MTW Newsstand: August 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:

Zakiyah Ebrahim, “Office horror stories: Workers tell of trauma at the hands of office psychopaths and bullies,” Health24 (2019) (link here) — “Earlier this month, Health24 ran a story on several types of psychopaths you might find in the workplace, and reached out to victims of workplace bullying. They told us about how the thought of work filled them with dread. They were cornered for every little mistake, and the anguish and pain of being bullied was sometimes so severe that often throwing in the towel often seemed to be the only way out. Here are their stories….”

Bartleby, “Employee happiness and business success are linked,” The Economist (2019) (link here) — “Rather like the judge’s famous dictum about obscenity, a well-run company may be hard to define but we can recognise it when we see it. Workers will be well informed about a company’s plans and consulted about the roles they will play. Staff will feel able to raise problems with managers without fearing for their jobs. Bullying and sexual harassment will not be permitted. Employees may work hard, but they will be allowed sufficient time to recuperate, and enjoy time with their families. In short, staff will be treated as people, not as mere accounting units.”

“How to Curb Workplace Incivility,” Knowledge@Wharton (2019) (link here) — “Companies expect every employee to behave respectfully in the workplace, but that doesn’t always happen. A lack of professionalism can imperil an employee’s future, isolate co-workers, upset customers and infect the wider corporate culture. Workplace incivility in health care can be especially harmful because mistakes made by distressed employees can have grave consequences. The Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania has launched a Campaign for Professionalism to mitigate such conflicts.”

Noah Smith, “America’s Workers Need a Labor Union Comeback,” Bloomberg (2019) (link here) — “Unions are probably a big part of the reason that people look back so fondly on the era of manufacturing. So far, the service-sector jobs that now employ a large majority of the American workforce have failed to unionize like manufacturing workers once did. A recent spate of strikes shows that this vast low-paid service class may finally be awakening to the possibility of collective bargaining….”

Jennifer Moss, “When Passion Leads to Burnout,” Harvard Business Review (2019) (link here) — “At the end of the day, everyone wants to go home to our personal lives feeling inspired and fueled by a day of passionate engagement in purposeful work. This is clearly preferable to monotony and boredom, which can also cause burnout. But we have to be careful: When it feels like your passion for work — or that of your employees —has become all-consuming, it might be time to take — or to offer — a break.”

Chrystle Fiedler, “How Being Kind Makes You Healthier,” Next Avenue (2019) (link here) — “When you are kind to another person, even in a small way, it has a positive effect by helping that person feel valued and supported. If you make such acts of kindness a regular habit, it’s actually good for your health and even slows your body’s aging process, according to research.”

MTW Newsstand: July 2019

Every month, the “MTW Newsstand” brings you a curated selection of articles relevant to work, workers, and workplaces. Whenever possible, the pieces are freely accessible. Here are this month’s offerings:

Caitlin Flanagan, “The Problem With HR,” The Atlantic (2019) (link here) — “If HR is such a vital component of American business, its tentacles reaching deeply into many spheres of employees’ work lives, how did it miss the kind of sexual harassment at the center of the #MeToo movement? And given that it did, why are companies still putting so much faith in HR?”

Shahida Arabi, “Bullied by Narcissists at Work? 3 Ways Narcissistic Co-Workers and Bosses Sabotage You,” PsychCentral (2019) (link here) — “If you work or have worked in a traditional corporate environment, chances are you’ve run into a narcissist or sociopath in your career. Research suggests that psychopathic personalities do climb the corporate ladder more readily and are able to charm and gain trust from other co-workers and management to do so.”

Quentin Fottrell, “Is your boss a psychopath?,” MarketWatch (2019) (link here) — “Do you ever wonder why the bad guy is in charge — and the good guy is pushing paper? There may be a reason for that. Bad bosses often promise the world, according to Deborah Ancona, a professor of leadership at MIT Sloan School of Management and founder of the MIT Leadership Center, and hard-working employees can be left to deal with the aftereffects. ‘Toxic leaders are often talking about all the great things that they can do,’ she told MIT Sloan.”

Amy Coveno, “As adults, some former bullies try to keep history from repeating,” WMUR (2019) (link here) —  “News 9 put out a call on Facebook for former bullies to tell their stories.”

