“How can I make a living doing workplace anti-bullying work?”

Webpage for Workplace Bullying University training program, facilitated by Dr. Gary Namie

Over the past few months, I’ve had several conversations and exchanges with folks about options for making a living doing workplace anti-bullying work. My upshot? One should look to incorporate workplace bullying and mobbing projects and initiatives into an existing work portfolio, in a compatible vocation. Otherwise, it is more realistic to be doing anti-bullying work as a meaningful part-time avocation.

In essence, creating work opportunities in this realm requires two major elements: (1) a relevant vocation; and (2) specialized knowledge.

Vocation

The first key piece involves pursuing a vocation relevant to addressing workplace bullying and mobbing. My short list includes:

  • Mental health professionals, including licensed counselors, social workers, clinical psychologists, and psychiatrists;
  • Human resources and employee assistance professionals;
  • Labor union leaders and officials; 
  • Personal coaches and organizational consultants;
  • Lawyers (both plaintiff and defense) and dispute/conflict resolution specialists and ombudspersons; and,
  • Higher education faculty in pertinent fields of teaching and research.

My work as a law professor may be somewhat illustrative. I have concentrated my teaching in the employment and labor law field, and now I’m adding courses in law & psychology to the mix. I include some coverage of the legal implications of workplace bullying in these courses, but I don’t have time in a given course to make it a primary focal point. However, I’ve also made workplace bullying the leading focus of my scholarship, which, in turn, has led to the drafting of the Healthy Workplace Bill and related public education initiatives such as this blog. In this manner, at least part of my living has been made doing anti-bullying work. Other aspects of this work are more of a volunteer nature.

In terms of legal practice, generic workplace bullying unrelated to discriminatory behaviors or retaliation for whistleblowing remains largely legal in the U.S. This obviously limits how much time attorneys can devote to bullying-related cases. Consequently, I don’t know of any attorney who specializes in workplace bullying claims, although some lawyers pursue cases with elements of bullying behaviors, so long as they can find sufficient legal hooks, such as discriminatory intent.

Mental health and psychology currently offer more promise for sustainable work concerning workplace bullying and mobbing. There remains a crying need for mental health professionals who are both familiar with the dynamics of workplace bullying and trained in treating psychological trauma. Organizational psychologists can also include workplace bullying in their work for employers.

Specialized knowledge

The second key piece is developing a deep well of specialized knowledge about workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse. A wealth of research and expert commentary is now available for those who want to teach themselves about these topics. To help folks get started, I’ve compiled an updated recommended book list (link here) and worked with the American Psychological Association to create a resource page (link here).

In addition, I highly recommend attending an intensive program of training and education about workplace bullying. Workplace Bullying University (link here), a three-day workshop facilitated by Dr. Gary Namie of the Workplace Bullying Institute, offers an immersive, thorough, and interactive training program for professionals who seek graduate-level knowledge and insights. It is a pricey but worthy investment for those who want to devote a significant part of their professional practices to combating workplace bullying. (Go here for my write-up on a special edition of Workplace Bullying University last spring.)

In Canada, social worker and therapist Linda Crockett offers training programs on workplace bullying through her Alberta Bullying Resource Centre (link here), including programs specially developed for mental health providers. I interviewed Linda for this blog back in September (link here), during which she explained more about her work and services.

To this I must add another important note. In terms of gaining a knowledge base, it is not enough to have been a target of workplace abuse. As terrible as that experience was, a person’s own familiarity with it does not provide a sufficient grounding in what workplace bullying and mobbing are all about. Furthermore, a formal training program can help a target gauge whether they are ready to move into a helping or service mode concerning work abuse. If they are not ready, they can do harm to themselves and to others.

Additional thoughts on coaching

Coaching is a field in which seemingly anyone can hang out a shingle (nowadays, often in virtual fashion) and claim professional status. Various coach training programs and certification processes are completely optional endeavors.

