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.

 

 

As Millennials enter the workforce, many are clinically depressed

Duke University psychiatrist Doris Iarovici, blogging for the New York Times, believes that anti-depressant medications can help her patients, but she also expresses deep concern over an increasing share of young people who are using them:

…(A) growing number of young adults are taking psychiatric medicines for longer and longer periods, at the very age when they are also consolidating their identities, making plans for the future and navigating adult relationships.

This trend is especially significant for people finishing school and entering the workforce:

Indeed, the psychologist Jeffrey Arnett calls the young adult years “the age of instability.” Dr. Arnett coined the term “emerging adulthood” to define a new psychological developmental stage for 18- to 29-year-olds in industrialized countries. But now, growing numbers of young people experience rapidly changing living situations, classes, jobs and relationships only while taking an antidepressant.

Iarovici adds that some of these younger people are arriving at college “so burned out by the pressures of high school that they get to college unable to engage in the work,” and they are “so fragile or overprotected in their formative years that they fall apart at the first stress they encounter.”

In a piece for PsychCentral.com, Dr. John Grohol echoes some of these observations, noting high levels of depression and weak emotional coping skills among many Millennials:

All of this is informed conjecture, of course, as there’s not much research that’s been done in this area. But some of it rings true to me, and from talking with others — both therapists and young adults — I’m not the only who sees more and more young adults who just don’t seem to have the emotional and psychological coping skills as young adults that were once more commonplace.

Implications for workers and workplaces

These trends do not bode well for those individuals and the places that employ them.  Some folks will arrive at work dependent upon anti-depressants to get them through the day. Some will struggle to deal with stressful work situations that inevitably arise. They also may lack the means to build personal resilience toward life’s ups and downs, some of which will be related to work and careers.

Their employers also will pay a price, dealing with a larger share of a workforce pushing the boundaries of psychological well-being and less capable of handling the emotionally challenging aspects of employment.

I can’t say I’m surprised about burnout symptoms appearing as early as college. The competition to get into the “best” schools has become brutal, and the treadmill of activities, prep classes, and AP classes necessary to play that game has become steeper and faster. Young people are being pushed to relentlessly chase their futures before they know what they want those futures to look like.

Let’s not blame the Millennials

These observations should not be taken as a slam on a generation. As an NPR program this week noted:

The “millennial generation” has been getting a bad rap in popular culture in recent years. Millennials, roughly defined as people born in the 1980s and ’90s, frequently see themselves depicted as entitled, coddled and narcissistic.

But many — including millennials themselves — dispute those characterizations. Young adults today are tolerant, civic-minded and entrepreneurial, they note, and are thriving despite entering into a tight job market, often with significant amounts of student loan debt.

Lots of Millennials are being raised a certain way and then pushed into a world that has raised the credential bar for their success and saddled them with other burdens passed on by preceding generations. In terms of weaker coping skills, Grohol points to the “helicopter parent” mentality and overly protective upbringings as likely culprits.

As a university professor for over 20 years, I’ve now taught students spanning three generations — Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials. In the aggregate, I do see generational differences, and I can offer generalizations about each, some positive, others less so.

Like any generation, the Millennials bring their strong and weak qualities to the workplace. It is disturbing, in any event, that depression appears to be disproportionately present among them. This reflects most critically not on the Millennials themselves, but rather on the preceding generations that have ushered them into the world.

Study: Childhood bullying has long-term negative impacts

The experience of bullying in childhood can have negative long-term social and health impacts, concludes a new study published in Psychological Science.

Researchers Dieter Wolke (Warwick, UK), William E. Copeland (Duke), Adrian Angold (Duke), and E. Jane Costello (Duke) knew that “(b)ullying creates risks of health and social problems in childhood,” but they wanted to examine whether “such risks extend into adulthood.” Here’s the summary of their study:

A large cohort of children was assessed for bullying involvement in childhood and then followed up in young adulthood in an assessment of health, risky or illegal behavior, wealth, and social relationships. Victims of childhood bullying, including those that bullied others (bully-victims), were at increased risk of poor health, wealth, and social-relationship outcomes in adulthood even after we controlled for family hardship and childhood psychiatric disorders. In contrast, pure bullies were not at increased risk of poor outcomes in adulthood once other family and childhood risk factors were taken into account. Being bullied is not a harmless rite of passage but throws a long shadow over affected people’s lives. Interventions in childhood are likely to reduce long-term health and social costs.

Lots of takeaway points

The takeaway points from this study are important and many:

  • Being a bullying target is associated negative long-term impacts;
  • Being both a target and a bully is associated with negative long-term impacts;
  • Being a “pure bully” is not associated with negative long-term impacts;
  • Failure to prevent and respond to childhood bullying has a short-term and long-term societal impact;
  • Positive interventions can make a difference.

