“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.

Skip the time travel: How would you advise a close friend?

Oliver Burkeman devotes one of his Guardian columns (link here) to the logically futile but frequently posed question of what advice would you give to your younger self, in terms of major life insights and decisions:

You only acquired the wisdom on which your advice is based by making the mistakes you’re now advising your former self to avoid. . . . Experience, as the saying goes, is a harsh teacher: it makes you sit the test first and only gives you the lesson afterwards.

This may only lead to regret and, perhaps, deeper self-berating.

The better approach, he suggests, is to “abandon all this time-travel business . . . and go straight to the real question: how would you advise a beloved friend?” Burkeman writes:

Because the crucial issue, after all, isn’t what you might have done differently in the past, had you been someone that you couldn’t have been back then. It’s what you’d do now, if you treated yourself with half the kindness and goodwill you unhesitatingly extend to your favourite relatives or friends. For many people, I know, this can be a major challenge. But unlike changing the past, it has the enormous advantage of not being impossible.

Indeed. To borrow a line from one of Sinatra’s standards, “regrets, I’ve had a few.” But the reality is that time-travel do-overs are impossible, unless I’ve missed a major development in applied physics. Or, to stay on a musical note, as my voice teacher Jane is fond of saying, if you sing a wrong note, there’s nothing you can do about it, so move on without beating yourself up about it.

Yes, we can learn from the past, but it’s only useful to us if we apply the lessons to our present and future, with a healthy dose of self-compassion to go along with it.

The privileges of creating a “body of work”

Four years ago, I wrote about Pamela Slim‘s Body of Work: Finding the Thread That Ties Your Story Together (2013), which invites us to examine — in the author’s words — “the personal legacy you leave at the end of your life, including all the tangible and intangible things you have created” (link here). She defines “body of work” this way:

Your body of work is everything you create, contribute, affect, and impact. For individuals, it is the personal legacy you leave at the end of your life, including all the tangible and intangible things you have created.

I first wrote about this concept in 2009:

Until recently, I’ve regarded the term “body of work” as being somewhat odd.  It refers to an individual’s total output, or at least a substantial part of it.  We often hear “body of work” invoked when assessing an individual’s creative, artistic, or athletic endeavors, as in looking at the career of a great musician, writer, or baseball player.

But I’ve come to realize that we all produce our own body of work, even if we are not famous artists or athletes.  It may include work we are paid for, but it also may capture contributions as parents, friends, caregivers, volunteers, and members of the community.  For some, their “day job” of showing up to work or caring for children may be complemented by starting a band, coaching a softball team, or singing in a community chorus.  Taking into account all of these possibilities, our body of work represents our contributions to this world while we are a part of it.

And here’s another dimension that I’ve come to realize with much greater clarity: If one is sufficiently fortunate to be able to conceptualize their life in this manner, then one is very privileged. For countless millions around the world, it’s not about building a body of work; rather, it’s about meeting basic needs such as food, shelter, clothing, health care, and safety.

This understanding leads me to a popular maxim: To whom much is given, much is expected. The phrase actually has its roots in Scripture. Here’s one version from The Oxford Study Bible:

When one has been given much, much will be expected of him; and the more he has had entrusted to him the more will be demanded of him. (Luke 12:48)

I don’t usually go around quoting the Bible. My own religious beliefs are that of a non-denominational believer, i.e., believing in a God whose truth is to be found somewhere in the intersection of various faith traditions. I also respect those who are devout believers, agnostics, or atheists.

Nevertheless, the basic sentiment sticks with me. Those of us who are privileged, nay, blessed, to think of our lives as encompassing a body of work have a responsibility to help others and to make the world a better place. How that is done is an individual decision, hopefully rendered with gratitude, empathy, and understanding.

In praise of late bloomers

We have a societal obsession with youth and shiny new things. This obsession seems to permeate our popular culture. In terms of work and hiring, organizations always seem to be on the lookout for young, rising stars. We put these early standouts on a pedestal and a fast-track.

But what about folks who might be described as late bloomers? You know, those people who might not make a big splash in their early years, but who get better with age? Journalist Rich Karlgaard puts himself in this category, and he’s written a book, Late Bloomers: The Power of Patience in a World Obsessed with Early Achievement (2019), that explores the phenomenon of late bloomers and what they have to offer us.