Nevertheless, for those who wish to do coaching for targets of work abuse, relevant professional training is strongly urged. Several years ago I took a year-long leadership coaching course through the Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching (link here). I highly recommend it for anyone who wants to do personal coaching for bullying and mobbing targets. In fact, after going through this intensive training course (which includes both learning and practicing coaching techniques), I cannot imagine referring anyone to a coach who has not completed such a program.

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We need more trained, dedicated, and knowledgeable individuals in fields relevant to employment relations and mental health to help prevent and respond to workplace bullying and mobbing. I hope this information is helpful to those who are contemplating possibilities for doing work in this field.

MTW Newsstand: December 2019

The “MTW Newsstand” brings you a curated selection of articles relevant to work, workers, and workplaces. Whenever possible, the materials are freely accessible. Here are this month’s offerings:

Daniel Moritz Rabson, “Working at Amazon: 189 Suicide Attempts, Mental Health Episodes Reportedly Took Place Over Five Years,” Newsweek (2019) (link here)  — “At least 189 instances of “suicide attempts, suicidal thoughts and other mental health episodes” prompted emergency responses at Amazon warehouses between October 2013 and October 2018, The Daily Beast reported. The 189 calls about Amazon employees, which Amazon tracked through police reports and emergency call logs, came from 46 Amazon warehouses in 17 states. These 46 facilities make up a quarter of such spaces around the country. Calls to 911 dispatchers detailed incidents in which Amazon workers tried to cut themselves and talked about killing themselves.”

Editorial, “We all must rise above bullying, coarse dialogue,” Lincoln Journal Star (2019) (link here) — “As Charlie Bowlby prepped for a heart surgery, his co-workers made him a toe tag and took bets on whether he’d survive. . . . Complications on the operating table claimed the 53-year-old’s life, one made more difficult by the actions of his co-workers. It’s a shame that anyone would have to suffer what Bowlby did. But he’s far from the only person to endure such bullying, with his story illustrating the tragic consequences of such deeds taken too far. In general, the coarsening of our dialogue – and our growing inability to have interpersonal communication – worries us, and it extends far beyond the workplace.”

Lena Solow, “The Scourge of Workers Wellness Programs,” New Republic (2019) (link here) — “But recent research suggests that wellness programs aren’t even accomplishing the goals of promoting health or increasing productivity. In a large-scale study, 33,000 employees at BJ’s Wholesale Club were randomly assigned to be in a group taking part in the BJ’s wellness plan or a control group that was not. The study, published in JAMA in April, found that while workers showed a bump in a few self-reported health activities, there were no significant changes in clinical measures of health, absenteeism, or work performance—all supposed money-savers for employers.”

Eric Ravenscraft, “How to deal with mental illness at work,” New York Times (2019) (link here) — “Fortunately, United States law provides some protections for people with mental illnesses — just as they do for any physical disability — but they go only so far. Here, we’ll go over some of the support you can expect from your employer, but we’ll also discuss strategies you can use to get through the day, even when you’re not feeling your best.”

Kathryn Heath & Brenda F. Wensil, “To Build an Inclusive Culture, Start with Inclusive Meetings,” Harvard Business Review (2019) (link here) — “Meetings matter. They are the forum where people come together to discuss ideas, make decisions, and be heard. Meetings are where culture forms, grows, and takes hold. So it stands to reason that if an organization desires a more inclusive culture — and leaders want to model inclusion — then meetings are the place to start. But, from what we’ve seen, executives often miss the mark.”

Peter Gosselin, “If You’re Over 50, Chances Are the Decision to Leave a Job Won’t be Yours,” ProPublica (2018) (link here) — “ProPublica and the Urban Institute, a Washington think tank, analyzed data from the Health and Retirement Study, or HRS, the premier source of quantitative information about aging in America. Since 1992, the study has followed a nationally representative sample of about 20,000 people from the time they turn 50 through the rest of their lives. Through 2016, our analysis found that between the time older workers enter the study and when they leave paid employment, 56 percent are laid off at least once or leave jobs under such financially damaging circumstances that it’s likely they were pushed out rather than choosing to go voluntarily.”