Implications for schools, parents, mental health counselors, and policy makers

The implications for stakeholders involved with the care and education of kids are significant. Childhood bullying is not, to borrow from the study abstract, “a harmless rite of passage,” but rather a form of mistreatment that “throws a long shadow over affected people’s lives.”

Educators, parents, and mental health counselors should not treat reports of bullying lightly or dismissively. And school systems and policy makers must regard anti-bullying measures as integral parts of a safe and healthy educational environment.

The long-term impacts of bullying on members of groups more likely to be bullied, such as LGBT and disabled youth, merit special attention.

In public service ads and commercials, bullied kids are being told that “it gets better.” Hopefully that is the case, but this study illustrates how the baggage is carried forward into adulthood.

Workplace bullying: Human rights, public health, and mental health

Among the many disciplines that need to put workplace bullying more squarely on their respective agendas are human rights, public health, and mental health. Here’s why:

When an academic or professional discipline acknowledges the relevance of a topic and includes it in university courses, scholarly literature, and continuing education programs, generations of new practitioners and graduate students will bring that knowledge to their work.

With workplace bullying, it means that human rights activists will regard it as a profound violation of human dignity. It means that public health advocates will grasp how bullying at work impacts the health of workers and their families. It means that therapists will “get it” when clients share stories of abusive treatment at work.

Human rights

Human rights are often framed in a global context, putting a focus on nations with unstable governments and/or severe poverty. This emphasis is understandable and vitally important. In addition, we need to consider dignity violations at work. On this note, I was so pleased when the blog of the Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation recently published a piece on workplace bullying. Here’s how Rebecca Popham concluded the post:

There are some actions employees who are victims of bullying can pursue.  Depending on the situation and the extent of the bullying, these include coaching, working with a therapist, and seeking legal counsel.  Ultimately, though, workplace bullying needs to be addressed in the same manner that racial and other forms of workplace discrimination were tackled, resulting in legal protections.   The problem of workplace bullying has many causes and won’t be easily solved.  A good starting place, however, is greater awareness of the problem and making sure that its victims are heard.

Public health

Workplace bullying rarely appears in the public health literature, but a hardy few are making the case. For example, in 2010 Drs. Jorge Srabstein and Bennett Leventhal published a paper in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization on the public health implications of bullying across the lifespan, including the workplace:

Bullying is a major public health problem that demands the concerted and coordinated time and attention of health-care providers, policy-makers and families. Evolving awareness about the morbidity and mortality associated with bullying has helped give this psychosocial hazard a modest level of worldwide public health attention. . . . However, it is not enough.

Bullying is a multifaceted form of mistreatment, mostly seen in schools and the workplace. It is characterized by the repeated exposure of one person to physical and/or emotional aggression including teasing, name calling, mockery, threats, harassment, taunting, hazing, social exclusion or rumours. . . . A wide range of bullying prevalence has been documented among students and in labour forces worldwide.

Mental health

While subfields such as industrial/organizational psychology, occupational health psychology, and consulting psychology devote increasing attention to workplace bullying, clinical psychology and counseling continue to fall short. That’s why this March 2013 Counseling Today piece on adult bullying by Lynne Shallcross is most welcomed. It features counselor and coach Jessi Eden Brown, who is associated with the Workplace Bullying Institute and also maintains a private practice:

Unfortunately, graduating from college still doesn’t guarantee an end to bullying. A 2010 survey commissioned by the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) found that 35 percent of the U.S. workforce — an estimated 53.5 million Americans — report being bullied at work. An additional 15 percent said they had witnessed co-workers being bullied.

These statistics are all too familiar to Jessi Eden Brown, who serves as WBI’s administrator and also runs a private counseling practice in the Seattle area. About half of her clients deal with issues related to workplace bullying.

Framing it globally and individually

Together, the human rights, public health, and mental health perspectives help to frame workplace bullying as a fundamental issue of human dignity and as an important health concern. I hope there are enterprising practitioners, advocates, scholars, and graduate students in these disciplines who will help to fill in these gaps.

UIC study: Bullying and harassment of college students fuels alcohol consumption

College students face bullying and sexual harassment both at school and at their jobs, and these forms of mistreatment are associated with excessive alcohol consumption, according to findings presented by Dr. Kathleen Rospenda (U. of Illinois at Chicago) at the recent “Work, Stress and Health” conference in Los Angeles.

Rospenda, an organizational psychologist, and colleagues Jennifer Wolff and Judith Richman conducted a study involving over 2,100 college students at eight Illinois schools:

  • At school, 43 percent experienced bullying and 14 percent experienced sexual harassment;
  • At work, 33 percent experienced bullying and 4 percent experienced sexual harassment.

The survey covered a four month period — essentially, the first semester of the students’ freshman year — which makes these prevalence stats pretty high.

Mistreatment and alcohol abuse

The students’ experiences with bullying and harassment were strongly associated with greater alcohol consumption.  Here are several major points drawn from Rospenda’s presentation and a followup e-mails exchange:

  • “Bullying at work and at school were more strongly and consistently associated with frequency and quantity of alcohol consumption than sexual harassment at work or school”
  • “Compared to bullying and sexual harassment at work, bullying and sexual harassment at school were more strongly and consistently associated with abusive and problematic drinking”
  • Stronger prevention and intervention programs for bullying and sexual harassment at schools will help to “remove some of the triggers for problematic drinking among college students.”

Implications

It may be tempting to breezily write off such studies on grounds that connections between going to college and heavy drinking are hardly novel. After all, pushing boundaries of personal behavior is a rite of passage for many during their college years, and most manage to “settle down” as they mature. Those of us who grew up during the “Animal House” era of college life may be especially prone to thinking this way.

But taking this attitude ignores a serious problem with genuine ripple effects. The study shows that bullying, sexual harassment, and alcohol use are a potent mix. Rospenda observed that college is a period of “emerging adulthood.” She also cited research indicating that over 40 percent of 18-25 year olds self-reported engaging in binge drinking during the past month.

Pulling all this together, we see how increased alcohol consumption can become an easy if self-destructive coping response to interpersonal mistreatment early in someone’s life. And when later inevitable challenges and setbacks occur, coping methods learned in college may revive themselves. This can contribute to serious personal and public health concerns covering life spans.

***

The biennial “Work, Stress and Health” conference is co-sponsored by the American Psychological Association, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and Society for Occupational Health Psychology.

 

America’s economic meltdown continues for millions: Articles worth reading

The human costs of our ongoing economic crisis continue to mount. If your primary impressions of the economy are shaped by the rise in the Dow Jones Average, you might be wondering what I’m talking about. But for countless millions of others who are more concerned with the challenges of paying their bills, feeding their kids, saving for the future, and finding work, crisis remains an apt way to describe this economy.

I’ve collected a number of articles and blog posts that help us to connect the disturbing dots:

Bob’s cousin

Bob Rosner, blogging for Workplace Fairness Weekly, writes about “Broken Hearts: Unemployment’s Devastating Impact“:

Last week my cousin died of a heart attack. After working continuously for the first two-thirds of his career, recently he’d bounced from short term jobs to stretches of unemployment. This cycle is tough enough on someone just starting out a career, but for someone in their early 60’s, it can literally be a heartbreaker.

Read what he has to say about maintaining hope through the 4 “Ps”: perspective, pride, pals, and possibilities.

Profits over people — by a longshot

But hold on, it’s not as if our economy remains in complete meltdown mode. Nope, that just applies to the vast millions who are struggling to make ends meet and to secure decent work. Derek Thompson, business writer for The Atlantic, sums up the situation in meaty blog post:

Here are two things that are true about the economy today.

(1) The Dow Jones industrial average is poised to set a new record as corporate profits stretch to all-time highs.

(2) There are still fewer working Americans today than there were before the start of the Great Recession.

He goes on to explain:

When the economy crashes, we all crash together: corporate profits, employment, and growth. But when the economy recovers, we don’t recover together. Corporations rack up historic profits thanks to strong global demand, cheap global labor, and low interest rates, while American workers muddle along, their significance to these companies greatly diminished by a worldwide market for goods and people.

The forgotten

Although the official unemployment rate continues to improve very slowly, overlooked in those figures are the millions who are no longer included in the counts. Annalyn Kurtz reports for CNN.com:

An often overlooked number calculated by the Labor Department shows millions of Americans want a job but haven’t searched for one in at least a year. They’ve simply given up hope.

. . . These hopelessly unemployed workers have just been jobless so long, they’ve fallen off the main government measures altogether.

. . . Five years ago, before the recession began, about 2.5 million people said they wanted a job but hadn’t searched for one in at least a year. Now, that number is around 3.25 million.

The future of retirement

As I’ve written frequently here, the demise of retirement as a normal lifespan experience may be one of the longer-term effects of our economic condition. Steven Greenhouse, labor reporter for the New York Times, offers a thorough look at the future of retirement in the U.S.:

While retirement has assumed myriad forms across the country, many economists and other experts on retirement see some common, increasingly worrisome trends. A growing number of workers are convinced they will not have a comfortable retirement. A Boston College study in October found that 53 percent of Americans were “at risk” of being unable to maintain their pre-retirement standard of living once they retire, up from 30 percent in 1989. A study last May by the Employee Benefit Research Institute found that 44 percent may not have enough money to meet their basic needs in retirement.

