Captain Ahab of “Moby-Dick”: Workplace trauma sufferer, bullying boss, or both?

If you’re even remotely familiar with Herman Melville’s classic novel, Moby-Dick (1851), then you may regard the Pequod‘s Captain Ahab as a mad, angry, and obsessed figure. After all, the novel is driven by Ahab’s relentless and rageful chase of the eponymous whale, seeking revenge for a grievous injury inflicted during an earlier encounter at sea. This obsession leads to Ahab’s undoing.

Earlier this year, I had an opportunity to consider Moby-Dick, via a fascinating online class offered by the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, an independent school that offers non-credit courses in the humanities and social sciences. Taught by Dr. Rebecca Ariel Porte, “Moby-Dick: Reading the White Whale” was a four-week deep dive (ba dum) into this complex novel, examining it from a variety of literary and social perspectives. I had long wanted to read Moby-Dick, but previous efforts to do so on my own flamed out after a few chapters. I knew that I needed the prod of interactive class sessions to sustain my reading of the book. I am happy to report that the course was more than worth the effort, thanks to its brilliant instructor and a very smart group of fellow students.

Going into the course, I brought a hypothesis: Moby-Dick is, at least in part, a story of psychological trauma suffered by Capt. Ahab. During the course, I was stunned to read passages that, at least for me, vividly supported that hypothesis. I now submit that Herman Melville understood the guts and sinew of trauma, well before the acronym PTSD ever entered our nomenclature.

Indeed, Melville’s description of Ahab fits the profile of a trauma sufferer. Sprinkled throughout the novel, we are given these looks into Ahab’s mental state. Ahab, the narrator tells us multiple times, is a “monomaniac,” which one modern dictionary defines as “a person who is extremely interested in only one thing, often to such a degree that they are mentally ill.” In chapter 106, we learn how Ahab carries a deep sense of grievance linked back to the injury inflicted by the whale, including a subsequent mysterious “agonizing wound” that “all but pierced his groin.” In chapter 135, we are told that Ahab “never thinks; he only feels, feels, feels.”

Today, we know that Ahab’s mental state and behaviors are very consistent with psychological trauma. From Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s superb book about trauma, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (2014), we learn that research on brain functioning shows how trauma can shut down logical thinking capacities and hyper-activate the emotions. Those who have experienced traumatic events may relive and obsess over them.

I have seen this on many occasions with some targets of severe bullying and mobbing at work. They face enormous difficulties in getting “unstuck” from a state of rumination and anger. A few become fixated on obtaining some measure of justice, or perhaps vengeance. Like Ahab, they sometimes only feel, feel, feel.

Of course, frequent readers of this blog may also classify Ahab as a bullying boss, given the way he treats the Pequod‘s crew. That’s a fair characterization, too. One senses that the ship’s crew members are walking on eggshells around Ahab. They fear him and question his mental state.

But seen as a trauma sufferer, perhaps Ahab becomes at least a slightly more sympathetic figure. I was recently introduced to the phrase hurt people hurt people, and I think that applies here. Put simply, some abused individuals turn their pain outward and mistreat others.

Thankfully, our understanding of trauma far exceeds what we knew about it in the mid-1800s. Among other things, we now know that PTSD can be treated. Many of these treatment modalities are discussed in The Body Keeps the Score

I readily confess that my fiction reading has tended towards mysteries, tales of spies and suspense, and the occasional horror story. But reading Moby-Dick with the help of this course turned out to be a welcomed intellectual workout, one that yielded surprisingly relevant connections to my work. I also came away very impressed with how one iconic author had a remarkable 19th century understanding of trauma and its effects.

Can we use this challenging time to plant seeds of creativity and compassion?

Will the coronavirus pandemic prompt us toward creating a better society? Exploring this possibility for the New Yorker, author Lawrence Wright interviewed Gianna Pomata, a retired professor at the Johns Hopkins University’s Institute of the History of Medicine, about how the pandemic may shape our futures (link here). Dr. Pomata is an authority on, among other things, the history of the Black Plague of the Middle Ages.

