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.”

How harmful thought patterns about workplace bullying and mobbing may accelerate the aging process

In a piece for Ideas.Ted.com (link here), Elizabeth Blackburn (Salk Institute) and Elissa Epel (UC-San Francisco Aging, Metabolism and Emotions Center) explain how our negative thoughts can expedite the aging process. Blackburn, a physician and Nobel Prize recipient, and Epel, a psychologist, are co-authors of The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer (2017).

I’m going to cut & paste a bit of brain science from Drs. Blackburn and Epel to explain the role of telomeres in influencing the aging process:

Deep within the genetic heart of all our cells are telomeres, or repeating segments of noncoding DNA that live at the ends of the chromosomes. They form caps at the ends of the chromosomes and keep the genetic material from unraveling. Shortening with each cell division, they help determine how fast a cell ages. When they become too short, the cell stops dividing altogether. This isn’t the only reason a cell can become senescent — there are other stresses on cells we don’t yet understand very well — but short telomeres are one of the major reasons human cells grow old.

In essence, longer telomeres are good, and shorter telomeres are bad, at least if we care about aging. Blackburn and Epel then identify five thought patterns that lead to the shortening of telomeres:

  • “Scientists have learned that several thought patterns appear to be unhealthy for telomeres, and one of them is cynical hostility.”
  • “Pessimism is the second thought pattern that has been shown to have negative effects on telomeres.”
  • “Rumination — the act of rehashing problems over and over — is the third destructive thought pattern.”
  • “The fourth thought pattern is thought suppression, the attempt to push away unwanted thoughts and feelings.”
  • “The final thought pattern is mind wandering.”

Their full article goes into greater depth about the negative dynamics of each of these thought patterns. They also sum up the cumulative impact:

The negative thought patterns we’ve described are automatic, exaggerated and controlling.They take over your mind; it’s as if they tie a blindfold around your brain so you can’t see what is really going on around you.

Application to targets of workplace bullying and mobbing

All of the five thought patterns examined by Blackburn and Epel are relevant to the experiences of workplace bullying and mobbing. The first three — cynical hostility, pessimism, and rumination — are especially applicable to so many who have experienced severe work abuse.

Among other things, I’ve written about “(r)umination, obsession, and the challenge of getting ‘unstuck'” (link here) when dealing with bullying and mobbing at work. I’ve also written about what Caroline Myss calls “woundology,” referring to “good, caring, compassionate people who nevertheless could not get beyond wanting to be identified with, and to live in, their emotional wounds” (link here).

The good news (and it’s real)

The good news is that we know a lot more about how to treat trauma and promote healing. Blackburn and Epel discuss better thought awareness as one way toward dealing with these negative thought patterns. They cite research showing that telomeres can actually lengthen and posit that aging can be slowed or even reversed.

Furthermore, as I’ve discussed earlier, post-traumatic growth (link here) and healing-centered engagement (link here) are real processes that are changing the ways in which we look at possibilities for healing from trauma.

But it must come from within

In a piece for Thought Catalog (link here), self-help writer Brianna Wiest asserts that although trauma is not the victim’s fault, healing from it is their responsibility. Here are some of her reasons:

  • “Healing is our responsibility because if it isn’t, an unfair circumstance becomes an unlived life.”
  • “Healing is our responsibility because unprocessed pain gets transferred to everyone around us, and we are not going to allow what someone else did to us to become what we do to those we love.”
  • “Healing is our responsibility because we have this one life, this single shot to do something important.”
  • “Healing is our responsibility because if we want our lives to be different, sitting and waiting for someone else to make them so will not actually change them. It will only make us dependent and bitter.”
  • “Healing is our responsibility because we have the power to heal ourselves, even if we have previously been led to believe we don’t.”
  • “Healing is our responsibility because ‘healing’ is actually not returning to how and who we were before, it is becoming someone we have never been — someone stronger, someone wiser, someone kinder.”