Ruchika Tulshyan, “How to Reduce Personal Bias When Hiring,” Harvard Business Review (2019) (link here) — “Changes in process and diversity initiatives alone are not going to remedy the lack of equal representation in companies. Individual managers who are often making the final hiring decisions need to address their own bias.”

Randall J. Beck & Jim Harter, “Why Great Managers Are So Rare,” Gallup (2019) (link here) — “Gallup finds that great managers have the following talents….”

Janelle Nanos, “Wayfair walkout is part of a new era of employee activism,” Boston Globe (2019) (link here) — “Employees of Wayfair, the online furniture giant based in the Back Bay, weren’t planning to stage a walkout on Wednesday. But when the company’s leadership shrugged off workers’ objections to fulfilling a $200,000 furniture order for detention centers on the US-Mexico border, ‘Wayfairians’ became the latest group of tech co-workers to start a social activist movement targeting their own employer.”

Working notes as summer beckons

Briefing MA legislators, staffers, and interns on the Healthy Workplace Bill

Dear readers, with summer now officially here in Boston, I’m working away at various projects, initiatives, and events. In addition to writing a law review article, here is a sampling of what has been keeping me busy and drawing my attention during recent months and heading into summer:

Legislative briefing on MA Healthy Workplace Bill

Last Tuesday, we had a very successful briefing session on the Massachusetts Healthy Workplace Bill (Senate No. 1072, link here), with a full room of legislators, legislative staffers, and interns joining us at the State House. Jim Redmond, legislative agent for SEIU-NAGE, facilitated the briefing. Our lead sponsor, Senator Paul Feeney, spoke about the need for the HWB, and I gave a short presentation about the legal and policy mechanics that have informed my drafting of the bill. We had time for Q&A, which included added remarks by former SEIU president Greg Sorozan, a key leader behind labor efforts to address workplace bullying.

This coming Tuesday, June 25, the legislature’s Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development will hold a hearing on labor-related bills, including public testimony on the HWB (go here for info). We’ll be there in full force for that, as well.

Medium highlights the Healthy Workplace Bill campaign

We continue to advocate for workplace anti-bullying legislation on a national basis. Recently, for a piece in Medium titled “How to Outlaw the Office Bully” (link here), I shared this observation with writer Leigh Ann Carey:

“We are benefitting from a ripple effect from the #MeToo movement,” Yamada says. “The media headlines start with sexual harassment, but as you read deeper into the story you find out there’s a lot of generic bullying. These behaviors don’t occur in a vacuum. They hang together. Shouldn’t we be free of all this stuff by now?”

A Rome conference

A recurring educational highlight for me is the biennial International Congress on Law and Mental Health, sponsored by the International Academy for Law and Mental Health (IALMH). Thanks to the good graces of the IALMH, our International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence organizes a dedicated stream of panels specifically on therapeutic jurisprudence topics. The conference is a welcomed opportunity to share some of my own work and to attend panels featuring colleagues from around the world.

The next International Congress is scheduled for this July in Rome. I’ve organized two panels for the conference, both of which I’ll share more details later:

  • A panel on “Bullying, Mobbing, and Harassment: Psychological Trauma and Civil Litigation.” I’ll be talking about the concept of “trauma points” in employment litigation, highlighting (1) the many points at which a plaintiff in an employment lawsuit must retell the narrative of an abusive work situation, leading to re-traumatization; and (2) the traumatizing nature of litigation itself, as a legal process. I’ll be building my talk around a prototypical racial harassment claim, drawn from real-life cases. 
  • A panel on “Legislative Scholarship, Design, Advocacy, and Outcomes.” I’ll be examining how therapeutic jurisprudence principles should be applied to the development of public policy, referencing — among other things — the U.S. push for workplace anti-bullying legislation.

I’ve included in my travel schedule a few extra days for sightseeing, as I’ve never been to Rome and look forward to exploring it. But seriously, the conference is a draw in and of itself, as every time I come away from it enriched by the research, insights, and ideas offered by so many of my colleagues. It’s an intellectual treat, with real-world applications.

Blog planning

I’ve never been very systematic about planning entries to MTW, but I’d like to become a bit more focused in the future. Also, with some 1,700 pieces posted here since late 2008, and a lot of other folks entering the social media fray on topics such as workplace bullying, I’d like to spend more time updating past pieces and sharing relevant commentaries from other sites. This summer I’ll be implementing a monthly blogging schedule that looks something like this:

  • A new and original post about workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse;
  • A post that collects and shares my revisions of, and updates to, some of the 1,700+ articles previously posted here;
  • A post that collects and links to a variety of articles and resources relevant to work, workers, and workplaces, as well as broader, related topics of psychology, economics, and public affairs;
  • A post on miscellaneous topics relevant to this blog.