Now living in Italy, one of the original hot zones for COVID-19 outbreaks, Pomata shared her historical perspective with Wright:

When we first talked, on Skype, she immediately compared covid-19 to the bubonic plague that struck Europe in the fourteenth century—“not in the number of dead but in terms of shaking up the way people think.” She went on, “The Black Death really marks the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of something else.” That something else was the Renaissance.

…“What happens after the Black Death, it’s like a wind—fresh air coming in, the fresh air of common sense.”

Although Pomata expressed shock over the resistance of so many Americans to follow basic public health precautions such as wearing masks, she sees the potential for a similar revitalizing response on a global level once we get through this pandemic:

“What I expect now is something as dramatic is going to happen, not so much in medicine but in economy and culture. Because of danger, there’s this wonderful human response, which is to think in a new way.”

This article has prompted me to look at pieces I’ve posted during the past few months, examining our current state and speculating as to how we will come out of this in terms of our basic humanity. I see within my own thinking both hope and doubt.

Work and workplaces

I’d love to see waves of kindness, compassion, and creativity overcome our workplaces in light of this pandemic, but the evidence for that transformation is not exactly overwhelming. In fact, it may be pointing in the other direction. Here’s what I recently wrote about those prospects: 

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.

…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.

Furthermore, as I wrote earlier this month, the news is now peppered with stories of retail and fast food workers being bullied and assaulted by not-so-wonderful customers who are angered by mask requirements and limitations on inside dining. Apparently these folks are taking out their ignorance and frustrations on modestly paid service workers who are simply trying to do their jobs safely.

Now we’re also learning of more extensive efforts to leverage this pandemic in ways that exploit workers and expose them to greater harm, all in the name of squeezing out more profits. For a detailed account of one such instance, check out Jane Mayer’s recent investigative piece (also in the New Yorker, link here), which examines how a “secretive titan behind one of America’s largest poultry companies, who is also one of the President’s top donors, is ruthlessly leveraging the coronavirus crisis—and his vast fortune—to strip workers of protections.”

Our better natures

Still, on occasion we read of extraordinary efforts to keep businesses afloat and workers on the payroll. For example, European travel guru and writer Rick Steves, who has built a very successful business organizing guided tours to Europe and publishing a popular series of travel guidebooks (I’ve purchased my fair share of them!), is digging deep into his company’s cash reserves to keep his staff of 100 employed for the next two years. This involves pay cuts but will allow retention of health insurance coverage. (You can read more about his decision and planning in this Seattle Times article, here.)

And we also read accounts of remarkable creativity and flexibility practiced by small business owners. Recently ZAGAT Stories (link here) featured restauranteur Barbara Sibley, owner of La Palapa, a Mexican restaurant in Manhattan’s East Village neighborhood. (Full disclosure: My cousin Judy, mentioned in this piece, is a manager there, and I’ve made modest financial contributions toward Barbara’s efforts during this time. I’ve also eaten a lot of their food over the years!) Here’s a snippet:

I didn’t shut down, not even for a day, not even for a minute. The next day after lockdown I was here with Judy, my general manager who’s worked for me for over 15 years, and my chef. I’ve worked with his family since I was 19. Having been through all of those different experiences, there were things that I knew right away. First of all, you have to hold onto your cash. You have to take care of your people. The most important thing is to make payroll and make sure nobody’s starving, and then put what you have to good use.

So we started to feed hospitals. We made a donation to the Catholic Worker. We had all this bread. I was very conscious about which purveyors I was going to shop from. There were people that had been with me through other crises and helped me up. I was very mindful about taking care of them. If I was going to spend any money, I was going to spend it very thoughtfully.

…Then Bloomberg Philanthropies decided it was important that we feed the public hospitals, because private hospitals had donors and board members that wanted to do wonderful things for those. Bloomberg teamed up with World Central Kitchen. I ended up doing 2,000 or 3,000 meals a week for the city hospitals. It allowed me to keep everybody busy, and to have really fresh food at La Palapa because we were making all these meals.

