Work, Stress and Health 2017 (Hello from Minneapolis!)

The biennial Work, Stress and Health conference, co-sponsored by the American Psychological Association (APA), National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and Society for Occupational Health Psychology (SOHP) is a continuing education highlight for me and an opportunity to share some of my work with colleagues from around the world. It also serves as ongoing proof that a large conference can be enjoyable and friendly, thanks to the great people organizing it and the wonderful folks it attracts.

The 2017 conference began today in Minneapolis with an afternoon opening session, and here are some of the highlights:

  • An opening panel on temporary jobs and the gig economy featured two excellent presentations: David Desario, founder of the Alliance for the Temporary Workforce discussed the elevated workplace health & safety risks faced by temp workers. He’ll be screening “A Day’s Work,” his documentary film about these (sometimes deadly) hazards, at the conference on Thursday afternoon. Journalist Sarah Kessler (Quartz), author of a forthcoming book about the gig economy, sketched out the nature of this small but growing sector, summing up the gig worker’s plight as “risk without the potential rewards of entrepreneurship.”
  • Among the award recipients was Dr. Larissa Barber (Northern Illinois U.), whose cutting-edge research and commentary on work-life issues has been discussed previously on this blog (e.g., here and here). Lacie, as she is known to her friends, was recognized for her early career accomplishments, a richly deserved honor. Dr. Julian Barling (Queen’s U., Canada), one of the earliest researchers on workplace mistreatment (among his many research topics), received an equally well-deserved lifetime achievement award.

I’ll be part of two panels at this year’s conference: One is on “Trauma-Informed Best Practices for Responding to Workplace Bullying and Mobbing,” a panel I organized with Drs. Maureen Duffy and Gary Namie. I included my panel paper in my last post. A second is on “Non-Standard Work Arrangements: A Discussion of Taxonomy and Research Priorities,” building on themes raised in the opening program on temp jobs and the gig economy. I was invited by NIOSH to discuss some of the legal aspects of this topic, including the oft-discussed distinctions between employee and independent contractor status.

The 4-hour workday vs. no work at all: Utopian and dystopian visions of laboring

Could we be more creative and productive by working only four hours a day? If the work habits of folks like Charles Darwin are any indication, the answer may be a resounding “yes.”

In a feature article for The Week, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less (2016), looks at the work habits of highly accomplished creative people through history and finds that they:

…all shared a passion for their work, a terrific ambition to succeed, and an almost superhuman capacity to focus. Yet when you look closely at their daily lives, they only spent a few hours a day doing what we would recognize as their most important work. The rest of the time, they were hiking mountains, taking naps, going on walks with friends, or just sitting and thinking.

As for Darwin specifically, he authored 19 books, including the paradigm-making Origin of Species. Once a workaholic, he settled on a daily schedule that looked something like this, as Pang writes:

  • “After his morning walk and breakfast, Charles Darwin was in his study by 8 a.m. and worked a steady hour and a half.”
  • “At 9:30 he would read the morning mail and write letters.”
  • “At 10:30, Darwin returned to more serious work, sometimes moving to his aviary or greenhouse to conduct experiments.”
  • “By noon, he would declare, ‘I’ve done a good day’s work,’ and set out on a long walk.”
  • “When he returned after an hour or more, Darwin had lunch and answered more letters.”
  • “At 3 p.m. he would retire for a nap; an hour later he would arise, take another walk, then return to his study until 5:30, when he would join his wife and family for dinner.”

So, if you want to know how to write 19 books and fundamentally change the way we think about human evolution, you might start by cutting back on the work hours! Alright, maybe it’s not that simple — I’m guessing that Darwin’s mind was hard at work even during his “down time.” In any event, Pang’s full article is a thought-provoking read and challenges the notion that a constant nose to the grindstone makes us more creative.

