Are we preaching wellness to wave off a closer look at core societal problems?

 

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Journalist Laurie Penny, in a terrific piece for the punchy journal The Baffler, takes aim at the messaging of self-care and wellness from Powers That Be that may obscure a closer look at deeper societal problems:

The slow collapse of the social contract is the backdrop for a modern mania for clean eating, healthy living, personal productivity, and “radical self-love”—the insistence that, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, we can achieve a meaningful existence by maintaining a positive outlook, following our bliss, and doing a few hamstring stretches as the planet burns.

She posits that this “wellbeing ideology is a symptom of a broader political disease,” one that renders us believing that we can improve our lives only on an individual level. Thus, we are conditioned to assume “that if we are sick, sad, and exhausted,” the problem is one not of our economic system, but rather of personal fault:

The lexis of abuse and gas-lighting is appropriate here: if you are miserable or angry because your life is a constant struggle against privation or prejudice, the problem is always and only with you. Society is not mad, or messed up: you are.

Such a belief system may foreclose us “from even considering a broader, more collective reaction to the crises of work, poverty, and injustice.”

Individual vs. social change

To her credit, Penny does not dismiss the benefits of self-care and healthy living choices, confessing “that I’ve been doing yoga for two years and it’s changed my life to an extent that I almost resent.” But, at the very least, she’s asserting that the pendulum has swung away too far from societal perspectives on, and collective solutions to, conditions that stoke suffering, injustice, and deprivation.

Bingo. Especially here in the States, the wellness stuff may be a softer, gentler version of old fashioned American rugged individualism, embracing the myth that you make it or miss it on your own. Don’t get me wrong, being accountable to ourselves is a good thing. But all the personal responsibility in the world doesn’t make up for a stacked deck and abuses of power.

If we want to make the world a better place, we have to work on ourselves and our institutions and our communities, yes?

Applied to the workplace

This imbalanced focus on the individual captures why I have a problem with many workplace wellness programs. Standing in isolation, wellness programs are fine things. However, it is wholly ironic that these programs can pop up in workplaces that unnecessarily generate the very stressors and unhealthy living habits these programs are designed to address. Treating workers with dignity — including (at the very least) a living wage, fair employment practices, and a decent work environment — is the best employer-sponsored wellness program of all!

Of course, the individual vs. social change dichotomy can manifest itself in more dire workplace situations as well. For example, too many complaints about workplace bullying are dismissed as personality conflicts, and all too often the target of the mistreatment is blamed for somehow not adequately managing the situation.

This dismissive attitude ignores that workplace bullying has strong individual, organizational, and societal components. Of course, on an individual level, it involves perpetrators and targets, and those interpersonal dynamics can be complex. That said, workplace bullying is much less likely to occur in the absence of an organizational culture that enables or even encourages it. On a broader societal level, abusive behaviors at work can be fueled by an absence of legal protections and the presence of a popular culture that accepts them as normal.

We need a reframe

So, folks, we need a reframe, one that looks at human problems at both the individual and societal levels, with responses and solutions shaped accordingly. Perhaps we’ll even reach the point where we see individual change vs. social change as a false dichotomy, replaced by an understanding that we need both in order to create better lives, workplaces, and communities.

Our New Dark Age of Rage

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When it comes to emotions driving so much of our public discourse and individual decision making these days, rage seems to be all the rage. Anger and vitriol expressed face-to-face and online are often overcoming calmer, kinder, more reasoned voices, sometimes with harsh and even tragic consequences.

Last month, security officers at the Cincinnati Zoo had to kill a beloved gorilla after a young boy had found his way into the animal’s living space. Angry public outcry emerged from certain circles, with some even claiming that the animal should’ve been spared at the expense of the boy.

On June 12, a man apparently fueled by both homophobia and ISIS-inspired rage killed 49 people and injured 53 others at an Orlando nightclub.

Last week, a slight majority of British voters, many of whom were stoked by angry resentment toward immigrants and outsiders, voted for their country to leave the European Union. Now that the predictable and unsettling tidal wave of consequences has been triggered, many of the “leave” voters are asking themselves, what did I do? 