Jury’s out

So, wearing my law professor’s hat, the jury is still out for me on whether our post-pandemic world will be a more enlightened one. After all, here in the U.S., we are still in the heart of this pandemic. While many other nations have managed to wrestle down this virus, we are witnesses to some of the most appalling ignorance and selfishness when it comes to undertaking preventive public health measures, and we have an alarming absence of competent, caring leadership at the head of state. In late May, I wrote here:

Here in the U.S.,…the past 40 years have served as a case study of what happens when power corrupts and values become distorted. The past few years have taken us much deeper down that rabbit hole. Between this terrible pandemic and the pending 2020 election, I feel as though we in America have one last chance to turn things around. I hope we will summon the wisdom and humanity to do so.

And yet we have people like Rick Steves and Barbara Sibley, working tirelessly to keep their businesses going, while looking out for the interests of their employees.

Folks, if humankind can come out of the utter carnage of the Black Plague to create the Renaissance, then we have the capacity to emerge from this pandemic with a vision for a much better world as well — including more creative work and more compassionate workplaces. That’s all the more reason to wear those masks, wash our hands, and stay socially distanced. After all, we’ve got work to do.

***

Note: This is adapted from a piece recently posted to my personal blog, Musings of a Gen Joneser (link here).

When workers are bullied and assaulted by customers

Here in the U.S., the coronavirus pandemic appears to be triggering outbreaks of angry, entitled customers taking out their frustrations on retail and fast food workers who are simply trying to comply with public health standards and work in relative safety. The abusive behaviors range from verbal bullying to physical assaults, typically in response to rules requiring customers to wear protective masks.

Two days ago, Universal Hub, a popular Greater Boston news site, posted a short item (link here) about a well-known Northampton, Massachusetts ice cream shop faced with enraged customers:

Herrell’s in the bucolic city of Northampton (started by Steve Herrell, yes, that Steve, and his wife) reports several incidents in which people got so, so mad when they were told to put on a mask or to take their cone to go – one even threw the cone at the server when told they couldn’t eat it inside. 

On their Facebook page, the ice cream shop shared more of the details:

We again have had a nasty visit from a ‘refuse to wear a mask’ person. His partner wore a 1/2 mask below her nose. She was asked not to eat in the store. He wasn’t served and asked to put on a mask or leave. He called our Masked Scooper hero an asshole.

Last week someone threw her paid for ice cream at my staff member because she was not allowed to eat in the store. Then earlier this week a person who was mad because she had to wait 15 minutes. Then finally, someone who planned to report us to consumer protection for Herrell’s refusing to serve them: no mask, no shoes. I said ‘ you do that’!

People THIS IS ONLY ICE CREAM SO, NO PUN INTENDED, CHILL!

Stories like this are popping up across the country, from local mom and pop stores to big-box retailers. (Go here, here, here, and here for more.) Lower-paid retail workers are usually the ones who face customers’ ire over observing and enforcing safety rules for the benefit of all.

I understand that these are trying and stressful times for just about everyone. Patience and basic manners may sometimes be wearing thin. But this is no excuse for bullying and assaulting workers who are helping to re-open our economy and restore some semblance of normalcy to our lives, often in return for very modest wages, while observing smart public health practices. 

It’s a lesson for us all. Let’s not take out our frustrations on workers who are doing their best under difficult circumstances. Instead, let’s be grateful that we can safely buy an ice cream cone in the midst of a global pandemic.

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.

Can Amazon Prime members compel Amazon to treat its workers with greater dignity?

For many years, I boycotted Amazon Prime because of how Amazon treats its warehouse workers. But eventually I returned when I wanted access to Prime video and to be able to send gifts — especially books — with reliable delivery dates. I try to limit my Amazon spending to those categories and to ordering used books through associated vendors. But especially as someone who hasn’t owned a car for over 30 years, sometimes it’s awfully easy to click an order for the sake of convenience.

Nevertheless, Amazon’s labor practices remain disturbing, and yes, I feel guilty when I click that order. You see, it remains that the convenience that we experience as consumers comes at the expense of warehouse workers who have hard, exhausting, unsafe jobs in return for low pay. If you doubt me, then click here, here, here, and here for more details.