I’m also going to consider ways in which educators might better access and use the material that I’ve posted here. This idea was planted by a review of this blog discussed below.

Finally, I’m posting more content to my new Facebook Page, especially links to interesting pieces and to relevant past blog posts. If you’re on Facebook, you may receive new postings by “liking” or “following” this link.

MTW receives positive review from educational resources site

MERLOT.org, a popular educational resources site devoted to sharing online materials that can be used for classroom purposes, has given Minding the Workplace a very positive peer review (link here). This is especially gratifying in view of the fact that MTW has not been necessarily designed for classroom use. Nevertheless, the reviewer saw the potential usefulness of MTW for classroom purposes. Here’s a snippet of that review:

The blog underscores workplace issues of enormous contemporary significance (e.g., diversity, bullying, toxic cultures) and provides a perspective that can deepen students’ understanding. The author of the blog is an expert in the subjects that the blog addresses. The blog is exceedingly well-written, well-informed, and professionally presented. Entries link out to a variety of newspapers and periodicals. The blog contains links to key organizations and scholarly articles that address workplace bullying, employee dignity, and employment law. 

The reviewer concluded that MTW is an “excellent resource for faculty and students who have an academic or professional interest in issues and challenges related to workplace culture.”

Recovering from work-related trauma and abuse: The nature of “woundology”

“We are not meant to stay wounded.”

That one line from Chapter 1 of Caroline Myss’s Why People Don’t Heal and How They Can (1998) persuaded me to write about her concept of “woundology.” (The full chapter is excerpted here in the New York Times.) It has significant relevance to many people who are trying to recover and heal from traumatic work experiences, including bullying, mobbing, and violence.

Dr. Myss is a bestselling writer on human consciousness and an energy medicine practitioner. Her work is commonly categorized as New Age, spiritual, or alternative, which may cause some people to be immediately attentive and others to be immediately dismissive. Personally, I find myself open to a variety of healing modalities, because what works for one may not work for another, and vice versa.

In any event, Myss writes wisely about her encounters with good, caring, compassionate people who nevertheless could not get beyond wanting to be identified with, and to live in, their emotional wounds. They exhibited a continuing need “to be with people who spoke the same language and shared the same mindset and behaviors,” and they expected others in their support group to be in that place with them all the time. She calls this state one of woundology. She further explains:

So many people in the midst of a “process” of healing, I saw, are at the same time feeling stuck. They are striving to confront their wounds, valiantly working to bring meaning to terrible past experiences and traumas, and exercising compassionate understanding of others who share their wounds. But they are not healing. They have redefined their lives around their wounds and the process of accepting them. They are not working to get beyond their wounds. In fact, they are stuck in their wounds.

Myss goes on to emphasize:

We are not meant to stay wounded. We are supposed to move through our tragedies and challenges and to help each other move through the many painful episodes of our lives. By remaining stuck in the power of our wounds, we block our own transformation. We overlook the greater gifts inherent in our wounds–the strength to overcome them and the lessons that we are meant to receive through them. Wounds are the means through which we enter the hearts of other people. They are meant to teach us to become compassionate and wise.

Related ideas and concepts

Myss’s explanation of woundology is very consistent with concepts that I’ve written about here concerning the challenges that some targets of workplace bullying face in trying to recover. Back in 2014, for example, I wrote that for many bullying targets, getting “unstuck” is among their biggest difficulties (link here):

Some may feel trapped, helpless, or victimized. Others may be caught in a cycle of anger, defiance, or battle-like conflict. Oftentimes, these thought patterns and behaviors are associated with psychological conditions including depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress.

Bullying targets also may be dealing with what psychiatrist Michael Linden has labeled Post-Traumatic Embitterment Disorder, a condition triggering levels of “embitterment and feelings of injustice” to the point of impairing one’s “performance in daily activities and roles.”