And, of course, there are Donald Trump’s ongoing outbursts, which are calculated to whip up resentment and anger. They are the major reasons why this is the ugliest, most vulgar U.S. presidential campaign in memory.

Folks, it appears that the virulent anger we often see expressed in the comments sections of online news articles and commentary is now coming out from behind the keyboard and manifesting itself in very ugly ways.  How ironic that all of our whiz bang technology is helping to take us back into a New Dark Age of humanity. We can and must do better than this.

 

Workplace bullying and mental health counseling

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Counseling Today devotes an excellent cover story by Laurie Meyers to the effects of bullying behaviors, school, workplace, and online. Jessi Eden Brown, a licensed mental health counselor and coach affiliated with the Workplace Bullying Institute, is a featured interviewee and shares a wealth of important information on workplace bullying and how to work with targets.

Jessi has counseled and coached hundreds of people who have experienced workplace bullying, and her knowledge of this subject is second to none. She includes a bit of her own story in explaining how she works with clients:

Brown began specializing in counseling clients who have experienced workplace bullying after going through the experience herself in two different positions. “Both times were painful and deeply confusing,” she says. “I seriously considered leaving the counseling profession after the second experience.”

However, a friend who was doing web design for WBI introduced her to psychologists Gary and Ruth Namie, the founders and directors of the institute. The Namies were looking for a professional coach and offered Brown the job. As she worked with those who had been bullied, she began to integrate her experiences into her private counseling practice.

“The vast majority of my clients present as capable, accomplished professionals with a documented history of success in the workplace,” she says. “At some point in their careers, they encounter the bully and everything changes .”

. . . Brown says the first step toward helping clients who are being bullied is to identify what they are experiencing — workplace bullying and psychological violence. Naming the behavior helps clients frame and externalize their experiences by realizing that they are not creating or imagining the problem, she explains.

“Encouraging the client to prioritize [his or her] health comes next,” Brown says. “Working closely with other health care providers is essential in situations where the individual’s health has been severely compromised.”

Jessi goes into quite a bit of detail about workplace bullying, which makes this piece helpful to counselors, coaches, and bullying targets alike. And for those who want to further understand the dynamics of bullying in other contexts, the sections on school and online behaviors will be useful.

On the whole, the mental health community has been behind the curve concerning workplace bullying, so this extensive article is very welcomed, with a bow to Counseling Today for giving this topic its cover. It could not be more timely, as we continue to learn more about the destructive effects of workplace bullying on individuals. (I’ll be writing more about this soon.)

Folks who are already working with a therapist, counselor, or coach might consider sharing this piece with them. I’ve also just added it to my own Need Help? resource page on this blog.

Can workplace bullying harm the offspring of women who are targeted during pregnancy?

How does workplace bullying affect the health of an unborn baby? Studies examining possible links between negative health outcomes to the children of women who experienced considerable stress at work during pregnancy suggest that this question merits our attention.

In a recent piece for The Atlantic magazine, “Should You Bring Your Unborn Baby to Work?,” Moises Velazquez-Manoff observes that research on the work stress/pregnancy question is inconsistent, but sufficient to raise concerns:

In 2012, a study of female orthopedic surgeons found that those who worked more than 60 hours a week while pregnant had nearly five times the risk of preterm birth—meaning delivery before 37 weeks of gestation, which can indicate unfavorable conditions in the womb and predict ill health throughout a child’s life—compared with those who worked less. But one glaring problem with this study was that it surveyed women after they gave birth, asking them to remember how much they had worked during pregnancy.

A 2009 study from Ireland that followed 676 pregnant women was better designed. Experiencing two or more work-related stressors—including shift work, temporary work, or working 40 hours or more a week—was associated with a more than fivefold increased risk of preterm birth. A much larger subsequent study from Denmark, however, found no such relationship between “job strain” and preterm birth.

