Coronavirus: What can we expect in terms of workplace bullying, incivility, and conflict as we reopen our physical workspaces?

(image courtesy of clipart.email)

With various plans, policies, and discussions addressing the critical question of how we reopen our economic and civic society in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, faithful readers of this blog may be especially interested in how these measures will affect interpersonal behaviors as people start returning to their physical workspaces.

I hope that our better natures will prevail. Perhaps the fears and ravages of a deadly virus affecting our health and lives, the economy, the state of employment, and the viability of our various civic, cultural, and educational institutions are humbling us and causing us to treat one another with greater understanding and care. Maybe we’ll see less bullying, mobbing, harassment, and incivility, as people welcome the return of some semblance of normalcy.

Furthermore, as I wrote earlier, I hope that more employers will find ways to pay all of their employees a living wage. After all, many of us have been able to shelter-at-home in large part due to the service rendered by a lot of workers who haven’t been earning much money.

Then again, it’s not as if bad workplace behaviors have disappeared during the heart of this pandemic. The news has been peppered with accounts of alleged worker mistreatment, especially that in retail, warehouse, and delivery employment. Many of these reports involve claims that management is strong-arming employees to show up to work without providing adequate protective gear or other safeguards. We’ve also seen an unfortunate and sharp uptick in harassment of people of Asian nationalities, linked to the origins of the virus in China.

So maybe my hopes for a great enlightenment are somewhat unrealistic.

In any event, I’m willing to make some mild forecasts about the workplace climate as we start to reopen physical workspaces:

First, I expect that most folks will be on their best behavior, at least initially. They will understand that we’re still in challenging times and be grateful to have paid employment.

Second, I think that various clashes, disagreements, and conflicts will arise, as a result of a mix of employer policies and heightened anxiety levels. Best intentions notwithstanding, a lot of folks will be on edge, and understandably so.

Third, I suspect that a lot of conflicts, incivilities, and micro-aggressions will move online, as we continue to conduct a lot of our work remotely and digitally. A barrage of email and text exchanges will accompany these transitions back to our workspaces. Some will get contentious; a (hopefully) much smaller share will be abusive.

Fourth, we may see a (welcomed, in my opinion) upturn in labor union organizing on behalf of our lowest paid workers in retail and service industries, many of whom have been the core of our essential workforce outside of health care providers. 

Finally, we’ll see coronavirus-related claims over disability discrimination, workers’ compensation, family and medical leave, workplace safety and health laws, and other legal standards related to worker health. Things could get quite litigious if managed poorly.

Coronavirus didn’t create the holes and divisions in the U.S. economy, but it surely has widened them

The U.S. Department of Labor’s monthly jobs report for April provides a jarring look at the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on the state of employment. The Washington Post‘s Tracy Jan summarizes (link here):

As the unemployment rate soared in April to its highest levels since the Great Depression, with 14.7 percent of workers without jobs, the coronavirus shutdown fell unequally on Americans according to age, gender, educational attainment as well as race.

Women became unemployed at higher rates than men. Hispanics and blacks were hit harder than whites and Asians. Those without high school diplomas fared the worst. As did teenagers, of whom nearly a third are now out of work.

Jan’s full story takes a deeper look at the labor market implications from these numbers. Suffice it to say that while the pandemic is now affecting people in virtually all demographic groupings except for the super wealthy, it is delivering especially painful blows on those who had already fallen behind.

***

Back in early-to-mid March (which now seems like another era ago), I anticipated a severe, coronavirus-induced recession (here) and the need for a significant economic bail-out of Main Street and its residents (here). I based my assessments on (1) the low cash reserves of most small and medium-sized businesses and non-profits; and (2) the millions of people who are living paycheck-to-paycheck.

However, if anything, I underestimated how rapidly these economic realities would manifest themselves. Recently I recalled the results of a Federal Reserve survey covering personal finances of Americans. As Soo Youn reported for ABC News last year (link here):

Almost 40% of American adults wouldn’t be able to cover a $400 emergency with cash, savings or a credit-card charge that they could quickly pay off, a Federal Reserve survey finds.

About 27% of those surveyed would need to borrow the money or sell something to come up with the $400 and an additional 12% would not be able to cover it at all, according to the Federal Reserve’s 2018 report on the economic well-being of U.S. households released on Thursday.