In 2015, I expounded upon Dr. Michael Linden’s concept of post-traumatic embitterment disorder as related to workplace abuse (link here):

PTED is a psychiatric disorder proposed by Dr. Michael Linden, a German psychiatrist, grounded in his findings that people may become so embittered by a negative life event that normal functioning is impaired. In a 2003 article published in the journal Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics…, Dr. Linden defines the elements of PTED:

  • “a single exceptional negative life event precipitates the onset of the illness”;
  • “the present negative state developed in the direct context of this event”;
  • “the emotional response is embitterment and feelings of injustice”;
  • “repeated intrusive memories of the event”;
  • “emotional modulation is unimpaired, patients can even smile when engaged in thoughts of revenge”; and,
  • “no obvious other mental disorder that can explain the reaction.”

Linden lists other symptoms, including severe depression, “feelings of helplessness,” disrupted sleep, aggression, and even suicidal ideation. PTED lasts “longer than 3 months,” during which “(p)erformance in daily activities and roles is impaired.”

Also in 2015, I wrote about how many targets can get beyond constant rumination over their experiences (link here):

Bullying targets often ruminate obsessively about their situations. In a piece for the Greater Good Science Center, therapist Linda Graham defines rumination as “thinking the same negative worrisome thoughts over and over again.” She continues:

Rumination usually doesn’t solve what we’re worried about and, in fact, leaves us more vulnerable to staying in a funk, even becoming depressed. Rumination makes our view of events, and our feelings about ourselves, worse.

Graham encourages her clients to engage in self-compassion, which includes “evoking a sense of kindness and care toward one’s self.” Her full article delves deeper into nurturing practices of self-compassion, and for those who want to learn more, it is well worth a click and read.

There are sooo many overlapping ideas and concepts here. The commonalities are significant.

Peer support groups

Back in April I wrote about peer support groups for targets of workplace bullying and mobbing, and I suggested some resources that may be of help in forming and conducting them (link here). Such groups can be tremendously validating for targets, especially compared to the high levels of organizational denial and general lack of understanding about work abuse that these individuals often confront.

However, these support groups must also be cognizant of the dynamics of woundology, as suggested by Caroline Myss. Ideally they can help targets process their experiences toward recovery and renewal. On the negative side, they risk creating a core of individuals who, with the best of intentions, nevertheless enable one another to define themselves by, and continue to live in, their respective wounds.

Indeed, perhaps the best kind of peer support group is one in which the composition changes because members willingly depart after their hard work within them is completed. Some may continue to be involved in responding to the kind of abuse or mistreatment that caused them to have to “go deep,” but now from a position of greater strength and renewal. Others will find rewarding endeavors that have little to do with the experiences they endured. There are no right or wrong choices at this juncture; all steps forward are healthy and life-affirming.

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Hat tip to the Wisdom of Sophia for the Myss book chapter excerpt.

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Speaking truth to power at work: Incivility & abrasiveness vs. bullying & mobbing

Image courtesy of Clipart Panda

As I’ve shared with you before, dear readers, I sometimes use this blog to develop ideas-in-progress. This means engaging in some thinking out loud, so to speak. Back in 2015, I wrote about distinguishing workplace incivility and abrasiveness from bullying and mobbing (link here):

Readers from outside of academe may be amused to learn that research on bad workplace behaviors has broken down into several camps. Two of these are the incivility researchers and the bullying researchers. At organizational psychology conferences, it’s not unusual to hear remarks such as “oh, she’s an incivility person” or “no, he’s more into bullying.”

When I started this work over 15 years ago, I treated these behaviors as parts of a spectrum, with many overlaps present, but it’s clear that sharper lines are being drawn, at least for the purposes of putting together panel discussions and writing dissertations.

For me, the most significant line is where behaviors become abusive, motivated in significant part by a desire to cause distress or harm. When that line is crossed, it’s not about incivility or bad manners; we’re now into the territory of bullying or mobbing.

I went on to add that although incivility and bullying have both been receiving greater attention, the former has still gained greater acceptance among employee relations stakeholders and the mainstream media:

Over the years, both incivility and bullying have attracted greater attention from employee relations stakeholders and the popular media. However, we’re still at a point where workplace incivility, rudeness, and abrasiveness are more readily acknowledged than bullying and mobbing. I have many ideas as to why this is the case, and they tend to circle around the nature of power. Those in charge are much more threatened by allegations of bullying than by claims of incivility.