Karlgaard devotes a chapter of his book to “The Six Strengths of Late Bloomers.” They are:

  • Curiosity
  • Compassion
  • Resilience
  • Equanimity (“mental calmness, composure, and evenness of temper, especially in a difficult situation”)
  • Insight
  • Wisdom

That sounds like a pretty good package of attributes, yes? How many organizational cultures and performances would improve markedly with more of these qualities shaping their workforces?

In an interview/podcast for the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School (link here), Karlgaard explains a bit more about the reasoning behind his book:

I wish we’d see more of a push, more encouragement for late bloomers. By the way, this idea that we have unfolding gifts over the many decades of our lives is not my speculation. There was a terrific 2015 study led by Laura Germine at Harvard with a colleague at MIT, and they asked the question, at what decade of our lives do our cognitive abilities peak? It’s a really complex and intriguing answer. It depends what kind of cognitive intelligence you’re talking about. There are many of these forms of cognitive intelligence.

Sure enough, rapid synaptic processing speed, working memory, the things that make you a great software programmer or make you a very effective high-frequency trader on Wall Street, those peak in our 20s. But then in our 30s, 40s and 50s, deeper pattern recognition, empathy and compassion, communication skills — all the things you need to grow and be effective as a leader — come into play. Then in our 50s, 60s and 70s, a whole set of attributes that lead to what we might call wisdom come into play.

For readers of this blog who have suffered setbacks in midlife, Late Bloomers may be instructive and inspirational as they consider potential career options and transitions. It just could be that their late bloomer qualities will guide them towards something much more rewarding and fulfilling.

Elizabeth White’s “55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal”

Because of circumstances that I wish were different for so many people, Elizabeth White’s 55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal (2019) is one of the most important books of the New Year. Here’s the opening to her Preface:

You know her.

She is in your friendship circle, hidden in plain sight. Her clothes are still impeccable, bought in the good years when she was still making money.

To look at her, you would not know that her electricity was cut off last week for nonpayment or that she meets the eligibility requirements for food stamps.

But if you paid attention, you would see the sadness in her eyes, hear that hint of fear in her otherwise self-assured voice.

…You invite her to the same expensive restaurants that the two of you have always enjoyed, but she orders mineral water now with a twist of lemon instead of the $12 glass of Chardonnay.

…She is tired of trying to keep up appearances. Faking normal is wearing her out.

…She has no retirement savings, no nest egg. She exhausted that long ago. There is no expensive condo from which to draw equity and no husband to back her up.

White’s book comes from personal experiences that are all-too-familiar for many: At midlife, she made some career & financial moves that didn’t work out, she lost her six-figure job in the wake of the Great Recession, and she burned through her savings. Well into her fifties, job and consulting leads dried up, and applications no longer yielded interviews. In the meantime, she’d get together with friends at pricey eating & drinking establishments and fake normal.

Her underlying message is that there are millions of women and men who now find themselves in similar circumstances, and that’s it well past time for us to take this crisis seriously. There is a lot of wisdom in this book, as well as validation and support for those who are recovering from a midlife job loss and accompanying financial challenges.

White’s publishing journey

55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal is the updated, revised, and commercially published (Simon & Schuster) edition of a book that White launched via a self-published version in 2016 under a slightly different title (55, Unemployed, and Faking Normal). I’ve written several pieces discussing the earlier edition (here, here, and here) that I will draw from here, for if anything, White’s work grows in significance and merits repeated mentions.

White first wrote about her experiences in a 2015 Next Avenue blog essay, discussing how the recession and life circumstances had affected the lives of professional women in their 40s and older. The piece went viral. It also resonated with middle-aged men who had lost their jobs and struggled to recover. It attracted thousands of responses, many by way of personal stories. Excerpts from many of these comments appear in White’s book.

I would not call 55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal an “elegant” work. Rather, it’s an honest, blunt, and humane book, filled with stories of setbacks and genuine hope. It’s a valuable resource guide, loaded with information, guidance, and advice for folks who find themselves in situations like White’s. It’s also a call for us to address broader questions of age bias, economic policy, and retirement security. After all, we are dealing with systemic issues here.

Furthermore, White doesn’t dodge the role of gender and race in discussing the impact of the Great Recession and economic circumstances facing Americans. If you think that these factors don’t matter, then look at the research she summarizes and think again.

Resilience circles

White’s first piece of advice is to create a “resilience circle”:

You likely already know one person among your friends and friendly acquaintances who is faking it, and that person likely knows one other, and so on. That’s enough to begin.