What was I to think? I called up Sylvia Guendelman, a professor of maternal and child health at the University of California at Berkeley. The research could be inconsistent, she said. “But the bulk of evidence seems to suggest that something is there.”

Especially given that workplace bullying can trigger severe stress reactions far beyond those of “normally” stressful work situations, this body of developing research serves as a yellow flag, at the very least, to pregnant women who are experiencing workplace bullying.

Yehuda studies: Stress reactions can be transmitted to unborn children

Even if the workplace studies have methodological issues or yield contrasting findings, other research appears to confirm that women who experienced psychological trauma during pregnancy may transmit stress reactions to their children.

Noted trauma expert Rachel Yehuda led a team of researchers who studied the effects of the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks on pregnant women who were at or near the site and who experienced post-traumatic stress disorder as a consequence. They found that these stress reactions can be transmitted to their unborn children. As reported by The Guardian newspaper in 2011:

…(T)he children of women who were traumatised as a result of 9/11 subsequently exhibit an increased distress response when shown novel stimuli. Again, this was related to the stage of pregnancy – those with the largest distress response were the ones born to mothers who were in their second or third trimester when exposed to the World Trade Centre attacks.

Previous trauma research led by Yehuda indicates a similar association between Holocaust survivors who experienced PTSD and increased risk for PTSD by their offspring.

“Something is there”

To borrow from Professor Guendelman (quoted in The Atlantic article), something is there.

Although concededly speculative, it makes intuitive sense for us to be connecting these dots. Workplace bullying is a form of targeted mistreatment that threatens one’s livelihood and sense of well being, and it has long been associated with symptoms consistent with PTSD. In severe, recurring forms, it has been likened to torture.

Furthermore, while it’s not clear whether the frequency of workplace bullying increases during pregnancy, it’s no secret that many employers do not greet news of a worker’s pregnancy with open arms. For example, as the Great Recession tore through the global economy, The Guardian noted an apparent increase in bullying faced by pregnant staff. (Legally, this is potentially significant, as many jurisdictions — including the U.S. — prohibit discrimination and harassment on the basis of pregnancy.)

Accordingly, this body of research on the effects of trauma on unborn children bears watching, for it potentially adds to our understanding of the harm that may be caused by workplace bullying, and thus could very well carry important implications for public health and public policy.

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Related posts (click on titles to access full articles)

Trickle-down abuse: Workplace bullying, depression, and kids (2011) — “We know that severe workplace bullying can trigger or exacerbate clinical depression in its targets. But that’s not all: In making our case for taking this form of abuse seriously, we also need to acknowledge how children become the secondary victims of bullying-induced depression.”

Workplace bullying and families of targets (2011) — “Workplace bullying often creates victims in addition to the target of the abuse. In particular, close family members often pay a price as well, as personal relationships are severely tested and sometimes fractured. Many bullying targets, and those who have interviewed, counseled, and coached them, have known this for a long time. Now, emerging research is helping to build the evidence-based case.”

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World Suicide Prevention Day, 2014: Ties to work, bullying, and the economy

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This Wednesday, September 10 has been designated World Suicide Prevention Day by the International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP), an agency associated with the World Health Organization. You’ll find a wealth of resources related to suicide prevention awareness and education on the IASP’s dedicated webpage. And you also can access a copy of the WHO’s 2014 report, Preventing suicide: A global imperative, available in several languages.

What does this have to do with a blog about workers and workplaces? As longtime readers know, a lot. Conditions at work, especially severe workplace bullying, have been linked to suicides and suicidal ideation. The global economic meltdown has been associated with rising suicide rates as well. Here are some of my previous posts on suicide as related to bullying (both workplace and school) and the state of the economy:

U.S. Army’s investigation on toxic leadership may yield valuable insights on bullying/suicide risks (2014) — “The United States Army is taking a hard look at the effects of toxic leaders on the mental health of soldiers, and the results may yield valuable insights on linkages between bullying behaviors and suicidal tendencies.”