Ultimately, widespread unionization of Amazon workers is the key to improving their working conditions and compensation. But Amazon is virulently anti-union (e.g., here, here, and here), and workers who talk up unionization do so at their own risk.

So what is to be done? Well, Jobs With Justice, one of the nation’s best labor advocacy organizations for low-wage workers, is inviting we Amazon consumers to become voices for change, in the form of a new network called Prime Member Voices (link here). Here’s how they describe the network’s objectives:

Amazon Prime Members are a core part of the company’s business. Membership dues help fuel Amazon’s larger ambitions, but unfortunately many of those ambitions are in direct conflict with the issues we care passionately about. From truly horrific conditions inside Amazon Fulfillment Centers, to data collection, and selling technology to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and police departments.

As Prime Members, we should have a voice and it’s why Jobs With Justice is calling on Prime Members to join together in Prime Member Voices, where we can work together and develop ways where our voice is not only heard, but leads to real systemic change within the company.

It appears that the goals of Prime Member Voices will go beyond labor conditions, and personally I’m good with that. Amazon has been a game-changing entrant into the retail marketplace, and their business practices should be scrutinized closely from the standpoint of the public good.

In terms of concrete actions, this announcement is concededly vague. Regardless, this is a potentially brilliant organizing strategy: Leverage the many Prime members who would like to access Amazon’s convenient ordering and shipping, while knowing that the workers are being treated better and that the company’s business practices are ethical and socially responsible.

I’ve signed up. It’s worth seeing where this goes. At the very least, if I’m going to benefit from Amazon’s delivery systems, then I owe it to the rank-and-file employees to support better working conditions that affirm their dignity and well-being. It can happen only when people join together and call for change.

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.”

When the workplace causes depression and anxiety

In a recent piece (link here) on coping with depression and anxiety in today’s workplace, Yahoo finance writer Jeanie Ahn acknowledges that organizations themselves can trigger these conditions:

Workers should also recognize that the organization they work for could be dysfunctional: “The more disturbing the workplace, the more vulnerabilities and personal foibles will emerge,” says Dr. Lynn Friedman, a clinical psychologist and executive career counselor based in Washington, D.C.

Just like physical ailments, mental health can worsen from working long hours, lack of sleep, stress, overwhelming workloads, and toxic work environments.“One way to support people to be healthy is to look at areas of dysfunction in the workplace and address them in a direct and straightforward way,” says Friedman.

Of course, this plays right into the topic of workplace bullying and mobbing, which is responsible for causing a host of physical and mental health problems.

Disclosing to an employer

Regardless of whether a mental health situation has been caused or exacerbated by a toxic work environment, the question of disclosing the condition to one’s employer is full of complexities. If a condition rises to the level of a disability, then disability discrimination laws may require the employer to provide a reasonable accommodation for it. However, there are no guarantees here. Especially if the organizational culture is hostile or dysfunctional, it’s quite possible that disclosure and an accommodation request will yield negative results, including retaliation and/or being pushed out of one’s job.

Adds Yahoo’s Ahn:

“In an ideal world, you should be able to disclose a mental health issue without being discriminated against, but the reality is we don’t live in that perfect world,” says Darcy Gruttardo, director at the Center of Workplace Mental Health.

About half of workers in [a recent American Psychiatric Association survey] expressed concerns about discussing mental health issues at work; a third worried about consequences if they seek help. For those thinking about talking about it at work, Gruttardo recommends talking to your primary care doctor first to get any symptoms under control, before approaching human resources or an employee assistance program (EAP).

Missing from this analysis is the potential role of labor unions. Unionized workers will typically be able to approach their union representative for advice and support. In some cases, additional protections relevant to mental health treatment may be contained in a collective bargaining agreement. Like all types of organizations, some unions are much better than others at serving their members, but at the very least they provide options that other workers don’t enjoy.

As I say often on this blog, there are no easy answers when it comes to handling such matters. Organizations differ markedly in their fairness and integrity, as do individuals within them. At the very least, it’s important that we continue to understand organizational roles in supporting or undermining the mental health of workers. Only then can we consider solutions and responses.