Burdening next generations

As the cost of a college education continues to climb, student loan debt rises with it. Martha C. White reports for Time on the economic repercussions of massive student loan debt:

The broader economic implications are troubling. Graduates struggling to dig out from a mountain of student debt also tend to put off getting married, buying homes, and having kids. And since a bigger chunk of their income will go towards servicing the mortgages or car loans they are able to obtain at higher rates, they’ll have less spending power when they do eventually buy big-ticket items like homes and cars.

And that’s not even addressing the psychological impact of mountainous debt and reduced hopes. Cryn Johannsen of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project writes about the spectre of suicide in connection with student debt:

Suicide is the dark side of the student lending crisis and, despite all the media attention to the issue of student loans, it’s been severely under-reported. I can’t ignore it though, because I’m an advocate for people who are struggling to pay their student loans, and I’ve been receiving suicidal comments for over two years and occasionally hearing reports of actual suicides.

Inequality = more stress and illness

America’s wealth gap is widening despite the supposed economic recovery, reports Rick Newman for U.S. News & World Report:

The problem, however, is that the recession raised the bar for success while leaving fewer haves and more have-nots. America as a whole may be just as wealthy as it used to be, but the wealth is being shared by a smaller slice of the population. And that rearrangement may end up being permanent.

In this piece for BillMoyers.com, Theresa Riley interviews epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson, an authority on the destructive public health consequences of societal inequality:

The pattern we’ve found in our research is quite extraordinarily clear. More unequal countries, the ones with the bigger income differences between rich and poor have much more violence, worse life expectancy, more mental illness, more obesity, more people in prison, and more teenage births. All these problems get worse with greater inequality, because it damages the social fabric of a society.

The end of the American dream?

Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate in economics, assessed our economy in the context of the November election:

In this election, each side debated issues that deeply worry me: the long malaise into which the economy seems to be settling, and the growing divide between the 1 percent and the rest — an inequality not only of outcomes but also of opportunity. To me, these problems are two sides of the same coin: with inequality at its highest level since before the Depression, a robust recovery will be difficult in the short term, and the American dream — a good life in exchange for hard work — is slowly dying.

Stiglitz’s public policy prescriptions “include, at least, significant investments in education, a more progressive tax system and a tax on financial speculation.”

Goodbye to trickle-down economics?

The policies that led us to this widening gap between the haves vs. the have-less and the have-nots have been at least 30 years in the making, with “trickle-down economics” being the policy mantra of the era. This concept held that if wealthy people could keep more of their money and businesses could be freed of regulatory safeguards, the benefits would trickle down to everyone else. The centerpiece of trickle-down theory was that tax cuts to the wealthy would give a jump start to America’s economic engine, an assumption rebutted in a non-partisan Congressional Research Service report discussed in this Huffington Post piece.

If you’re interested in learning more, read some of these articles and start connecting the dots for yourself. We’re at a critical economic juncture in America, and the well-being of all but the most fortunate is at stake.

Raising workers’ health insurance payments for bad lifestyle habits

One of the unfortunate by-products of our messed up health care system is how some employers are raising employee health insurance contributions for those who engage in lifestyles deemed unhealthy.

They may smoke. They may eat too much or the wrong foods. They may not participate in preventive care. As Reed Abelson reported for the New York Times last November:

More and more employers are demanding that workers who smoke, are overweight or have high cholesterol shoulder a greater share of their health care costs, a shift toward penalizing employees with unhealthy lifestyles rather than rewarding good habits.

This isn’t a screed against personal responsibility. And I understand why employers are assessing options to lasso out-of-control health insurance costs.

But what I see here is a scary slippery slope, one that leads to certain individuals bearing a heavier burden of their health care costs based on the supposed riskiness of everyday conduct.

It may sound good until you apply it evenhandedly: The person who has no problem imposing higher premiums on smokers may forget that the steaks and burgers he enjoys provide reason for raising his premiums, too. And what if vegetarian who doesn’t mind sticking it the carnivore is not getting recommended amounts of protein in her diet? Does this mean that she should pony up higher payments as well?

In addition, if we’re going to play this game, what responsibility do companies that market some of these products bear for promoting these habits — the cigarette makers, fast-food restaurants, and beer companies? They know darn well that their products will have some negative health effects.

And what about bad employers that create stressful working conditions that, in turn, cause some workers to engage in less-than-healthy habits? If we’re preaching responsibility here, shouldn’t they pay a higher share of our health care costs?

Health insurance coverage helps to protect us against the costs of being human, including our own foibles and weaknesses. America remains one of the world’s wealthiest nations, and we have the capacity to provide affordable, quality health care for all. This type of business practice, however, is takes us in the opposite, more punitive, direction.

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