Suicide and the Great Recession: Will we heed the tragic warnings? (2013) —  “In this era of the Great Recession, suicide has become a leading cause of death in America, especially among the middle-aged, and it is to our shame as a society that this reality is not an ongoing, dominant focus of our attention. Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report documenting the alarming crisis….”

News report: Teen suicide in Japan followed virulent peer and adult bullying (2012) — “One of the most disturbing stories about a teen suicide linked to bullying comes from Otsu, Japan, where a 13-year-old boy was savagely bullied by both classmates and teachers before taking his life. The death occurred in October, but the story has just gone public.”

Suicides spike as Europe’s economy crumbles (2012) — “The meltdown of the European economy has been linked to rising suicide rates of workers who see no escape from their plight.”

Friends and families of workplace bullying suicide victims support Healthy Workplace Bill (2011) — “If you’re wondering about the terrible impact of workplace bullying on targets and their family and friends, a recent press conference in New York hosted by advocates for the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill put the question front-and-center. Among the speakers were Maria Morrissey, sister of Kevin Morrissey, an editor for the Virginia Literary Review who committed suicide last July; and Katherine Hermes, friend of Marlene Braun, a California park service employee who committed suicide in 2005.”

Following suicide of Rutgers student, N.J. Senator to introduce anti-bullying legislation (2010) — “Following the suicide of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi after images of him engaging in an intimate encounter with a man were posted to the Internet, U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) has stated that he will introduce legislation requiring colleges and universities to develop anti-bullying and harassment policies.”

Media tracks workplace bullying angle in suicide of Virginia journal editor (2010) — “The July 30 suicide of Virginia Quarterly Review editor Kevin Morrissey…, reportedly due to workplace bullying, has become the subject of growing media attention. Especially for those who are studying linkages between bullying and suicidal behavior, as well as instances of bullying in academe, this developing story merits your continued interest. In addition to Robin Wilson’s Aug. 12 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education and accompanying online comments, here are two more recent and extensive news accounts. You’ll find my interview remarks in both….”

Are suicides of French Telecom workers related to workplace bullying? (2010) — “(H)ere is a report from Matthew Saltmarsh of the New York Times on an investigation in France of some 40 suicides of French Telecom employees that may be related to bullying at work….”

Global news about workplace bullying and the law (2010) — “Four workmates of a young waitress who killed herself by jumping off a building have been convicted and fined a total of $335,000 over relentless bullying before her death. Brodie Rae Constance Panlock, 19, was subjected to the humiliating bullying by workmates at Cafe Vamp in Hawthorn, in Melbourne’s east, before she threw herself from a multi-storey car park in September 2006.”

Workplace bullying suicide of Jodie Zebell, age 31 (2010) — “This week, a Wisconsin state legislative committee deliberating on the Healthy Workplace Bill heard about the 2008 suicide of Jodie Zebell, who took her own life after enduring months of workplace bullying at the clinic where she worked as a mammography.”

The school bullying suicide of Phoebe Prince, age 15 (2010) — “Phoebe Prince was a 15-year-old girl at South Hadley High School in Massachusetts who was so mercilessly bullied by fellow students (in person and online) that she took her own life.”

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Suicide prevention resource in the U.S.

If you or someone you care about is having suicidal thoughts, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached around the clock at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). In addition, you can go to a hospital emergency room and ask for help.

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Recycling: Five years of July

Each month I’m reaching into the archives to highlight a piece from that month of each past year. Especially for those of you who missed them the first time around, I hope they provide interesting and useful reading. For each piece I’m including a short excerpt; you may click on the title for the full article.

July 2013: Triple jeopardy: Workplace bullying at midlife — “Although ‘middle aged’ is a term that few in their 40s and 50s are eager to embrace, this phase of life typically is marked by high levels of personal and occupational achievement and productivity. The specter of workplace bullying during the ongoing economic crisis, however, tells a very different story.”

July 2012: Memo to self: “I’m swamped” may be a self-imposed condition — “We continue to ratchet up expectations for occupational and professional success. We worship the mantra of ‘work hard, play hard.’ If you don’t keep doing more, you’ll fall behind and never catch up — or perhaps miss out on that ‘big opportunity,’ even if it’s something you don’t necessarily want.”