How harmful thought patterns about workplace bullying and mobbing may accelerate the aging process

In a piece for Ideas.Ted.com (link here), Elizabeth Blackburn (Salk Institute) and Elissa Epel (UC-San Francisco Aging, Metabolism and Emotions Center) explain how our negative thoughts can expedite the aging process. Blackburn, a physician and Nobel Prize recipient, and Epel, a psychologist, are co-authors of The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer (2017).

I’m going to cut & paste a bit of brain science from Drs. Blackburn and Epel to explain the role of telomeres in influencing the aging process:

Deep within the genetic heart of all our cells are telomeres, or repeating segments of noncoding DNA that live at the ends of the chromosomes. They form caps at the ends of the chromosomes and keep the genetic material from unraveling. Shortening with each cell division, they help determine how fast a cell ages. When they become too short, the cell stops dividing altogether. This isn’t the only reason a cell can become senescent — there are other stresses on cells we don’t yet understand very well — but short telomeres are one of the major reasons human cells grow old.

In essence, longer telomeres are good, and shorter telomeres are bad, at least if we care about aging. Blackburn and Epel then identify five thought patterns that lead to the shortening of telomeres:

  • “Scientists have learned that several thought patterns appear to be unhealthy for telomeres, and one of them is cynical hostility.”
  • “Pessimism is the second thought pattern that has been shown to have negative effects on telomeres.”
  • “Rumination — the act of rehashing problems over and over — is the third destructive thought pattern.”
  • “The fourth thought pattern is thought suppression, the attempt to push away unwanted thoughts and feelings.”
  • “The final thought pattern is mind wandering.”

Their full article goes into greater depth about the negative dynamics of each of these thought patterns. They also sum up the cumulative impact:

The negative thought patterns we’ve described are automatic, exaggerated and controlling.They take over your mind; it’s as if they tie a blindfold around your brain so you can’t see what is really going on around you.

Application to targets of workplace bullying and mobbing

All of the five thought patterns examined by Blackburn and Epel are relevant to the experiences of workplace bullying and mobbing. The first three — cynical hostility, pessimism, and rumination — are especially applicable to so many who have experienced severe work abuse.

Among other things, I’ve written about “(r)umination, obsession, and the challenge of getting ‘unstuck'” (link here) when dealing with bullying and mobbing at work. I’ve also written about what Caroline Myss calls “woundology,” referring to “good, caring, compassionate people who nevertheless could not get beyond wanting to be identified with, and to live in, their emotional wounds” (link here).

The good news (and it’s real)

The good news is that we know a lot more about how to treat trauma and promote healing. Blackburn and Epel discuss better thought awareness as one way toward dealing with these negative thought patterns. They cite research showing that telomeres can actually lengthen and posit that aging can be slowed or even reversed.

Furthermore, as I’ve discussed earlier, post-traumatic growth (link here) and healing-centered engagement (link here) are real processes that are changing the ways in which we look at possibilities for healing from trauma.

But it must come from within

In a piece for Thought Catalog (link here), self-help writer Brianna Wiest asserts that although trauma is not the victim’s fault, healing from it is their responsibility. Here are some of her reasons:

  • “Healing is our responsibility because if it isn’t, an unfair circumstance becomes an unlived life.”
  • “Healing is our responsibility because unprocessed pain gets transferred to everyone around us, and we are not going to allow what someone else did to us to become what we do to those we love.”
  • “Healing is our responsibility because we have this one life, this single shot to do something important.”
  • “Healing is our responsibility because if we want our lives to be different, sitting and waiting for someone else to make them so will not actually change them. It will only make us dependent and bitter.”
  • “Healing is our responsibility because we have the power to heal ourselves, even if we have previously been led to believe we don’t.”
  • “Healing is our responsibility because ‘healing’ is actually not returning to how and who we were before, it is becoming someone we have never been — someone stronger, someone wiser, someone kinder.”

I’m a bit uncomfortable about using the term “responsibility” in this context. It has a slightly finger-wagging, judgmental connotation to it. And yet, the underlying assumptions are true: Healing from trauma is possible only when the person who has experienced it is ready to work toward it. And when someone reaches that point, good things can happen.