I greatly value the growing body of research and commentary on workplace incivility. After all, the more we understand incivility at work and how to prevent and respond to it, the better. However, I think that for some organizations, it’s safer to use the incivility label than to acknowledge the more abusive realities of bullying.

Along these lines, I’d like to gather my thoughts about why many organizations and other employee relations stakeholders are reluctant to recognize workplace bullying and mobbing:

  1. Bullying and mobbing involve abuses of power, not bad manners. Especially because these abuses are often top-down in nature (i.e., managers and supervisors directing abuse toward subordinates), acknowledging bullying and mobbing points a steady finger at the values, ethics, and practices of senior management.
  2. On an individual level, it’s one thing to say that a boss “doesn’t play well in the sandbox with others,” “is a little rough around the edges,” or “can be a jerk at times.” Such characterizations can be tagged as merely uncivil, not abusive, and thus don’t carry a heavy stigma. However, to recognize that a boss (or any other individual, for that matter) is abusive is very different thing.
  3. The abusive nature of bullying and mobbing also implicates the psychological makeup of leaders and organizational cultures. This means opening the door to characterizing individuals and organizations as possibly having qualities consistent with narcissism, sociopathy, and/or psychopathy.
  4. In the U.S. especially, where the rule of at-will employment (which includes the right to terminate a worker without cause) and its underlying theoretical legal framework of master-servant relationships still hold sway, accusations of work abuse directed at bosses and managers are extremely threatening to the power structure.
  5. Practically speaking, under at-will employment, a subordinate who bullies a boss can be fired without cause, while a boss who bullies a subordinate usually doesn’t have to worry about job security — unless the bullying is discriminatory in nature (race, sex, etc.) or in retaliation for legally-protected whistleblowing.
  6. Preserving this top-down power relationship is, no doubt, among the reasons why some employers and their trade associations oppose the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill. Even if they have no intentions of treating workers abusively, they want to retain the right to do so, without fear of being held legally accountable.

Related posts

“Master and servant”: The roots of American employment law (2013)

At-will employment and the legality of workplace bullying: A brutal combo punch (2011)

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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Workplace bullying: Does adversity nurture compassion?

 

Does experiencing bullying at work or another form of interpersonal mistreatment make us more compassionate towards those who going through similar situations?

Ideally, we’d like to think that experiencing such adversity would build our sense of empathy for others who are dealing with like challenges. However, a 2014 study (link here) by Rachel Ruttan (Northwestern U.), Mary-Hunter McDonnell (U. Penn.), and Loran Nordgren (Northwestern U.) advises us to check those assumptions. Here’s the article abstract:

For those who are struggling with a difficult experience and who seek the support of others, it is a common assumption that others who have been through the experience in the past will be more understanding. To the contrary, the current research found that participants who had previously endured an emotionally distressing event (e.g., bullying, unemployment) more harshly evaluated another person’s failure to endure a similar distressing event compared to participants with no experience enduring the event. These effects emerged for three naturally occurring distressing events, as well as one experimentally-induced distressing event. The effect was driven by the tendency for those who previously endured the distressing event to view the event as less difficult to overcome. Taken together, the paper’s findings present a paradox such that, in the face of struggle or defeat, the people we are most apt to seek for advice or comfort may be the least likely to provide it.

Let’s understand that this study is not claiming any absolutes. It suggests that those who have “previously endured an emotionally distressing event (e.g., bullying, unemployment)” may be less likely to support others who going through similar experiences. It’s not a blanket characterization of all people who have experienced mistreatment.

Personal observations

In fact, I know darn well that people who have experienced bullying and mobbing can be extraordinarily supportive of those who are enduring like abuse at work. The core of the workplace anti-bullying movement has been built on the shoulders of these folks. This includes countless numbers of people who, on a professional or volunteer basis, have helped and are helping targets of workplace mistreatment through counseling, coaching, and informal support.

Of course, as the study suggests, this is not always so. And I have witnessed this, too. For example, years ago, I took part in an extended online conversation in which a self-identified workplace mobbing target dismissed the experiences of self-identified targets of workplace bullying, claiming that her suffering was much greater than theirs. It was not an easy exchange.

In essence, the psychology of abuse is complicated and yields a variety of responses from those who have been subjected to it. Nevertheless, the large cadre of bullying and mobbing targets who have joined together to support each other and to advocate for change embodies our efforts to enhance the dignity of work and workers.

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