July 2011: How well does your organization respond to employee criticism and feedback? — “In reality, organizational leaders who have the confidence to solicit and listen to worker feedback generally also are likely to have the integrity to treat allegations of wrongful behavior fairly and responsively. Poor leaders, however, are more likely to fall short on both measures.”

July 2010: Graduating into a recession — “Comparisons between the current recession and that of the early 1980s are frequent, but this one is worse.  In terms of severity, the Great Recession lies somewhere between the 80s recession and the Great Depression of the 1930s. We appear to be looking at structural changes in the labor markets, with the term “jobless recovery” frequently invoked to suggest a sluggish comeback for the stock market with little or no corresponding improvement in the employment situation.”

July 2009: Workplace bullying as a public health concern — “Transnational bodies such as the World Health Organization and International Labour Organisation have recognized the costs of workplace bullying to workers and employers, and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has hosted roundtable discussions of experts on workplace bullying, linking it to workplace violence.  Hopefully these are signs that we are closer to classifying the widespread and destructive effect of workplace bullying as a legitimate public health concern.”

Recycling: Five years of Mays

Dear readers, with some 1,100 articles posted to this blog since its founding in late 2008, on a monthly basis I’m going to reach into the archives to highlight a piece from the corresponding month of each past year. Especially for those of you who missed them the first time around, I hope they will provide interesting and useful reading. For each piece I’m including a short excerpt; you may click on the title for the full article.

May 2013: Suicide and the Great Recession: Will we heed the tragic warnings?

In this era of the Great Recession, suicide has become a leading cause of death in America, especially among the middle-aged, and it is to our shame as a society that this reality is not an ongoing, dominant focus of our attention.

…Suicide is a scary, intimidating, and complicated topic, and it makes many of us uneasy. But a nation’s suicide rates should be among the prime indicators of its collective health and well-being. We need to “own” these statistics, understand what’s behind them, and do our best to respond to them. This will enhance our lives a lot more than obsessing over stock market reports and enabling corporations whose leaders don’t give a hoot about the rest of us.

May 2012: Trickle-down abuse: Workplace bullying, depression, and kids

We know that severe workplace bullying can trigger or exacerbate clinical depression in its targets. But that’s not all: In making our case for taking this form of abuse seriously, we also need to acknowledge how children become the secondary victims of bullying-induced depression.

…Bullying-induced depression can impact parental care provided by mothers and fathers alike. But I suggest that there’s a disparate impact on women. Let’s connect the dots….

…In other words, the evidence suggests that we’ve got a cohort of bullied, depressed moms out there, and the pain of their experience at work is being passed on to their kids at home.

May 2011: What policy objectives should workplace bullying legislation advance?

With growing discussion about the enactment of workplace bullying legislation occurring both in the U.S. and in other nations, it is fitting to identify some of the broad objectives that any such law should be designed to further.

When I was drafting the Healthy Workplace Bill, I identified a cluster of public policy goals that should inform the substance of an anti-bullying law. These four figured most prominently….

May 2010: Embracing Creative Dreams at Midlife

Dreams die hard is something of an old chestnut, but having entered the heart of midlife, I am thankful that this often is true. I think especially of creative energies waiting to be tapped and unleashed, perhaps after some of life’s other priorities and responsibilities have been addressed, and pursued with the benefit of experience and maturity.

Two long-time friends come to mind when I ponder this….

May 2009: Star Trek: To bold embrace passions…or to obliterate work-life balance?

With Star Trek and its heirs, life on a starship is all encompassing. The officers and crew live where they work. There rarely is such a thing as a “vacation,” unless beaming down to a planet that may serve up life-threatening beings or diseases counts as Club Med or the French Riviera. Alas, to my knowledge, none of the Star Trek incarnations feature an employee assistance program or union shop steward to address issues of overwork or chronic stress.

 

 

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