These survey findings basically tell us most of what we need to know about our financial readiness for a crisis.

***

As I wrote in early March, “(a)t least since the early 1980s, our economy has become one of (1) flattening wages; (2) widening wealth gaps; and (3) reduced and eliminated employee benefits, especially retirement plans.”

This was America’s shaky foundation as the pandemic appeared.

Thus, the already gaping holes and divisions in the U.S. economy and its social safety net simply awaited another seismic event to widen them. For now, at least, the pandemic has given us what appears to be a terrible choice: Re-open the economy while infection rates are steady or even increasing vs. remain in a quarantine state in order to squelch the spread of the virus.

A more equitable economic structure, stronger safety net protections, and/or more effective early public health responses would’ve made these choices less dire, but such is the cost of repeatedly bad policies, practices, and leadership. I hope that we learn these lessons for next time.

“Disastershock”: A free handbook for coping with disaster and trauma

Disastershock: How to Cope with the Emotional Stress of a Major Disaster is a free handbook (link here) for individuals and communities, co-authored by Drs. Brian Gerrard, Emily Girault, Valerie Appleton, Suzanne Giraudo, and Sue Linville Shaffer. First appearing in 1989, this valuable book has just been updated to include mental health challenges wrought by the coronavirus pandemic. Here’s a brief description:

This Disastershock book is intended to help families and communities to cope with disaster related stress such as that caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Part I describes ten effective methods to be used to reduce stress. Part 2 describes 12 stress reduction methods to be used with children. Although Part 2 was written primarily for parents, teachers and other adults working with children will find it useful. A unique feature of Disastershock is that its practical stress reduction methods are described in an explicit manner making them easy to learn. 

You may freely download an English-language version of Disastershock by clicking here. It is currently being translated into languages of nations significantly affected by the coronavirus crisis.

Disastershock has been praised by mental health professionals and educators from around the globe. Practicality, accessibility, and brevity (under 50 pp.) are among its key strengths; you won’t feel overwhelmed by it. I became aware of the book from one of its co-authors, Dr. Brian Gerrard, emeritus faculty member at the University of San Francisco and chief academic officer and core faculty member at the Western Institute for Social Research, on whose board I serve. I recommend it enthusiastically.

***

Along these lines, I’d like to reiterate my earlier recommendation of the John Hopkins University’s Psychological First Aid course (link here) taught by Dr. George Everly and offered for free by Coursera, a leading provider of online, continuing education courses. As I wrote in a blog post last September

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.

In addition to completing the course myself, I assigned it to students in my Law and Psychology Lab course at Suffolk University Law School, and they responded very favorably to it.

How COVID-19 has placed health care providers at grave risk of moral injury

Obviously the coronavirus pandemic is squeezing the capabilities of our health care systems. It also is impacting the psychological health and well-being of health care providers on the front lines of treating COVID-19 patients, especially as they strive to provide life-saving treatment without adequate resources.

The ultimate nightmare scenarios include choices that may have to be made when the number of severely ill patients exceeds the number of intensive care unit (ICU) beds and ventilators. For example, here in Massachusetts, a task force of doctors and medical ethicists has developed a controversial protocol for determining who gets ventilators and other treatments and who does not, when demand exceeds availability. As reported by Adam Gaffin for Universal Hub, a local online news site (link here):

The “crisis standards of care” guidelines are designed for a hospital system in the process of collapse – too many sick people and not enough medicine equipment and healthcare providers to care for them all – possibly because they themselves might be knocked out by the virus.

When that happens, and patients are coming in faster than hospitals can provide intensive care for them, doctors will have to switch from trying to care for each individual patient to trying to maximize total “life years saved” for the community as a whole, the task force concluded.

To do that, a designated a triage doctor will assign patients scores based on such factors that include not just the severity of their Covid-19 infection but their age and preexisting conditions, with points added for each. Doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers, as well as patients who otherwise would be involved in “maintaining societal order,” however, would have points subtracted….In the event of a tie score between two patients, the younger one would “win,” because of the priority of maximizing total “life-years” saved.

…Patients with the lowest scores would then have their medical records color coded – so that ICU staffers know at a glance who’s next for a ventilator – possibly even if that means removing somebody with a higher score from one. Red-tagged patients would be first in line, orange next and then all the older, sicker patients would be marked as yellow.