When technology eliminates jobs

The idea of the four-hour workday may be enormously appealing to those who enjoy flexibility in their work schedules and who are involved in creative endeavors that generate income based on the result rather than the time clocked in on a job. But what about the vast majority of workers whose livelihoods require being present on the job for x hours a day? What if their work literally disappears? Yuval Noah Harari writes for The Guardian:

Most jobs that exist today might disappear within decades. As artificial intelligence outperforms humans in more and more tasks, it will replace humans in more and more jobs.

 . . . The crucial problem isn’t creating new jobs. The crucial problem is creating new jobs that humans perform better than algorithms. Consequently, by 2050 a new class of people might emerge – the useless class. People who are not just unemployed, but unemployable.

If you want a prime example of how this is already occurring, consider corporate responses to fast-food workers who are advocating for a living wage: These workers are at risk of being replaced by robots. As Kate Taylor reports for Business Insider:

“It’s cheaper to buy a $35,000 robotic arm than it is to hire an employee who’s inefficient making $15 an hour bagging french fries,” former McDonald’s USA CEO Ed Rensi said in an interview on Tuesday on the Fox Business Network’s “Mornings with Maria.” “It’s nonsense and it’s very destructive and it’s inflationary and it’s going to cause a job loss across this country like you’re not going to believe.”

According to Rensi, rising labor costs are forcing chains to cut entry-level jobs and replace workers with machines. Currently, Wendy’s, McDonald’s, and Panera are rolling out kiosks across the US, in part because of the rising cost of labor.

Long hours by choice…or not

Here in America, we love to extol the virtues of the work ethic, and for better or worse, it shows. For example, Ben Steverman reported for Bloomberg last fall on a new study by economists Alexander Bick (Arizona State U), Bettina Bruggemann (McMaster U), and Nicola Fuchs-Schundeln (Goethe U) shows that Americans put in some of the longest work hours per week compared to their European peers:

A new study tries to measure precisely how much more Americans work than Europeans do overall. The answer: The average person in Europe works 19 percent less than the average person in the U.S. That’s about 258 fewer hours per year, or about an hour less each weekday. Another way to look at it: U.S. workers put in almost 25 percent more hours than Europeans.

This study adds to the continuous string of research studies documenting the long work hours put in by Americans, including a 1997 International Labour Organization report showing that “US workers put in the longest hours on the job in industrialized nations.”

Of course, many of those working long hours aren’t doing so by choice. As has been reported over and again in the news media, the overall state of the American economy and labor market is such that millions of workers have been compelled to take two or three lower-paying, part-time jobs in order to make ends meet.

I think we’re in quite a pickle here. Overwork — by choice or challenging circumstance — is sapping creativity, health, and overall well-being. Technology — a term that instantly causes some people to experience paroxysms of awe and wonder — threatens to make a lot of people unemployable. At the very top, a small number of people (think the McDonald’s ex-CEO in Taylor’s article) stand to grow increasingly wealthy from this dynamic.

Unpaid internships and the intern economy: Latest work

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A look at unpaid internships and the intern economy

As steady readers here are aware, for many years I’ve been engaged in scholarship, public education, and advocacy concerning the oft-exploitative practice of unpaid internships. I’d like to provide a quick update on my latest activities in this realm.

I just posted to my Social Science Research Network (SSRN) page a short law review essay, “‘Mass Exploitation Hidden in Plain Sight’: Unpaid Internships and the Culture of Uncompensated Work,” a followup to an excellent symposium on employment law issues hosted by the Idaho Law Review last year. For those who would like a more compact scholarly summary of recent major legal and policy developments concerning the employment rights of interns and the larger implications of the burgeoning “intern economy,” this piece will provide it. You may freely download it from my SSRN page.

Brief filed by attorneys at Lieff Cabraser

Brief filed by attorneys at Lieff Cabraser

Wang v. Hearst Corporation is one of the most prominent legal challenges to unpaid internships, and the case is currently pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Recently I agreed to be a party to a “Friend of the Court” brief supporting the legal position of the unpaid interns, organized by the National Employment Law Project and authored by Rachel Geman and Michael Decker, attorneys at the law firm of Lieff Cabrasser in New York City. Rachel and Michael did a wonderful job on the brief, seamlessly incorporating suggested additions from parties into their already superb draft. (You may go to this link for a pdf of the brief.)