Takeaway from Philly: The knowing-doing gap is everywhere

At the recent Work, Stress and Health Conference in Philadelphia, it took three keynote programs and a panel discussion for me to finally reach my “duh” moment: We have so much of the knowledge and understanding we need to create healthier, happier, and more productive workplaces. But the gap between insights gleaned from psychology, organizational behavior, and law and public policy on one hand, and the implementation of these ideas on the other, is vast.

The biennial Work, Stress and Health Conference (WSH) is co-sponsored by the American Psychological Association, National Institute for Occupational for Safety and Health, and Society for Occupational Health Psychology. As I’ve written before, this is one of my favorite conferences, a wonderful, recurring opportunity to share research and insights and to meet with scholars and practitioners who are doing great work. Many WSH participants have become valued friends and associates. In fact, my participation in the 2015 WSH conference led me to write about “conferences as community builders,” in a blog post that was reprinted in the APA’s Psychology Benefits Society blog (link here).

The huge knowing-doing gap

In the opening keynote, major priorities for labor and employment stakeholders were beautifully framed by Jeffrey Pfeffer (Stanford U.), expounding on themes raised in his 2018 book, Dying for a Paycheck. Here’s a short abstract of his speech:

The workplace is the fifth leading cause of death in the U.S., and many workplace practices are as harmful to health as second-hand smoke. Worse than the enormous physical and psychological toll on people and the enormous economic costs to companies and society, is that no one seems to care as work arrangements move toward less, rather than more, healthful environments.

During his talk, Dr. Pfeffer identified workplace bullying and abuse as one of the most harmful work hazards.

He also referenced his previous writings on the “knowing-doing gap,” i.e., the gap between knowing the right thing to do and actually implementing it in organizations. Pfeffer developed this concept with fellow Stanford professor Robert Sutton (author of the popular bullying-related book, The No Asshole Rule). Throughout the conference, it struck me how the knowing-doing gap applies to virtually every aspect of employment relations.

The second day keynote featured Manal Azzi from the International Labour Organization (ILO). Dr. Azzi’s presentation, setting out the major initiatives of the ILO, captured how this global entity is serving as a base for enhancing the well-being of workers around the world. The ILO offers research, best practices, and policy solutions and fosters tripartite relationships between government, business, and labor. There are many keys to bridging the knowing-doing gap here.

The final day keynote program was a wide-ranging panel on work and technology, hosted by David Ballard of the APA. I was alarmed by the discussion of actual and potential employer excesses in terms of technology and employee surveillance. My main knowing-doing gap point is the obvious need for a revived labor movement to serve as a check on employer power, a point reinforced by panelist David LeGrande of the Communications Workers of America.

One path toward implementing solutions and best practices: Getting the word out

If we are to bridge this gap between knowledge and action, then greater sharing of research and insights via the media is part of our strategy. In that vein, I was part of a panel discussion, “Going Public: Sharing Our Work Through the Media,” also hosted by the APA’s David Ballard. I joined Angel Brownawell (APA), Carrie Bulger (Quinnipiac U.), Lisa Kath (San Diego State U.), and Gary Namie (Workplace Bullying Institute). From our program abstract, here’s a short preview of what we covered:

How can scholars, researchers, and practitioners in fields relevant to worker well-being and organizational performance engage the media, serve as subject matter experts, and help inform public understanding? How can we better translate research for the general public and promote our work in ethical and professionally appropriate ways? How can we build relationships with reporters that lead to being sought out as the experts of choice and how do we prepare for those opportunities when they arise?

The knowledge we need to create better organizations that embrace worker dignity is largely at our disposal. We need to mainstream those insights and understandings in the public dialogue about work, workers, and workplaces. Engaging the media in that effort can help us to bridge the knowing-doing gap.

Presented in Philly: “The Gradual But Inevitable March Toward Enacting Workplace Anti-Bullying Laws in the United States”

I just spent several days at the biennial Work, Stress and Health Conference, held this year in Philadelphia. The conference is co-sponsored by the American Psychological Association, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and the Society for Occupational Health Psychology. This is one of my very favorite conferences, and over the years I’ve learned so much by attending and participating in it.