The guidelines promulgated in Massachusetts are similar to those developed in other states and nations. Basically, if the swell of COVID-19 infections is overwhelming the availability of hospital resources, doctors and other health care providers are directed to institute a triage system that determines who gets potentially life-saving treatment and who does not. 

The specter of moral injury

The excruciating challenge of treating patients with inadequate supplies is placing health care providers at grave risk of moral injury. “Moral injury,” as defined by Syracuse University’s Moral Injury Project (link here), “is the damage done to one’s conscience or moral compass when that person perpetrates, witnesses, or fails to prevent acts that transgress one’s own moral beliefs, values, or ethical codes of conduct.”

As Dr. Wendy Dean, psychiatrist and co-founder of Fix Moral Injury, a non-profit organization, explains in Time magazine (link here):

If healthcare workers can’t provide the care they typically believe is medically necessary for their patients, they may experience a phenomenon known as “moral injury,” says Dr. Wendy Dean, a psychiatrist and the co-founder of the nonprofit Fix Moral Injury. Dean says that American healthcare providers are used to doing anything and everything to help their patients, but inadequate protective gear and triage procedures will force them to make “exquisitely painful” decisions, such as choosing whether or not to risk infecting themselves, their family and other patients in order to help everyone in their care.

The consequences of moral injury can be significant. According to the Syracuse Moral Injury Project:

Moral injury can lead to serious distress, depression, and suicidality. Moral injury can take the life of those suffering from it, both metaphorically and literally. Moral injury debilitates people, preventing them from living full and healthy lives.

The effects of moral injury go beyond the individual and can destroy one’s capacity to trust others, impinging on the family system and the larger community. Moral injury must be brought forward into the community for a shared process of healing.

The specter of moral injury is among the reasons why our health care providers will require ongoing help in dealing with the psychological burdens and health risks of working to save lives during this pandemic. This experience will leave its formative mark on current generations of health care workers for decades to come. We owe them our support for the short and long runs alike.

How strong (and fair) is the U.S. economy?

The next time someone tells you that the U.S. economy is going great — regardless of their political affiliations — you might suggest that they dig beneath the misleading surface of a low unemployment rate and (at least pre-coronavirus) a bubbling stock market. In reality, there are two economies at play in modern America, one for a narrow slice of the very well-to-do, and another for the rest of the populace.

In a piece for the New York Times (link here) Nelson D. Schwartz calls it the “velvet rope economy,” borrowing from the title of his new book, The Velvet Rope Economy: How Inequality Became Big Business (2020).

Whatever the arena — health care, education, work, leisure — on one side of the velvet rope is a friction-free existence. Red tape is cut, appointments are secured, doors are opened. On the other side, friction is practically the defining characteristic, with middle- and working-class Americans facing an increasingly zero-sum fight for a decent seat on the plane, a college scholarship, even a doctor’s appointment.

There has always been a gap between the haves and have-nots, but what was a tiered system in America is morphing into a caste system. As the rich get richer and more businesses focus exclusively on serving them, there is less attention and shabbier service for everybody who’s not at the pinnacle.

A tiered system, to borrow from Schwartz, implies at least some ability to move up. A caste system, however, suggests being stuck in place. But maybe there’s more room for movement in the U.S. system than we think. The problem is, these days it’s very likely to be downward.

For evidence of that, check out the facts, figures, and stories behind those workers who lost jobs and careers in the wreckage of the Great Recession and never found work at their previous income levels. For example, Elizabeth White’s important book, 55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal (2019), which I discussed last year (link here), chronicles that dynamic and provides advice and support for those dealing with these circumstances.

Earnings gap

Much has been written about the widening U.S. earnings and wealth gap. For a snapshot view, take a look at the Social Security Administration’s aggregate wage data, based on taxable wages for 2018 (link here) — the most recent year available:

  • Roughly half of American workers are earning $30,000 a year or less;
  • Those earning a modest $50,000 or so are paid more than 70 percent of the workforce;
  • A salary of $100,000 puts someone in the top 10 percent of earners.

And as this 2018 Business Insider piece by Hillary Hoffower shows (link here), even in cities where the median income is higher, typical middle-class living expenses far exceed those averages.

Retirement funding crisis

America faces a significant retirement funding crisis. I’ve been beating this drum for over 10 years on this blog, in concert with many others. Things are not getting appreciably better.

Labor economist Theresa Ghilarducci (New School for Social Research) is one of the nation’s leading experts on retirement funding and policy. She wrote in 2019 (link here):

The bottom line is that Americans do not have enough retirement savings. This is not because we drink too many lattes, as financial writer Helaine Olen has argued for many years, but because employers and workers are not required to contribute to retirement savings plans above and beyond Social Security. Many low-income workers once had some retirement security; janitors and ladies garment workers weren’t rich, but they had pension plans at work. Some gig workers, like job-to-job carpenters, also had pensions when they were in a union. What we need today is a portable universal pension system that supplements Social Security.

Some may still deny there is a problem. But the number of poor or near-poor people over the age of 62 is set to increase by 25% between 2018 and 2045, from 17.5 million to 21.8 million. If we do nothing in the next 12 years, 40% of middle-class older workers will be poor and near poor elders.  That is a problem.

One big event

As last week’s stock market drop precipitated by fears of a coronavirus global public health crisis illustrated, all it takes is one big scare to drive down values fast. Unfortunately, the trickle-down effects could reach even those who do not have much money, if at all, invested in stocks. Earlier this week, I was quoted by the Law & Crime site in a piece by Colin Kalmbacher on the potential employment implications of the coronavirus situation (link here). Among other things, I projected some of the long-term impacts if there are severe outbreaks in the U.S.:

“But in terms of how this affects the typical at-will employee, so much depends on how serious this turns out to be regarding both public health and economic impacts. Obviously if huge swaths of the workforce are infected with the virus, it will affect staffing and productivity wherever there’s a serious outbreak. Furthermore, if this reaches pandemic levels that trigger a 2008-style recession, then we could see layoffs in business sectors that are hardest hit. This would later trickle down to public sector and non-profit employment, as we saw with the Great Recession.”

In sum: At least since the early 1980s, our economy has become one of (1) flattening wages; (2) widening wealth gaps; and (3) reduced and eliminated employee benefits, especially retirement plans.

Ultimately, this understanding should translate into decisions we make at the ballot box. I hope folks keep these trends in mind during a 2020 election season that already looks to be short on facts and long on spin & lies. Hopefully there will be no velvet rope line when we show up to vote.

Ten popular MTW posts from 2019

Dear Readers, I’ve collected ten of the most popular MTW posts written during 2019. If you missed them before, I hope they will prove interesting and enlightening to you this time around. Here goes:

Man faced surgery, while bullying co-workers bet on his survival and gave him a toe tag (link here) — When Charlie Bowlby faced heart surgery, his co-workers placed bets on the likelihood that he would survive and gave him a mock toe tag before he went off to the hospital.

Speaking truth to power: Incivility & abrasiveness vs. bullying & mobbing (link here) — Bullying and mobbing are forms of abuse, not bad manners, and we should treat them accordingly.

Workplace bullying, DARVO, and aggressors claiming victim status (link here) — Dr. Jennifer Freyd’s conceptualization of DARVO — Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender — applies to many workplace bullying and mobbing situations.

Workplace bullying and incivility: Does kissing up fuel kicking down? (link here) — One study suggests a link between kissing up to one’s superiors and picking down one’s subordinates.

It’s not Yale or fail: The college admissions scandal and our unhealthy obsession with school prestige (link here) — The burgeoning college admissions scandal has prompted a fast-developing and overdue dialogue about how the wealthy and powerful are able to game the college admissions systems on behalf of their children.

Workplace bullying: Should “creative” folks get a pass? (Uh, no) (link here) — A workplace aggressor should not be given a free pass simply because they happen to be creative.

A short list of recommended books for targets of workplace bullying and mobbing (link here) — I thought I’d offer a very selective list of four affordable books that I repeatedly recommend to others.

A short speech in Rome (link here) — The text of my acceptance speech after receiving the Bruce Winick Award for contributions to the field of therapeutic jurisprudence, at the International Congress for Law and Mental Health.

Boston Globe: Two important features on workplace bullying (link here) — Discussing two feature articles, one a piece on a former corrections officer who faced savage bullying and sexual harassment, the other a piece on bullying of resident physicians.

