Are we preaching wellness to wave off a closer look at core societal problems?

 

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Journalist Laurie Penny, in a terrific piece for the punchy journal The Baffler, takes aim at the messaging of self-care and wellness from Powers That Be that may obscure a closer look at deeper societal problems:

The slow collapse of the social contract is the backdrop for a modern mania for clean eating, healthy living, personal productivity, and “radical self-love”—the insistence that, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, we can achieve a meaningful existence by maintaining a positive outlook, following our bliss, and doing a few hamstring stretches as the planet burns.

She posits that this “wellbeing ideology is a symptom of a broader political disease,” one that renders us believing that we can improve our lives only on an individual level. Thus, we are conditioned to assume “that if we are sick, sad, and exhausted,” the problem is one not of our economic system, but rather of personal fault:

The lexis of abuse and gas-lighting is appropriate here: if you are miserable or angry because your life is a constant struggle against privation or prejudice, the problem is always and only with you. Society is not mad, or messed up: you are.

Such a belief system may foreclose us “from even considering a broader, more collective reaction to the crises of work, poverty, and injustice.”

Individual vs. social change

To her credit, Penny does not dismiss the benefits of self-care and healthy living choices, confessing “that I’ve been doing yoga for two years and it’s changed my life to an extent that I almost resent.” But, at the very least, she’s asserting that the pendulum has swung away too far from societal perspectives on, and collective solutions to, conditions that stoke suffering, injustice, and deprivation.

Bingo. Especially here in the States, the wellness stuff may be a softer, gentler version of old fashioned American rugged individualism, embracing the myth that you make it or miss it on your own. Don’t get me wrong, being accountable to ourselves is a good thing. But all the personal responsibility in the world doesn’t make up for a stacked deck and abuses of power.

If we want to make the world a better place, we have to work on ourselves and our institutions and our communities, yes?

Applied to the workplace

This imbalanced focus on the individual captures why I have a problem with many workplace wellness programs. Standing in isolation, wellness programs are fine things. However, it is wholly ironic that these programs can pop up in workplaces that unnecessarily generate the very stressors and unhealthy living habits these programs are designed to address. Treating workers with dignity — including (at the very least) a living wage, fair employment practices, and a decent work environment — is the best employer-sponsored wellness program of all!

Of course, the individual vs. social change dichotomy can manifest itself in more dire workplace situations as well. For example, too many complaints about workplace bullying are dismissed as personality conflicts, and all too often the target of the mistreatment is blamed for somehow not adequately managing the situation.

This dismissive attitude ignores that workplace bullying has strong individual, organizational, and societal components. Of course, on an individual level, it involves perpetrators and targets, and those interpersonal dynamics can be complex. That said, workplace bullying is much less likely to occur in the absence of an organizational culture that enables or even encourages it. On a broader societal level, abusive behaviors at work can be fueled by an absence of legal protections and the presence of a popular culture that accepts them as normal.

We need a reframe

So, folks, we need a reframe, one that looks at human problems at both the individual and societal levels, with responses and solutions shaped accordingly. Perhaps we’ll even reach the point where we see individual change vs. social change as a false dichotomy, replaced by an understanding that we need both in order to create better lives, workplaces, and communities.

Published: “Intellectual Activism and the Practice of Public Interest Law”

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I’m pleased to report that the Southern California Review of Law and Social Justice has published my law review article, “Intellectual Activism and the Practice of Public Interest Law.” It’s probably the closest thing to an academic autobiography that I’ll ever write, in that it recounts experiences and draws lessons from the work I’ve been doing during the past fifteen years, including workplace bullying, unpaid internships, and workplace dignity in general.

Here’s the posted abstract from my Social Science Research Network (SSRN) page:

Intellectual activism is both a philosophy and a practice for engaging in scholarship relevant to real-world problems and challenges, putting its prescriptions into action, and learning from the process and results of implementation. In the legal context, intellectual activism involves conducting and publishing original research and analysis and then applying that work to the tasks of reforming and improving the law, legal systems, and the legal profession. This article explores the concept and practice of intellectual activism for the benefit of interested law professors, lawyers, and law students.

This is a very personal piece, grounded in extensive scholarly, public education, and advocacy work that I have done in two areas: (1) fostering the enactment of workplace anti-bullying legislation and building public awareness of the phenomenon of bullying at work; and (2) participating in an emerging legal and social movement to challenge the widespread, exploitative practice of unpaid internships. It also discusses my involvement in multidisciplinary networks and institutions that have nurtured my work, examines the relevant use of social media, and provides examples of how law students can function as intellectual activists. This article closes with an Appendix containing a short annotated bibliography of books that are broadly relevant to the topics discussed in the text.