For now, I simply wanted to share part of a handout that I prepared for a conference symposium, “The U.S. Workplace Bullying Movement: Assessing Two Decades of Progress,” which also included Drs. Gary Namie, Loraleigh Keashly, and Maureen Duffy — all among the pioneers in our efforts to respond to workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse. My talk was a summary of our ongoing efforts to enact the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill in the United States, including a short timeline:

A Selective Timeline of Highlights

  • 2000 – Basic parameters for the eventual drafting of the Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB) are set out in David C. Yamada, The Phenomenon of “Workplace Bullying” and the Need for Status-Blind Hostile Work Environment Protection,” Georgetown Law Journal (2000).
  • 2002 – I draft and begin circulating early iterations of the HWB.
  • 2003-04 – California becomes the first state to consider the HWB.
  • 2003-present – Over 30 state and territorial legislatures have considered versions of the HWB.
  • Early 2000s – Various states consider bills designed to create study commissions and climate surveys about workplace bullying.
  • 2010 — New York State Senate passes HWB.
  • 2010 – Illinois State Senate passes a version of the HWB applying to public sector workers only.
  • 2010s – Several Employee Practices Liability Insurance policies start to cover liability for bullying-related claims.
  • 2011-12 – Massachusetts House of Representatives moves the HWB to a stage known as “third reading,” making it eligible for a floor vote in the House of Representatives.
  • 2012 – Prompted by the HWB grassroots advocacy movement, more than 100 U.S. local governmental entities issue proclamations endorsing “Freedom From Workplace Bullies Week.”
  • 2013 – Fulton County, Georgia county government (covering Greater Atlanta) adopts a workplace bullying ordinance covering public workers, using the operative definition from the HWB, and permitting discipline or termination of offending employees.
  • 2014 – California enacts legislation that requires employers with 50 or more employees to provide supervisory training and education about workplace bullying, using the operative definition from the HWB.
  • 2014 – New Hampshire governor vetoes problematic workplace bullying legislation that would have covered public sector workers.
  • 2015 – Utah enacts legislation requiring state agencies to train supervisors and employees about workplace bullying prevention, using the operative definition from the HWB.
  • 2019 – Building on a 2014 law covering state and local public employers, Tennessee enacts an odd statute that immunizes employers from bullying-related legal claims if they have adopted a model anti-bullying policy.
  • 2019-20 — Massachusetts HWB attracts 109 co-sponsors, out of 200 elected state legislators.
  • 2019-20 – Rhode Island State Senate passes the HWB.

To be sure, this has been a long haul. But we are nearing the day when a state legislature enacts the full version of the HWB, and when it does, other states will very likely follow. This will be the first workplace anti-bullying law in North America to provide a private right of action for damages for severely bullied workers and liability-reducing incentives for employers to act preventively and responsively toward bullying at work.  

In praise of the liberal arts: Leadership training is fine, but more importantly, we need more educated leaders

(graphic courtesy of publicdomainvectors.org)

Lots of management degree programs, professional seminars, and personal coaching services offer instruction and guidance in leadership training and development. That’s all fine and good, but what we really need is the nurturing of better, wiser, more ethical leaders.

One way is to invite study, dialogue, and reflection grounded in the liberal arts: Yup, stuff like history, philosophy, psychology, theology (even for non-believers), sociology, art, political science, literature, anthropology, you name it. These academic disciplines are in decline in our colleges and universities, as higher ed institutions rush to market themselves as career builders whose graduates can “hit the ground running” in today’s fast-paced, tech-friendly workplaces.

Let’s first dispense with the silly imagery of hitting the ground running, which is advisable only if you’re a trained paratrooper in the military. Instead, let’s take a deeper dive into what kind of learning helps us to become more effective, thoughtful, and moral individuals participating in a complex society. The liberal arts equip us with knowledge, concepts, and modes of thinking helpful toward that end. They may also help to make us wiser and more empathetic.