I’m a bit uncomfortable about using the term “responsibility” in this context. It has a slightly finger-wagging, judgmental connotation to it. And yet, the underlying assumptions are true: Healing from trauma is possible only when the person who has experienced it is ready to work toward it. And when someone reaches that point, good things can happen.

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.”

Applying Psychological First Aid to workplace bullying and mobbing

Is Psychological First Aid a useful tool for coaches, union representatives, employee assistance program specialists, lawyers and legal workers, peer group facilitators, and others who are providing support to those who have experienced workplace bullying and mobbing?

I recently completed an online, continuing education course in Psychological First Aid (PFA) (link here), offered by Johns Hopkins University via Coursera, one of the most popular providers of open enrollment, university-level online courses . The Johns Hopkins course is taught by psychiatry and behavioral sciences professor George Everly, a leading authority on PFA and co-author, with Jeffrey Lating, of The Johns Hopkins Guide to Psychological First Aid (2017). The course itself takes about 8-10 hours to complete, ideally over a span of a few weeks. The course itself is free of charge, with an added fee for a certificate of completion.

Dr. Everly developed his PFA model to provide first responders who are not trained as counselors with knowledge and training to assist those who have experienced traumatic events, such as displacement due to wars, severe weather events, and other man-made and natural disasters. His model is called “RAPID PFA.” Here are the sequential steps covered in the course:

  • R — “Establishing Rapport and Reflective Listening”
  • A — “Assessment/Listening to the Story
  • P — “Psychological Triage/Prioritization
  • I — “Intervention Tactics to Stabilize and Mitigate Acute Distress”
  • D — “Disposition and Facilitating Access to Continued Care”

The final piece of the course relates to the importance of self-care for those providing PFA.

At no time does PFA call upon someone to render a clinical diagnosis. (That would be wrong on so many levels!) Rather, PFA is designed to help non-clinical individuals facilitate emotional and practical support for those who have experienced traumatic events. This may include, when necessary, referrals to professional mental health and medical care, as well as other tangible forms of assistance.

PFA for workplace bullying and mobbing?

I’ve given a lot of thought as to how Dr. Everly’s RAPID PFA model can be deployed to help those who have experienced severe work abuse. I think it’s a very helpful model for non-clinical folks who are providing support to targets of workplace bullying and mobbing. RAPID PFA not only offers a useful, simple framework for providing support and guidance, but also sets markers for when referrals to professional mental health care may be needed.

Research examining the RAPID PFA model has validated its effectiveness as an early intervention tool, especially when rendered soon after a precipitating event. Herein lies a challenge toward applying PFA to workplace abuse situations: All too often, the mistreatment builds over time, especially in the more covert or indirect forms. In such cases, there may be no single, major traumatic event that prompts someone to seek help. Accordingly, targets frequently wait to seek assistance, as work abuse can take an inordinately long time to process and comprehend. In such instances, a lot of emotional damage may have taken place before someone seeks help.

Finally, the RAPID PFA model is designed to help care providers make fairly quick assessments under scenarios where large numbers of people may suddenly need help. By contrast, we know that many targets of work abuse feel the need to share their stories in significant detail. It is a natural and understandable dynamic, but it can make the process of identifying next steps anything but, well, rapid.

Nevertheless, the RAPID PFA model holds a lot of promise as an early intervention protocol for helping people deal with workplace bullying and mobbing situations. For those who want to provide initial support and guidance to targeted individuals, it provides a straightforward, evidence-based approach for doing so, while helping us to understand appropriate boundaries between lay assistance and professional mental health care.