Approach that person. Tell him or her that you’d like to start a small group: a Resilience Circle to support each other and to discuss issues related to aging and living a good life on a limited income.

…Hold meetings even if your Resilience Circle consists of just you and two or three other people at the beginning. It’s hard to navigate these waters alone. Isolation is crazy making. Peer-to-peer support can keep you even-keeled and open to possibility.

The theme of building of stronger social ties echoes throughout the book. It’s about breaking down unwarranted shame or embarrassment and creating healthy connections with others.

For targets of workplace bullying and mobbing

White’s book may resonate with, and be helpful to, many folks who have experienced workplace abuse and lost their jobs as a consequence, especially those in their middle years. Here’s a snippet of what I wrote in 2016:

This topic intersects with workplace bullying, because middle-aged workers endure a lot of it. When work abuse culminates in their termination or departure, they often face multi-level challenges in trying to pull themselves together and obtain new employment.

Two years ago, I summarized Workplace Bullying Institute instant poll results showing that workers in the 40s and 50s are frequent bullying targets. The poll asked visitors to the WBI website who have experienced workplace bullying to respond to a single question, “How old were you when the bullying at work began?” WBI collected 663 responses and reported the following:

The average age was 41.9 years. Targets in their 40’s comprised 30% of all targets; in their 50’s were 26.4%; under 30 years of age were 21.3%; those in their 30’s were 18.9%. The prime productive years are also the prime years for being [targeted] for bullying.

Workplace bullying and mobbing hits anyone hard, but it can create even more challenges when experienced in later years. A job loss at 55 is often more problematic than one at 25. This book is an excellent complement to the resources available specifically on dealing with workplace mistreatment.

A book for most of us

To some extent, White’s book is a call for us to get back to basics and to ask core questions about how we live and spend our money. When compelled to curb spending, we have to think through our priorities. Obviously food, shelter, clothing, and health care are chief among them, but beyond that we have choices to make.

Perhaps you’re reading this and thinking, well, thank goodness that’s not me, but fortunately I’ve got my personal finances all lined up, and my job is pretty secure. If that is truly the case, then you are among a small percentage of people who can say that with genuine authority. For most everyone else at middle age and beyond, we are but one job loss away from dealing with challenges similar to those addressed by White.

There’s so much more that I could say about this important book, but I’ll stop here and invite you to read it yourself.

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.

Education for life’s afternoons and evenings

One of my favorite passages pertaining to the importance of adult learning is found in psychiatrist Carl Jung’s Modern Man in Search of a Soul (1933). He asks, “Or are there perhaps colleges for forty-year-olds which prepare them for their coming life and its demands as the ordinary colleges introduce our young people to a knowledge of the world and of life?” He answers:

No, there are none. Thoroughly unprepared we take the step into the afternoon of life; worse still, we take this step with the false presupposition that our truths and ideals will serve us hitherto. But we cannot live the afternoon of life according to the programme of life’s morning – for what was great in the morning will be little at evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie. I have given psychological treatment to too many people of advancing years, and have looked too often into the secret chambers of their souls, not to be moved by this fundamental truth.

To borrow from Jung, we sure could use some schools to help us understand, shape, and engage the afternoons and evenings of our lives. I’m not necessarily talking about formal degree programs, although they may well enter the picture for older adults seeking a career switch. Rather, I’m thinking more along the lines of adult education centers — both physical and virtual — that offer affordable, interactive, community-building learning experiences on topics related to life’s big picture topics.

As a possible model, I nominate The School of Life, a London-based, global learning center that offers courses, counseling, and publications “dedicated to developing emotional intelligence” by applying “psychology, philosophy, and culture to everyday life.” Their offerings cover personal relationships, the workplace, the self and others, and culture. Here’s a three-minute video that describes more about their offerings:

The School of Life’s originally opened in London, and it has since added centers in Amsterdam, Antwerp, Berlin, Istanbul, Melbourne, Paris, Sao Paulo, Seoul, Sydney, Taipei, and Tel Aviv. I would be delighted to see one in Boston!

Regardless of whether The School of Life is the preferred model, my larger point is that themes of lifelong learning, lifespan development, and inevitable aging lead us to ask what educational opportunities exist for people to learn and grow together during life’s second half. Alas, I submit that we face a gaping shortage of such options. Especially given the aging populations of many nations, it would be great to see more “colleges for forty-year-olds” (and older, of course!) to help people make the most of their lives.

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