From hoop jumping to legacy work and places in between

(image courtesy of http://worldartsme.com)

(image courtesy of http://worldartsme.com)

Last week I invoked the writings of philosopher Charles Hayes to consider how the ripple effects of our good works can positively impact the world, perhaps in ways we will never know. I’d like to return to questions of how we can make a difference during our lives — in whatever sphere(s) we deem important — by putting on a spectrum the notion of hoop jumping on one end and the concept of legacy work on the other. Please allow me to engage in some Sunday meandering….

First, some definitions may be in order here. By “hoop jumping” I refer to schooling, credentialing, networking, and gaining initial experience. These steps take us to where we’d like to be; they position us. (This is why it is rare for a post-graduate first job to be a true “dream job.”)

By “legacy work” I mean our core contributions and accomplishments, the stuff we’d like to be remembered for in the longer run and by people we care about. In the realm of vocation, it may involve creative or intellectual work, achievement in business, service to others, building something, activism and social change work, or some type of innovation or invention.

Some people jump through their requisite hoops early, completing the heart of their formal learning at a relatively young age, promptly engaging in the necessary networking and positioning, and embarking on a long-term career that brings them much satisfaction. Certainly there may be setbacks and diversions along the way, but they start building their body of legacy work fairly early in life.

For many others, however, that process will include stops and starts, ups and downs, and recasting that often requires jumping through new hoops. A career is rarely completely linear, moving irresistibly upward until we reach some pinnacle and then retire. Furthermore, opportunities to do meaningful work, especially that which may fall into the legacy category, do not necessarily build toward some big crescendo close to the end. Whether they are handed to us or we create them, we rarely have full control over timing and sequencing!

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I realize that I have been talking mainly in the context of careers here. Nevertheless, as I’ve suggested before, one’s legacy work need not be vocational in nature. It can include parenting, caregiving, an engaging avocation, a deeply meaningful hobby, or charitable work. For some, a “day job” may pay the bills, but an unrelated project or endeavor brings the deeper meaning.

Over the years, I have witnessed these scenarios many times. With some people, the discovery of legacy work has actually been a re-discovery, marking a return to interests and passions they put on the shelf in years past.

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Let me also acknowledge the sense of great economic and social privilege implicit in what I’m writing about. Those of us who are in a position to devote a good chunk of our waking hours to endeavors that provide satisfaction, meaning, accomplishment, and even joy are very fortunate. Countless millions of people around the world do not have that luxury; they are living in survival mode.

I hesitate to characterize such blessings as constituting a finger wagging obligation to make the most of them and to contribute something good to the world. That said, we live in a world in serious need of more joy, creativity, humanity, and compassion. Who wants to look back at a life only to see a lot of wonderful opportunities squandered and wasted?

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Looking at the tortoise and the hare folktale, I personally identify more with the tortoise, at least when it comes to this general subject. In fact, I look with admiration at those folks who have figured things out much earlier than I did. I started this blog in 2008, over twenty years into my career as a lawyer and law professor. I now understand that it took me that long to forge a sufficiently wise, authentic, and mature worldview to start writing for a more public audience on the topics that frequent these pages.

Does a sense of purpose contribute to a longer life?

In a piece for the Huffington Post, Shelley Emling summons research suggesting that living with a sense of purpose and direction can extend our stays in this life as well:

What’s the key to long life? Is it clean living? Lots of exercise? An abundance of vegetables? Actually, the key to long life may be something a bit more intangible: a sense of purpose.

Researchers studying longevity say those who feel a sense of purpose and direction in life may indeed live longer, no matter what their age.

She quotes Patrick Hill of Carleton University (Canada), lead researcher in a study suggesting that a strong sense of life purpose may have “protective effects”:

“Our findings point to the fact that finding a direction for life, and setting overarching goals for what you want to achieve, can help you actually live longer, regardless of when you find your purpose. . . . So the earlier someone comes to a direction for life, the earlier these protective effects may be able to occur.”

Many potential sources

Although this blog is mainly about work and workers, let’s acknowledge right away that we can create or discover a sense of purpose in a variety of ways, including employment, an avocation, a hobby, or volunteer and philanthropic work. It can come out of devotion to others, such as parenting, caregiving, or helping animals. It may be inspired by a broader cause or a personal objective. Faith and spirituality may enter the picture as well.

It seems intuitive, doesn’t it? In fact, the capacity to develop our life purpose is one of the major distinguishing characteristics between humans and other living beings. Surely there are days when the life of a beloved dog or cat — basically hanging out, eating good food, playing when you feel like it, and getting lots of TLC — looks pretty good! But for we human folk, having a strong, motivating sense of purpose and direction is among the blessings that makes life worthwhile.

Blessed are the caregivers

Several months ago, after settling into my seat for a plane flight, I looked up the aisle and noticed a physically slight older woman lugging along a large man, and he was basically leaning on her back as they moved forward. She led him to their seats and attended to his seatbelt. Later, when he had to use the restroom, she helped him to get up, and once again he leaned on her back as they made their way to the front of the plane.

The man appeared to be severely developmentally disabled, and she was his caregiver, probably his mom. In her eyes I saw what I can only describe as a tired yet peaceful sense of devotion and acceptance.

It so happened that I was traveling that day to visit a dear friend who is caring for her father who has Alzheimer’s. Because of her selflessness, this good man is living comfortably at home, enjoying his favorite meals, watching football games, and having someone tuck him into bed every night with a hug.

Every day and night, millions of people around the world are rendering emotionally and physically demanding labor without pay, serving as caregivers to loved ones with illnesses or disabilities. It is hard work that tugs at the heartstrings. Oftentimes it is a manifestation of pure love and commitment.

34 million

According to a fact sheet prepared by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some 34 million people are serving as unpaid caregivers in the U.S. alone. Here are a few key facts and figures:

  • “An estimated 21% of households in the United States are impacted by caregiving responsibilities (NAC, 2004).”
  • “Unpaid caregivers provide an estimated 90% of the long-term care (IOM, 2008).”
  • “Caregivers report having difficulty finding time for one’s self (35%), managing emotional and physical stress (29%), and balancing work and family responsibilities (29%) (NAC, 2004).”
  • “About 73% of surveyed caregivers said praying helps them cope with caregiving stress, 61% said that they talk with or seek advice from friends or relatives, and 44% read about caregiving in books or other materials (NAC, 2004).”

Furthermore, caregiving is a very gendered role, with women bearing the heaviest proportion of these responsibilities. Often they are doing so while sacrificing opportunities to pursue careers and engage in income-producing work.

A preview of the future

As I read about the challenges we face with an aging population, among the emerging points of clarity is that our ability to keep people alive has far outstripped our current resources and systems to provide affordable, dignified long-term care to those who need it, especially without exhausting their caregivers.

This reality dovetails with projections of sharply increasing numbers of people needing such help, especially those suffering from Alzheimer’s and other disabling conditions.

We must reorient our priorities if we are to avoid the specter of an aging population withering away in terrible living conditions and lacking dignified care, with burned out caregivers trying to fill the many voids. This will include controlling the costs of respite and long-term care, while at the same time offering living wages to health care attendants and providing financial support for those who take on unpaid caregiving responsibilities.

In an era of limited financial resources for the vast majority of the population, this will not be easy. It will require, among other things, that we rethink what is important in our lives and for our society.

Unsung heroes

Anyway, the main purpose of this piece is not to engage in a public policy discussion, as necessary as it happens to be. Rather, it is to recognize that caregivers are among the unsung heroes of our everyday lives. They are doing work of a higher order, and they deserve our praise, thanks, and support.

Bullying in the artistic sector

Recently I was contacted about a significant bullying situation in the organizing of a visual arts program. It confirmed for me how these behaviors are so universal, cutting across occupations and avocations.

The person who contacted me (let’s call him Walter) was teaming up with another arts enthusiast (let’s call her Eloise) to co-organize the event. Although Eloise initially exhibited great enthusiasm for the partnership, she soon began to push Walter to the side and took over key decision making and outreach for the event. Eloise’s behaviors began to look like a textbook list of common workplace bullying tactics:

  • Excluding Walter via behind-the-scenes machinations
  • Withholding necessary information from Walter
  • Refusing to reply to Walter’s requests and inquiries
  • Stealing credit from Walter
  • Wrongfully blaming Walter for overlooking details that were Eloise’s responsibility

Eloise’s persona suggests that she’s a classic narcissist, one of the most common descriptions for workplace aggressors.

More prevalent than in the military?

Walter’s experience is hardly unique. Lyn Gardner, in her theatre blog for The Guardian, wrote about bullying in the arts a year ago:

For many people working in theatre, bullying is a fact of life. The whispers about it are constant. One theatre chief is famous for the strops taken out on staff. People working in jobs seen (wrongly) as less “creative”, such as press or marketing, are frequently victims of this high-handed behaviour; but it can happen to anyone from stage hands to actors. Do the victims complain? Often not.

I’ve come across playwrights who have been bullied into silence and made to fear for their future careers by the very theatres who commissioned them. I’ve heard of producers throwing their weight about, and directors who treat theatre buildings as personal fiefdoms.