On following evil orders at work (link here) — What if an employee is directed or enlisted to take part in the bullying, mobbing, or harassment of a co-worker?

Recovering from workplace bullying and other traumatic experiences: “Can’t” or “won’t”?

(Drawing copyright Aaron Maeda)

When it comes to folks who are dealing with severe workplace bullying and mobbing, sexual harassment, or other forms of targeted interpersonal mistreatment, we sometimes see people who seem to be stuck in a place of rumination and obsession:

He just won’t move forward. I think he prefers to suffer and be a victim.

She just can’t move forward. She’s suffering and feels very victimized.

On the surface, these two characterizations may not sound all that different. But dig even a little deeper, and the contrasts illuminate.

“Won’t” suggests that a traumatized individual has affirmatively chosen, for the time being, to stay in this bad place and not move forward. True, on a more hopeful note, it also assumes a power and ability to choose to get better. That said, there’s a judgmental ring to “won’t” as well, sounding a bit like victim blaming for a present “refusal” to proceed with recovery and healing.

“Can’t” suggests factors, internal and external, that limit a traumatized individual’s ability to recover, heal, and move forward. It implicitly suggests medical and external reasons for why someone is stuck in place. But it also connotes, at least in this context, that maybe someone is stuck there for the long haul.

I admit that in moments of frustration, I sometimes have used “won’t.” But in the process of learning more about psychological trauma, I now understand that “can’t” is the more appropriate term. Trauma is bear of a thing to wrestle with, and oftentimes those who are dealing with PTSD, depression, and related conditions due to abuse can easily get stuck in place.

However, if we are going to use the more appropriate “can’t,” then we should add an important addendum: …at least for now. You see, the good news is that a lot of progress is being made when it comes to understanding and treating trauma.

In connection with a new course I’m teaching called the Law and Psychology Lab (described here), I’ve returned to Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s groundbreaking, accessible book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (2014). In re-reading its chapters, I’m once again reminded of the complexities of trauma and the emergence of multiple treatment modalities for helping those who are experiencing it.

In essence, currently various trauma treatment approaches await those who are ready to seek and participate in them. Furthermore, I sense that we are still in the early stages of developing effective treatments. Thus, there is real hope for recovery and healing right now, and additional hope for even better treatments down the road.

Highly recommended

Let’s make 2020 a year of working on solutions and responses

 

For those of us who are committed to making human dignity a framing characteristic of modern society, let’s make 2020 a year of working on solutions and responses.

Over the years, I’ve witnessed an unsurprising but nonetheless troubling trend about traffic to this blog. On balance, pieces that discuss the hurt, pain, and injustice of workplace bullying, mobbing, and harassment get higher readership stats than those that discuss systemic solutions, law reform, and possible paths toward individual healing & recovery.

This appears to be a twist on internet clickbait patterns generally, whereby online readers are drawn to negative topics that validate and fuel outrage. Let’s face it: Sometimes we’re more likely to curse the darkness than to light a candle. Especially if you’ve been a target of workplace abuse, it’s perfectly natural to react in such a manner.

But lighting that candle towards effective solutions and responses must be our primary objective. And therein lies the hard work before us. In terms of what that means, I can speak only for myself.

Of course, I remain steadfastly committed to enacting the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill. As I wrote earlier this year (link here), we’re on a gradual but inevitable march toward enacting workplace anti-bullying laws in the U.S. It’s taking a long time to do this, particularly in the face of corporate opposition, but we are making genuine progress.

Overall, I’ll be continuing work on several fronts that encourages our legal systems, places of employment, and other political and civic institutions to embrace human dignity as a primary framing value. I will be emphasizing this theme as part of my service on three non-profit boards, in particular: The International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence, Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies, and Americans for Democratic Education Fund.

I’m also excited about a new course I’m offering at my law school during the coming semester. It’s called the Law and Psychology Lab, and it will incorporate heavy doses of therapeutic jurisprudence, encouraging law students to examine how laws can support psychologically healthy outcomes in legal disputes and transactions. In addition to developing projects on topics of individual interest, the students will work on a larger, co-created group project with a specific theme, which for this initial offering will be bullying, abuse, and trauma along the lifespan. We will be making some of the results of our work publicly available.

Here’s to a 2020 full of positive change. Let’s all be a part of it.

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.

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