***

If you’re on Facebook, please consider “liking” my new Page for this blog and the New Workplace Institute, where I’m regularly adding content and hosting conversations that don’t appear here. Go here to sign up.

A tale of two NPR stories: Bringing our best or worst selves to work

On Tuesday morning, two segments on WBUR-FM, Boston’s NPR news station, reminded me of how we can bring our best or worst selves to work. I’m going to start with the bad story so we can save the good one for last.

Federal regulators could’ve saved coal miners

The first story reports on an investigation of how federal mine safety regulators failed to take action on toxic levels of mine dust exposure facing coal miners in Appalachia. Consequently, thousands of them are suffering from advanced black lung disease. Many will die from it, and some at relatively young ages. From the NPR piece:

A federal monitoring program reported just 99 cases of advanced black lung disease nationwide from 2011-2016. But NPR identified more than 2,000 coal miners suffering from the disease in the same time frame, and in just five Appalachian states.

And now, an NPR/Frontline analysis of federal regulatory data — decades of information recorded by dust-collection monitors placed where coal miners work — has revealed a tragic failure to recognize and respond to clear signs of danger.

For decades, government regulators had evidence of excessive and toxic mine dust exposures, the kind that can cause [black lung disease], as they were happening. They knew that miners . . . were likely to become sick and die. They were urged to take specific and direct action to stop it. But they didn’t.

One expert described black lung disease as “suffocating while alive”:

This advanced stage of black lung leaves lungs crusty and useless, says Dr. Robert Cohen, a pulmonologist at the University of Illinois, Chicago who has spent decades studying black lung and PMF disease.

“You have a much harder time breathing so that you can’t exercise,” Cohen noted. “Then you can’t do some simple activities. Then you can barely breathe just sitting still. And then you require oxygen. And then even the oxygen isn’t enough. And so … they’re essentially suffocating while alive.”

The NPR report shares individual stories of miners suffering from the disease and goes into detail about the federal bureaucratic failures to act upon mounting evidence of the deadly risks posed.

Helping the poor repair their cars

The second story is about Cathy Heying of Minnesota, who has devoted herself to helping poor and homeless individuals. In her work, she noticed that the people she helped often couldn’t afford the necessary upkeep and repairs on cars that helped them to survive:

“Often the story was, ‘I have this car. It desperately needs brakes. I have a job, but my job is 30 minutes away. And I work second shift, and there’s no bus when I get off at night,’ ” says Cathy. “This car was the linchpin holding everything together, and you pull that pin and everything falls apart.”

Ms. Heying decided to open her own auto shop to help these people. The only problem was that she didn’t know much about repairing cars. So she went to auto mechanic school. At age 38 she was the oldest person in her class and one of three women in a group of 40.

In 2013, Heying opened the Lift Garage, a non-profit auto repair shop for people who cannot afford to pay commercial rates to fix their cars:

It has one car lift, one repair bay and a small volunteer staff.

Cathy’s clients, who all live at or below the federal poverty level, pay for parts at-cost and about $15 per hour in labor costs. The average price for a mechanic in the Twin Cities area is around $100 per hour.

Heying laments that demand for their services far exceeds the available resources, resulting in a three-month waiting list. Still, she knows that they are making a difference to their customers.

Dignity work: A study in contrast

Last month, I posed the term “dignity work” and suggested two meanings for it:

First, we can look at dignity work through a lens of whether the core qualities of our labors — paid, unpaid, and volunteer alike — affirm, support, or advance human dignity.

Second, we can look at dignity work through a lens of whether we, as individuals, conduct ourselves in ways that affirm, support, or advance human dignity.

The mine safety regulators and Cathy Heying were in positions to embody both definitions. The regulators failed on both counts, while Heying embodied the concept of dignity work.

In that November post, I observed that “opportunities to engage dignity work are all around us. We have choices.” Amen.

Jonathan Karmel’s “Dying to Work”

“There are no accidents.” That’s a main theme of Jonathan D. Karmel’s Dying to Work: Death and Injury in the American Workplace (2017). Karmel, a Chicago-based labor lawyer, talked about his book at a Thursday event organized by the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (MassCOSH) and hosted by the New Workplace Institute at Suffolk University Law School in Boston.