Gardner highlighted the work of Ann-Marie Quigg, author of Bullying in the Arts: Vocation, Exploitation and Abuse of Power (2011) :

When Anne-Marie Quigg investigated workplace bullying in the arts, her 2011 report revealed it was more prevalent in the arts than in the armed forces and the health service.

Whoa, that’s saying a lot…

Bullying of volunteers

This particular event was organized solely by volunteers, so technically it’s not a case of workplace bullying. On that note, last year I wrote that bullying of volunteers is a neglected subject that deserves to be studied more closely:

…(V)oluntary associations are a societal cornerstone, and a lot of folks devote time to them. Their experiences as volunteers not only impact them personally, but also have a ripple effect on our communities in general. It follows that we should understand the significance of when and how working relationships among volunteers become dysfunctional and even abusive.

Expectations vs. reality

So there you have it: An artistic event fueled by a love of the arts, organized by passionate volunteers. It sounds incredibly appealing, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, in this case at least, not for Walter…and possibly for others bullied and manipulated by Eloise.

Bullying of volunteers

Image courtesy of clipart panda.com

I’ve been asked twice in the past few days about bullying in the voluntary sector. This appears to be largely unexplored territory, deserving of greater attention. I searched “bullying of volunteers” and found only a smattering of relevant hits, and nothing in terms of a full-blown examination of the topic.

That said…

…I think we can make some credible assertions and raise important questions about the bullying of volunteers:

1. Why not? — There’s no reason why bullying-type behaviors should be uncommon among and between volunteers as compared to people in other settings with frequent human interaction. Most organizations have tensions, conflicts, and rivalries. Why should it be any different with those heavily staffed by volunteers?

2. Emotional stakes — In fact, in some cases the emotional stakes may be even greater among pure volunteers than among paid staff.

For example, in hyper-charged, cause-type situations, emotions can run especially high and play host to all sorts of negative behaviors, running the gamut from conflict to incivility to bullying. If the volunteers are working on behalf of a cause in which they have an important personal stake, the emotional ante is ratcheted up and buttons may be easily pushed, especially with “underdog” issues where people already feel marginalized.

Conversely, if the volunteer activity is associated with high levels of community prestige or power, there may be a lot of competition and posturing that create their own drama and give rise to the possibility of bullying behaviors. Ambition and recognition are not limited to paid employment, after all!

And even if social change or prestige isn’t at stake, community connections may well be. For many, volunteer activities such as coaching youth sports or organizing a church choir may be lifelines to their communities, and being cut out or pushed out of them may be painfully isolating.

3. Institutional status — The bullying of volunteers raises all sorts of institutional status questions. Are we talking about rank-and-file volunteers who are doing the on-the-ground grunt work? Or maybe this is about bullying within non-profit boards? Are there differences between all-volunteer groups and those that have a mix of staff and volunteers? And what if bullying behaviors cross certain groups within these organizations, involving staff, volunteers, and board members?

4. Behaviors — The bullying of volunteers also raises questions of specific behaviors: Do they lean toward direct or indirect? Do the emotional elements of some volunteer-driven causes plant the seeds for mobbing-type mistreatment? Given the increasing role of the Internet in linking volunteers, is online bullying more common than in, say, brick & mortar work settings?

Important stuff

We may not know a lot about bullying in the voluntary sector, but we should be taking the experiences of volunteers more seriously.

After all, the voluntary sector is significant, especially in the U.S. The unique, central role of civic organizations in the fabric of American life was recognized two centuries ago by Alexis de Tocqueville, in his classic work, Democracy in America (1835 & 1840):

Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which all take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds, religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive. The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools. If it is proposed to inculcate some truth or to foster some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form a society. Wherever at the head of some new undertaking you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association.

In other words, voluntary associations are a societal cornerstone, and a lot of folks devote time to them. Their experiences as volunteers not only impact them personally, but also have a ripple effect on our communities in general. It follows that we should understand the significance of when and how working relationships among volunteers become dysfunctional and even abusive.

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Dissertation, anyone?

In January, I wrote up a list of research ideas about workplace bullying and related topics for scholars and graduate students, drawn from past blog posts. I definitely would add bullying of volunteers to the list.

As I explained in that earlier blog post, I’m not a social science researcher. But I’d bet that many of the quantitative and qualitative research approaches used to study workplace bullying would apply easily to examining the bullying of volunteers.

Related posts

Workplace bullying in the non-profit sector (2011)

When the bullying comes from a board member (2011)

Related article

Labor attorney and law professor Mitchell Rubinstein’s 2006 law review article, “Our Nation’s Forgotten Workers: The Unprotected Volunteers,” explains the precarious legal status of volunteers in terms of workplace protections.

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