Enjoying post-filming dinner with Nathalie Berger and Leo David Hyde

Enjoying a post-filming dinner with Nathalie Berger and Leo David Hyde

Yesterday I had the pleasure of being interviewed for a documentary project on unpaid internships being produced by Nathalie Berger and Leo David Hyde of Switzerland. During a whirlwind North American trip, Nathalie and Leo are conducting interviews with activists, writers, policy analysts, and scholars on the social, economic, and legal aspects of unpaid internships. Their documentary will paint a picture of the intern economy on a global scale. I was so impressed with their knowledge and depth of understanding of this topic, and I’m very excited to watch this project unfold.

Elizabeth White’s advice for “Jobless After 50”

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Elizabeth White received a lot of well-deserved kudos for her Next Avenue blog essay, “Unemployed, 55, and Faking Normal,” which looked at the lives of unemployed professional women, many of whom were caught in the throes of the Great Recession:

You know her.

She is in your friendship circle, hidden in plain sight.

She is 55, broke and tired of trying to keep up appearances. Faking normal is wearing her out.

To look at her, you wouldn’t know that her electricity was cut off last week for non-payment or that she meets the eligibility requirements for food stamps. Her clothes are still impeccable, bought in the good times when she was still making money.

Now White is back with a new Next Avenue piece, “Jobless After 50? Here’s What To Do First,” which draws upon her new book containing advice, guidance, and resources for those who find themselves unemployed at midlife.

Her 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 another, and so on. That’s enough to begin.

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

Don’t make the group too big. You will be sharing personal information and don’t need a cast of thousands for that (what’s said at the meetings should be kept confidential).

For those in situations similar to what she found herself in, she further recommends:

  • “Stay active.”
  • “Intensify or reinvigorate your sidelined artistic endeavors.”
  • “Keep a journal or several, each with a different purpose.”
  • “Never accept anyone who thinks you’re old.”

Targets of workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse

In a 2015 blog post, I related White’s first piece to the challenges that often face middle-aged workers who have been bullied out of their jobs:

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.

I also cited survey data from the Workplace Bullying Institute “showing that workers in the 40s and 50s are frequent bullying targets” and noted that I’ve talked to “many women in their 50s who have been bullied out of their jobs and then face the daunting challenges of recovering from the experience in terms of psychological well-being, employment, and personal finances.”

In sum, there is a lot of overlap between Elizabeth White’s work and the realities that face those who have been severely bullied at work in midlife. I have her book on order and look forward to spending time with it.

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Relevant past blog posts

Challenges posed by the gig economy are hardly new

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The Fall issue of Yes! magazine devotes a collection of articles to the so-called “gig economy”:

Four out of 10 Americans work outside of the traditional 9-to-5, a rate that is growing fast. For workers, this “gig” work can feel both empowering and precarious. This issue looks at how we can bring out the best of the gig economy, but also protect workers. From cooperatives and online communities to “portable” work benefits, we can make the gig economy work for us.

You’ll find a few pieces from the issue posted online, but for the complete package you’ll want to obtain a hard copy. Yes! prides itself on addressing economic, social, and human rights issues with a solution-oriented journalistic approach, and you’ll find that theme running throughout its examination of the work world of freelancers and independent contractors. It’s worth picking up if this topic interests you.

The gig economy aka the contingent workforce

Although the trendy term gig economy is of more recent vintage, the challenges facing those engaged in contractor, part-time, and short-time work have been with us for some time. For several decades, this group of workers has been referred to as the “contingent workforce.”

In 1994, a blue-ribbon federal commission, the Dunlop Commission on the Future of Worker-Management Relations, released a much anticipated report that examined, among other things, how workers in the contingent workforce fared under existing employment statutes. Among the report’s key findings was that the legally defined line between “employee” versus “independent contractor” played a significant role in determining who is covered by federal employment laws, such as anti-discrimination and minimum wage protections. Those determined to be contractors usually fell outside the reach of these protective laws.