Karmel was referring to his observation that most serious workplace injuries and fatalities are not the result of “accidents,” assuming we define them as random, chance events. Rather, they’re the result of negligent or deliberate actions that undermine worker safety and health.

Dying to Work contains plenty of basic facts and statistics about work-related injuries and deaths, as well as a thorough history of workplace safety and health legislation in the United States. The heart of the book, however, is a series of stories of workers and how they were seriously injured or died on the job. 

Paul King

At Thursday’s event in Boston, Karmel focused on the story of Paul King, a husband and father of three children who lived in Massachusetts. Paul had worked in the printing industry for many years until his company closed its doors, a casualty of the digital revolution. He eventually enrolled in a technical school, and in 2005, he was hired by a contractor, MainTech, that did maintenance work at Logan International Airport.

Some two months after starting his new job with MainTech, Paul was sent to the roof of a Logan terminal to work on some wiring. A co-worker on the ground made repeated attempts to call him, with no response. Minutes later, Paul was found on the ground with burns on his hands, face, and shoulder. Efforts to save him failed. It was later determined that he was electrocuted after coming in contact with a live electrical box. After a subsequent investigation, MainTech was cited for eight “serious” violations of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, covering a failure to provide training and safety equipment, and fined all of $54,000.

Melissa King, Paul’s daughter and now a MassCOSH activist, also spoke at the program and was joined by members of the King family. The pain of losing Paul remains very palpable, yet they have channeled their grief into advocacy for stronger workplace safety protections.

More stories

Dying to Work is filled with these accounts, for Karmel smartly understood that a book filled mostly with dry facts and figures would not convey the human impacts of these injuries and losses. In the midst of a busy law practice, he traveled around the country to talk to injured workers and surviving family members in many different occupations, including store clerks, hotel housekeepers, miners, nurses, grain handlers, and others.

In rendering his assessment, Karmel ultimately concluded that “all of these deaths and injuries were preventable,” and he urges us to understand that these stories are “a tip of the proverbial iceberg” in terms of the deadly hazards that workers face across the country. He hopes that Dying to Work will contribute to a dialogue about how to prevent these deadly events from occurring, and I believe he is succeeding at that.

 

Workplace perks don’t replace respect & honesty

In a piece for Workforce magazine, Paul McDonald urges employers to remember that fancy perks and benefits don’t replace treating employees with genuine respect and honesty:

Faced with a red-hot job market, employers are offering perks like free ski passes, complimentary e-readers and on-site acupuncture to attract and retain quality employees.

…But there are organizations where once the luster wears off, employees begin to see that these benefits are simply camouflage over a toxic work environment.

…Workplaces with low employee morale see constant churn, and right now, the number of U.S. workers quitting their jobs is the highest it’s been in more than a decade. Seven in 10 American workers are not engaged in their jobs, according to Gallup’s recent “State of the American Workplace” survey.

All the bells & whistles, McDonald suggests, don’t substitute for a strong foundation of good employee relations. To attract and keep good workers, “employers must work to develop positive, healthy workplaces.”

Disconnects

Indeed, I’ve written about how some employers offer fancy employee wellness programs while simultaneously ignoring their own toxic work environments that fuel employee health problems, lower morale, and reduce productivity. It’s as if one hand doesn’t know what the other is doing.

After all, if someone needs 30 minutes to slug away at the in-house health center’s punching bag to work off anger and frustration over how poorly they’re being treated by their boss, then there’s a fundamental disconnect between the everyday experience of work and employer-provided perks to reduce stress and anxiety.

APA Center for Organizational Excellence

For employers that want to take this stuff seriously, a great starting place is the American Psychological Association’s Center for Organizational Excellence, which offers a wealth of practical resources and information. Among other things, their site includes a resource page devoted to workplace bullying, which I helped to organize and assemble.

Overall, it’s the best one-stop-shopping site around for employers that want to create and maintain psychologically healthy workplaces. It will help you avoid turning this Onion parody piece into your organizational reality.

Yeah, it’s an Onion parody, but still….

%d bloggers like this: