workplace, Yahoo finance writer Jeanie Ahn acknowledges that organizations themselves can trigger these conditions:

Workers should also recognize that the organization they work for could be dysfunctional: “The more disturbing the workplace, the more vulnerabilities and personal foibles will emerge,” says Dr. Lynn Friedman, a clinical psychologist and executive career counselor based in Washington, D.C.

Just like physical ailments, mental health can worsen from working long hours, lack of sleep, stress, overwhelming workloads, and toxic work environments.“One way to support people to be healthy is to look at areas of dysfunction in the workplace and address them in a direct and straightforward way,” says Friedman.

Of course, this plays right into the topic of workplace bullying and mobbing, which is responsible for causing a host of physical and mental health problems.

Disclosing to an employer

Regardless of whether a mental health situation has been caused or exacerbated by a toxic work environment, the question of disclosing the condition to one’s employer is full of complexities. If a condition rises to the level of a disability, then disability discrimination laws may require the employer to provide a reasonable accommodation for it. However, there are no guarantees here. Especially if the organizational culture is hostile or dysfunctional, it’s quite possible that disclosure and an accommodation request will yield negative results, including retaliation and/or being pushed out of one’s job.

Adds Yahoo’s Ahn:

“In an ideal world, you should be able to disclose a mental health issue without being discriminated against, but the reality is we don’t live in that perfect world,” says Darcy Gruttardo, director at the Center of Workplace Mental Health.

About half of workers in [a recent American Psychiatric Association survey] expressed concerns about discussing mental health issues at work; a third worried about consequences if they seek help. For those thinking about talking about it at work, Gruttardo recommends talking to your primary care doctor first to get any symptoms under control, before approaching human resources or an employee assistance program (EAP).

Missing from this analysis is the potential role of labor unions. Unionized workers will typically be able to approach their union representative for advice and support. In some cases, additional protections relevant to mental health treatment may be contained in a collective bargaining agreement. Like all types of organizations, some unions are much better than others at serving their members, but at the very least they provide options that other workers don’t enjoy.

As I say often on this blog, there are no easy answers when it comes to handling such matters. Organizations differ markedly in their fairness and integrity, as do individuals within them. At the very least, it’s important that we continue to understand organizational roles in supporting or undermining the mental health of workers. Only then can we consider solutions and responses.

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On following evil orders at work

In a piece for Medium (link here), Sarah Griffiths interviews psychological researcher Julia Shaw (University College London) on her new book Evil: The Science Behind Humanity’s Dark Side (2019). Here’s what Dr. Shaw says about the negative implications of our tendency to follow orders:

Following orders is the default human tendency, so if there’s someone in authority, or someone who has authority over you, then you are likely to follow their orders, unless you are in danger. That’s for a host of social reasons, not the least of which is that we are generally trusting of our fellow humans and if we’ve placed them in a position of responsibility — a political office, for example — then we trust the decisions they are making are not going to break social norms or moral values.

It’s also a lot of work to stand up against authority and think for ourselves in a situation when we feel we don’t have to, so we quite readily outsource immorality as our brains are effectively a bit lazy and are constantly trying to conserve resources.

Among other things, these dynamics can lead us to take part in cruel and abusive behaviors. History is riddled with examples of this, including participation in torture and genocides.

In response, Shaw suggests three things that we can do to avoid engaging in mistreatment of others, at the behest of someone in authority:

There are three things you can do. The first is to learn about things and prepare yourself when times are good for when times are bad.

…The second thing you can do is “foster heroic imagination,” … (s)o you can picture yourself swimming against the tide of “evil” and going out of your way to do good things for other people — playing the hero.

…The third thing is to make sure that when you are in a situation requiring morally challenging decisions, that you deliberately fight the urge to give in and go with the flow.

At work

Naturally I’m translating this into workplace settings: What if an employee is directed or enlisted to take part in the bullying, mobbing, or harassment of a co-worker? How should that individual respond? What are the costs and consequences of resisting versus going along?