Doubt my words? Just search “liberal arts and leadership,” and you’ll get plenty of endorsements.

Am I suggesting that we ignore teaching folks how to run an organization, invent software, or create something? Absolutely not. However, technical and management skills helpful towards being successful in a profession or vocation should be informed by core values and ethics, along with an understanding of our historical, societal, and individual development.

Nor does this mean that everyone should go or return to college and major in philosophy or political science, though I can think of worse things to do. There are plenty of ways to learn about the liberal arts. And, in fact, such a course of study may be more meaningful as one gets older. Life experience can deeply inform our appreciation of the liberal arts, and vice versa.

If, like me, you’re an adult who prefers to learn independently, then here are some possible starting places, in no particular order. Longtime readers of this blog may recognize some of them:

  • Leading Lives That Matter: What We Should Do and Who We Should Be (2006), edited by Mark R. Schwehn and Dorothy C. Bass, is an anthology of readings in the liberal arts tradition, designed for undergraduates, and with a special emphasis on the question of vocation. I guarantee that many of the selections carry greater resonance with adults who have been around the block a few times than with the typical 19-year-old.
  • The works of Charles D. Hayes, a homegrown philosopher and former oilman, Texas police officer, and Marine, are a tribute to the power of liberal arts learning. You can discover his books by going to this link. For starters, I especially recommend two of his earlier books, The Rapture of Maturity: A Legacy of Lifelong Learning (2004) (non-fiction), and Portals in a Northern Sky (2003) (fiction).
  • Two of the leading online continuing education providers, Coursera (link here) and EdX (link here), offer numerous liberal arts courses taught by professors from around the world, either free or for a nominal course fee.
  • The Great Courses (link here) offers lectures on many topics by leading professors, in multiple formats, including a subscription streaming service that provides access to hundreds of courses for a fraction of what you’d pay to own them.
  • Open Culture (link here) is a great portal for discovering free learning resources, including plenty in the liberal arts.
  • Literary Hub (link here) is an excellent site for learning about books and culture, especially modern literature.
  • Especially if you’re on a tight budget (and even if you’re not), check out your public library. You’ll find books, periodicals, films, and other resources galore, all for free.

These resources just scratch the surface. If you want to enrich your worldview and become a better leader by studying the liberal arts, then a world of learning awaits you.

Freedom from Workplace Bullies Week 2019: All in a week’s work

This is Freedom From Workplace Bullies Week, and here in Massachusetts, we’ve got some promising news to report: The Massachusetts Healthy Workplace Bill (Senate No. 1072, Sen. Paul Feeney, lead sponsor) has been reported favorably out of the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development and is now before the Senate Committee on Ways and Means. Put simply, we’ve made an important step forward in the process of eventually enacting this bill. Thank you again to all of the advocates who are contacting their state legislators and helping to make this happen!

Later today, I’ll be hosting an event at Suffolk University Law School, “A Conversation about Workplace Bullying with Dr. Gary Namie,” featuring the foremost North American authority on workplace bullying. Gary and I will be discussing the past, present, and future of the ongoing movement to prevent, stop, and respond to workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse.

This weekend, Gary will be facilitating a special edition of his world-class Workplace Bullying University intensive seminar for union leaders and activists, hosted by NAGE-SEIU, one of the major public sector labor unions that has been a primary supporter of the Healthy Workplace Bill.

And yesterday, I had the honor of giving the keynote address for the Boston Bar Association’s annual employment law conference. My talk was titled “Dignity at Work and Workplace Bullying: Roles for Employment and Labor Lawyers?” Although not formally part of the Freedom Week events, this gave me a welcomed opportunity to talk about workplace bullying to a group of Boston area labor and employment attorneys. In addition to discussing how lawyers representing both management and workers can address bullying at work in their practices, I presented the basics of the Healthy Workplace Bill and what its implications would be for employment litigation.

Tackling work abuse is an ongoing commitment that is shared with many other readers of this blog. So when I say that this is all in a week’s work, I know that many of you can relate. 

 

 

 

 

 

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