MTW Revisions: September 2019

In this regular feature, each month I’m reviewing some of the 1,700+ entries to this blog since 2008 and opting to revise and update several of them. I hope that readers find the revised posts useful and interesting. Here are this month’s selections:

Professional schools as incubators for workplace bullying (orig. 2012; rev. 2019) (link here)  — “It has long been my belief that the seeds of workplace bullying are planted in professional schools that prepare people to enter occupations such as law and medicine. You start with ambitious young people who (1) are used to being heralded as academic stars; (2) do not have a lot of life experience; (3) disproportionally come from privileged backgrounds; and (4) tend to be driven, Type A achievers. You then put them in high-pressured, competitive educational environments that emphasize technical knowledge and skills and a lot of analytical thinking. . . . You then unleash them into the world of work.”

Are calls for more resilience and “grit” an indirect form of victim shaming & blaming? (orig. 2016; rev. 2019) (link here) — “Bottom line? Resilience and grit are good. Targeted bullying, mobbing, and abuse are bad. Let’s strive for less interpersonal mistreatment and more individual resilience. And let’s take more personal and social responsibility for our actions and the state of the world.”

After Auschwitz, Viktor Frankl saw only two races (orig. 2017; rev. 2019) (link here) — “When Viktor Frankl reflected upon his experiences as a Nazi concentration camp prisoner, including time spent at Auschwitz, he concluded that humanity basically can be divided into two races: ‘From all this we may learn that there are two races of men in this world, but only these two — the “race” of the decent man and the “race” of the indecent man. Both are found everywhere; they penetrate into all groups of society. No group consists entirely of decent or indecent people.'”

“Let’s run it more like a business” (The problem with many non-profit boards) (orig. 2014; rev. 2019) (link here) — “If running a non-profit group ‘more like a business’ means empowering effective, inclusive, and socially responsible leaders and holding them accountable, then I’m all for it. . . But all too often, the ‘more like a business’ mantra translates into the same authoritarian, top-down, command & control model that at least some board members who are drawn from the private sector may embrace in their respective roles as executives and managers.”

On living an “undivided life”

Parker J. Palmer’s A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward An Undivided Life may have been published originally back in 2004, but it seems to have a special significance for today’s world.

Palmer suggests that many folks are living a “divided life” that can manifest in several ways:

  • “We refuse to invest ourselves in our work, diminishing its quality and distancing ourselves from those it is meant to serve”;
  • “We make our living at jobs that violate our basic values, even when survival does not absolutely demand it”;
  • “We remain in settings or relationships that steadily kill off our spirits”;
  • “We harbor secrets to achieve personal gain at the expense of other people”;
  • “We hide our beliefs from those who disagree with us to avoid conflict, challenge, and change”; and,
  • “We conceal our true identities for fear of being criticized, shunned, or attacked”

Palmer says that we’re living in a “wounded world,” and it sure feels that way at times. (U.S. readers who wake up each morning to news of the latest mass shootings may specially agree.) Much of his book examines how to do inner work in response to these outer realities.

If this sounds interesting to you, then I recommend the paperback edition that includes a very detailed reader’s guide and a DVD with interviews of Palmer.

Authenticity

The themes contained in A Hidden Wholeness also resonate with the notion of personal authenticity, which I have commented on in previous entries. The professions, especially, can foster an emphasis on posturing as opposed to authenticity. As I wrote back in 2014:

What do I mean by posturing? In the context of meetings and conferences, posturing is the practice of saying “learned” things or raising “clever” questions primarily to make an impression, rather than to enrich a discussion. The two fields I am most familiar with, academe and law, are positively rife with posturing.

I’ve also suggested that inauthenticity at work can plant the seeds for an early midlife crisis. From 2013:

As a law student, lawyer, and law professor, I’ve spent a lot of time around people whose career ambitions are largely defined by others. To some extent, I have internalized some of those messages myself.

But one of the most important lessons I’ve learned is to pick and choose wisely among these markers of achievement. If you fail to do so, you may find yourself living an inauthentic life (at least the part spent at work), and your psyche may struggle with the grudging realization that you’re pursuing someone else’s definition of success. It’s an easy recipe for a midlife crisis.

In sum, it’s hard to be true to one’s self by living an inauthentic and divided life. Here’s to more wholeness for all of us.

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