Certainly we can all grow as individuals and develop stronger moral and ethical groundings in terms of how we respond to directives to do wrongful things to others. In that sense, it seems that the three things suggested by Dr. Shaw require a lot of foundational work on ourselves, well before the precipitating events arise. Those events will test us, and decisions on how to respond will emanate from our core foundations.

That said, I am only mildly optimistic about our collective ability to respond to work abuse in the individualized manner suggested by Shaw. Typically these forms of interpersonal mistreatment are enabled or endorsed by organizational leaders. Our tendency to take our cues from the top — the very tendency centrally acknowledged by Shaw — creates shared presumptions that succeeding on the job means accepting, or at least not resisting, the accompanying values and behaviors. By contrast, someone “playing the hero” in the face of wrongful behaviors is often left to do so on their own, with all the accompanying risks.

Rather, the solutions are more systemic. We need a stronger, more inclusive labor movement to provide a countervailing voice for everyday workers. We need laws against workplace bullying. We need stronger enforcement of existing workplace protections. Ultimately, we need to embrace dignity as the primary framing value for our society, joined with a commitment that dignity should not be sacrificed for the right to earn a living and pursue a vocation.

True, advocating for these changes often requires speaking truth to power, but at least if we do so more collectively, our chances of success are much greater than going it alone.

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.

A Labor Day with too few union members

According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. labor union membership rate is rough half of what it was in 1983, when the government began keeping comparable data:

The union membership rate—the percent of wage and salary workers who were members of unions— was 10.7 percent in 2016, down 0.4 percentage point from 2015, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. The number of wage and salary workers belonging to unions, at 14.6 million in 2016, declined by 240,000 from 2015. In 1983, the first year for which comparable union data are available, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent, and there were 17.7 million union workers.

If we go back to the 1950s, we see that roughly one third of the American workforce was unionized.

During this stretch of time, giant wage and wealth gaps have opened up and the middle class has been giving way to economic extremes of the top 10-15 percent doing very well and so many others barely hanging on, if that. The accompanying dynamics include virulent, corporate-fueled on-the-floor and political opposition to organized labor. And let’s also acknowledge that too many unions don’t serve their members well and retain leaders who act like the worst CEOs.

The labor movement has been the most effective force in American history for raising wages and benefits to livable, sustainable levels and keeping them there. So long as the union membership rate continues its decline, I don’t have much hope for the fortunes of the average American worker. Hopefully people will wake up and realize that they’ve been sold a bad bill of goods over the past few decades and come to embrace what good unions do for our society.

How bad organizations create outsiders

For many years I’ve used the term institutional construction of outsider status to describe how bad organizations turn internal critics into outsiders, even if they remain on the payroll. The critics are generally competent — perhaps even excellent — at their jobs, but to the dismay of their employers, they will say what’s on their minds, offer suggestions for improvement, and when necessary raise ethical or legal concerns.

For whatever reasons (legal, practical, etc.), the respective organizations do not rid themselves of these individuals, at least not immediately. However, at best the organizations sort of tolerate them, while finding ways to subtly and not-so-subtly marginalize them. Such responses may fall short of outright ostracism, hostility, or retaliation, but suffice it to say that targets of such marginalization will never be in the inner circle and will never be seriously considered for certain types of promotions. They may also begin to feel isolated, as the organization’s responses (or non-responses) to their criticisms can send cues to co-workers to stay away from them. The targets may well perceive what’s happening, but they often find that it’s not easy to challenge practices, behaviors, and decisions that are cloaked in foggy subjectivity. At times, targets will internalize their perceived isolation and further withdraw from certain types of organizational engagement.

I see this a lot in academic institutions, where protections of tenure and academic freedom are designed in part to safeguard faculty speech, thus making it harder to discipline or terminate professors for expressing themselves on matters related to institutional governance and scholarly work. Lacking the right to simply get rid of a critical tenured faculty member who is performing satisfactorily, the schools will find ways to tolerate and marginalize the individual. Of course, tenured professors should never assume that they are bulletproof from wrongful retaliation for their exercise of free speech, even though tenure does add a strong layer of protection.

Unions and collective bargaining agreements (CBA) can also provide employees with greater free speech protections than those enjoyed by the average American worker. The typical CBA stipulates that a covered employee may be terminated only for just cause, which is usually defined as failure to perform competently, material misconduct, or financial necessity. Labor laws also afford these workers with the right to engage in concerted activities for mutual aid or protection.

As welcomed as these protections may be for workers fortunate to have them, they can only do so much. As I suggested above, no one is truly bulletproof in today’s workplace. If one is employed at a not-so-great organization and decides to become a critic, at the very least they can expect to be marginalized and to face an opaque ceiling when it comes to advancement.

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. 

Gaslighting at work

Gaslighting is a form of deliberate manipulation intended to disorient, confuse, and frighten those on the receiving end. Many discussions about gaslighting occur in reference to personal relationships, often in the context of domestic or partner abuse. However, gaslighting can occur in other settings as well, including workplaces. In fact, I predict that we’ll be hearing a lot more about gaslighting at work during the years to come, and I’d like to survey that waterfront.

In her excellent book The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life, (2018 pb ed. with rev. intro), Dr. Robin Stern defines gaslighting as:

a type of emotional manipulation in which a gaslighter tries to convince you that you’re misremembering, misunderstanding, or misinterpreting your own behavior or motivations, thus creating doubt in your mind that leaves you vulnerable and confused. Gaslighters might be men or women, spouses or lovers, bosses or colleagues, parents or siblings, but what they all have in common is their ability to make you question your own perceptions of reality.

According to Dr. Stern, gaslighting is a “mutually created relationship” involving a gaslighter who wants “the gaslightee to doubt her perceptions of reality,” and a gaslightee who is “equally intent on getting the gaslighter to see her as she wished to be seen.”

In the introduction to her new edition, she explains how gaslighting is now being applied to scenarios such as bullying. In fact, she references this blog in doing so:

Meanwhile, an increasing number of blogs linked gaslighting to bullying, both in personal relationships and at work. “Is gaslighting a gendered form of workplace bullying?” asked David Yamada on his blog, Minding the Workplace, while numerous dating and self-help blogs talked about the importance of identifying and standing up to your gaslighter. 

Despite growing awareness of the term and its underlying behaviors, the idea of gaslighting is so rooted in pop psychology that there are no “official” definitions from more authoritative psychological sources. Indeed, another illuminating definition comes from Wikipedia, a distinctly non-academic source:

…a form of manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or members of a group, hoping to make targets question their own memory, perception, and sanity. Using persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying, it attempts to destabilize the target and delegitimize the target’s belief.

Origins

If you’re wondering where the term gaslighting comes from, then you might want to watch an old movie. As Dr. Martha Stout explains in her deeply insightful book, The Sociopath Next Door (2005):

In 1944, George Cukor directed a psychological thriller entitled Gaslight, in which a beautiful young woman, played by Ingrid Bergman, is made to feel she is going insane. Her fear that she is losing her mind is inflicted on her systematically by Charles Boyer, who plays her evil but charming husband. Among a number of other dirty tricks, Boyer arranges for Bergman to hear sounds in the attic when he absent, and for the gaslight to dim by itself, in a menacing house where her aunt was mysteriously murdered years before.

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Gaslighting steps

In a Psychology Today blog post, Dr. Stern offers a list of questions to determine whether someone is dancing what she calls the “Gaslight Tango.” Here are several that are especially relevant to the workplace:

  • “You are constantly second-guessing yourself.”
  • “You ask yourself, ‘Am I too sensitive?’ a dozen times a day.”
  • “You often feel confused and even crazy at work.”
  • “You have the sense that you used to be a very different person – more confident, more fun-loving, more relaxed.”

“Crazy at work.” Gaslighting can be, and often is, crazy making.

Gaslighting and workplace bullying & mobbing

Gaslighting usually involves a power imbalance grounded in formal hierarchy, interpersonal dynamics, or both. This makes the workplace a prime host for such behaviors, with bullying a frequent variation. As I wrote several years ago in one of this blog’s most popular posts:

Specific workplace bullying tactics can run from the obvious and transparent to the remarkably deceitful and calculated. Among the most treacherous of the latter is “gaslighting”….Gaslighting at work can range from orchestrated, manipulative aggressor-to-target behaviors, to HR officers expressing faux incredulity in response to claims of abusive mistreatment.

My hypothesis is that a large percentage of the most virulent, targeted bullying and mobbing campaigns involves serious amounts of gaslighting.

Management gaslighting in union organizing campaigns

Gaslighting is often used by employers to oppose labor unions. They use deceptive messaging to get workers to doubt their common sense:

  • “We’re all in this together, so do you really want a union to interfere with that relationship?” — If everyone is truly in this together, then how has the pay gap between high-level executives and rank-and-file workers become so wide and deep over the past few decades? These vast divides exist in most organizations that oppose unions.
  • “If you vote for a union, then you lose your individual voice” — This dubious claim assumes that the individual worker had a meaningful voice to begin with! (Imagine an entry-level administrative assistant or retail store worker approaching their manager with a request to enter into negotiations about their pay and benefits.) On balance, unionized workers have a lot more legal and contract protections for expressing work-related concerns than do non-union workers.
  • “We can’t control what happens if a union is voted in” — This is a classic gambit meant to plant confusion and fear of the unknown about the consequences of a successful union election.

Gaslighting and managerial pronouncements

We may think of gaslighting as being targeted at individuals, but sometimes it’s a group experience on the receiving end.

When an executive, manager, or senior administrator invokes the term “transparency” (or some variant), and it feels like they’re merely being transparent about being opaque, that’s potential gaslighting. When the human resources office announces changes in employee relations policies that offer more “flexibility,” “freedom to choose,” or “streamlining” that will advantage all, when in reality it means lower or fewer benefits and/or more hassle, that’s potential gaslighting.

If your response upon hearing such pronouncements is along the lines of “hold it, this makes no sense” or “do they really think I’m that stupid?!,” well, then, look for the gaslight.

Thinking like a gaslighter

Yes, gaslighting is often employed to intimidate, confuse, frighten and/or diminish its target. In this way it is a significant, malicious, dignity-denying abuse of power.

Accordingly, understanding gaslighting may be necessary in order to effectively oppose injustice, mistreatment, or abuse. This is not easy, because (thank goodness) gaslighting does not come naturally to most of us. “Thinking like a gaslighter” can mean having to think like a psychopath, sociopath, or severe narcissist. It’s not a pleasant place to be.

What gaslighting is not

Of course, now that gaslighting has become a more popular term, it is inevitable that it will be misused, overused, or confused with other behaviors. Over the years, I’ve read and heard about claims of gaslighting that do not appear to be the case. Gaslighting is generally not synonymous with:

  • An honest disagreement, even an intense or heated one;
  • An argument that includes misunderstandings, sometimes on both ends;
  • Individuals being obstinate or stubborn;
  • Erroneous, even confusing, orders and instructions;
  • One side or multiple sides talking past, over, or through each other;
  • “White lies” meant to mask a more painful or difficult truth;
  • Instances of incivility; or,
  • An incoherent explanation.

Of course, gaslighting could become a part of these interactions, but it is not their equivalent.

A gray area is when people are, well, “messing with each other’s heads.” This can occur in dysfunctional relationships of all kinds. I’ll leave it to readers to make a call on this. (As I see it, the devil rests in the details.)

At the worst end of the spectrum

Like any other form of manipulation, instances of gaslighting are not equal in frequency and severity. The worst cases, however, are truly disabling and debilitating, the products of scary minds capable of inflicting serious psychological abuse. I hope that gaslighting will gain greater attention as we continue to address behaviors in our society worth preventing and stopping.

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This entry was revised in June 2018.

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