The contingent workforce has been the subject of much attention since then. For example, back in 1997, pioneering workers’ rights attorney and Lewis Maltby and I co-authored a law review article, “Beyond ‘Economic Realities’: The Case for Amending Federal Employment Discrimination Laws to Include Independent Contractors” (Boston College Law Review). The piece continues to be cited in scholarly articles today.

Closer to the trenches, the Freelancers Union provides policy advocacy, continuing education, and services in support of independent workers.

I would add the whole realm of internships and unpaid interns to this discussion as well.

In sum, whether we’re calling it the gig economy or the contingent workforce, the challenges of providing good work with decent pay and benefits to those whose work arrangements do not fit within the 9-to-5 standard (to the extent that it’s a standard at all) remain. It’s something to keep on our radar screens as we head into this Labor Day weekend.

Do more Americans need to pack their bags in order to maximize work opportunities?

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Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute (a conservative think tank), believes that Americans must be more willing to move in order to maximize their work opportunities. In a recent New York Times op-ed piece, he writes:

Mobility is more than just a metaphor for getting ahead. In America, it has been a solution to economic and social barriers.

. . . Even for those already here, migration has long been seen as a key to self-improvement. As Horace Greeley so famously advised in 1865: “Go west, young man, and grow up with the country.”

. . . Fewer and fewer people are taking Greeley’s suggestion. In the mid-1960s, about 20 percent of the population moved in any given year, according to the United States Census Bureau. By 1990, it was approaching 15 percent. Today it’s closer to 10 percent. The percentage that moves between states has fallen by nearly half since the early 1990s.

Brooks offers a provocative thesis built on statistics of which I was previously unaware, and he offers thoughtful policy prescriptions to support greater individual mobility.

On a personal level, I understand the benefits of mobility. I’ve made two major moves during my life, first from NW Indiana to New York City, and then from NYC to Boston. Both helped to open up significant career and work opportunities for me. By contrast, at times I’ve been frustrated when, at my downtown Boston university, some of my students have passed on promising opportunities in places as close as New Hampshire or Connecticut, citing a reluctance to “relocate.” Could my anecdotal experience be connected to Brooks’s observation that since the Great Recession, “mobility decline . . . has actually been the most pronounced among millennials”?

However, we also must assess the reality of what has been called the Great American Jobs Machine. In recent decades, the largest job growth has been in the lower paid service sector. True, marginally better opportunities may present themselves, as Brooks suggests, to people in Mississippi (6.3 percent unemployment rate) who move to New Hampshire (2.6 percent). But that won’t do much to reverse the burgeoning wealth gap and the ongoing demise of good jobs with decent wages and benefits.

Thus, it’s arguable that until we create a stronger base of jobs nationally, we’re doing only slightly more than shifting around the deck chairs on a sinking ship by encouraging people to move where jobs are in greater supply. A greater sense of flexibility and even adventure may help to better match the right people with the right jobs, but ultimately we need more good jobs just about everywhere.

The casino economy and psychological health at work

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The financial markets are in turmoil right now, making this a jittery time for investors large and small. Thankfully, the current stock market “correction,” as the financial analysts call it, is probably not the start of new recession. However, it definitely impacts people’s confidence in the state of the economy.

Stock market outlooks also affect the everyday experience of work. Just last week, I posted an article asking whether the Great Recession has stoked a continuing climate of fear in the workplace. While finances and economics may seem to be all about hard numbers, in reality markets are very psychological in nature. In times of major market uncertainties, those anxieties often trickle down to the everyday experience of work.

What will happen if the stock market is in for a rough ride? Among other things, employers in all sectors (private, public, non-profit) may be more nervous about hiring. It also means that pressures to produce more with fewer resources could intensify. Workers fearing unemployment may continue to endure bad work environments, rather than leave without another job in hand. Workplace bullying and incivility may well occur more frequently as tensions on the job rise.

This is modern life in the casino economy. The wins and losses of those playing at the big money tables affect those playing the nickel slot machines. And for folks in the latter group, the stakes are very high, even if their control over them is limited.

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