I wrote the article for those who want to use research and analysis to inform and inspire positive social change work, with a special nod to those who work largely outside of the realm of highly elite educational and public policy institutions.

You may obtain a freely downloadable pdf copy of the article from my SSRN page.

Conversations and the construction of knowledge

(image courtesy of ClipArtBest.com)

(image courtesy of ClipArtBest.com)

Okay, dear readers, I’m about to get a little academic geeky on you, but please stick with me on this: In InterViews: Learning the Craft of Qualitative Research Interviewing (3rd ed. 2014), co-authors Steinar Kvale and Svend Brinkmann examine the notion of “conversation as a construction site of knowledge.” Invoking this phrase in the context of conducting formal research interviews, they posit that the interactive nature of good conversations can create new knowledge.

This brilliant turn of words was introduced to me by Dr. Maureen Duffy, a leading authority on workplace mobbing and most recently co-author, with Dr. Len Sperry, of the deservedly praised Overcoming Mobbing: A Recovery Guide for Workplace Aggression and Bullying (2014). I’m probably guilty of oversimplifying, but in essence Drs. Kvale and Brinkmann are wrapping some theory around how conversations over ideas, information, insights, and experiences can build and expand our understanding of the human condition.

I have found this to be profoundly true when it comes to learning about the nature of work, workers, and workplaces.

The “new math” of conversation

I’m no math whiz, but I do understand that one plus one equals two. However, a good conversation may yield a different, more powerful equation, whereby one plus one may equal three…or five…or ten, at least when it comes to potential new understandings. And when even more people get into a good mix of conversation, then all bets are off.

My recent phone conversations with Maureen have centered on a book project (see below), but because we’re both immersed in the world of workplace bullying and mobbing, we sometimes discuss our work generally. I can attest that sharing our respective expertise has led to knowledge constructing moments for both us, with insights emerging from the back and forth of attentive conversation.

This is among the reasons why I have written in praise of conferences and workshops that allow for genuine exchanges during formal sessions, break times, and enrichment events. As frequent conference goers know well, there’s a huge difference between gatherings that are interactive, friendly, and engaging, and those that are stuffy, hierarchical, and pretentious. With the former, you wish it could go on for a few more days. With the latter, you can’t wait for it to be over. If you’d like to read more of my thoughts on this stuff, here are several blog posts of possible interest:

Conferences as community builders (2015)

Workshopping human dignity (2014)

Inspiration in Amsterdam (2013)

Why conferences? (2013)

Stay tuned: A cool book project is in the making

I’ve been on the phone with Maureen a lot in recent months because she invited me to join her as co-editor of an exciting book project on workplace bullying and mobbing. The two-volume book set will feature a comprehensive, multidisciplinary collection of chapters by leading and emerging U.S. experts on bullying and mobbing at work, with a focus on American employment relations. We have a very supportive publisher and a great team of chapter contributors, and we’re looking at a 2017 publication date. I’ll be sharing more news about the project in the coming months.

On “sober judgment” and “forthright speech”

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Theology professor Charles Marsh (Univ. of Virginia), in a 2012 issue of The Cresset, considers the lot of scholars committed to social justice and concludes that “(t)o speak of the audacious hope of the engaged scholar (in this context) is to commit ourselves to sober judgment and forthright speech.”

Dr. Marsh writes primarily about academicians from Christian faith traditions, but his wise words should be of interest to any scholar who sees his or her role as connecting to broader social, economic, and political concerns. Indeed, in that one sentence, he captures what I believe to be the core responsibilities of a socially conscious academician: Sober judgment and forthright speech.

Ideally, the former should lead to the latter. Sober judgment is about research, analysis, and reflection. Forthright speech builds on that judgment and says something meaningful to the world.

One would think this intellectual and educational process occurs all the time in academe, but that’s not necessarily the case. Some academicians skip the sober judgment and jump right into forthright speech. They let their biases and untested beliefs substitute for careful research and evaluation. Professors who yammer away in an opinionated yet fact-free manner fit this mode.

Others immerse themselves in sober judgment, but then dodge the forthright speech. Instead, their erudite analyses lead to softer generalizations and platitudes that foreclose sharp review. They want to sound intelligent, measured, and intellectually respectable, but they fear sticking out their necks too far.

***

If the spirit of Ralph Waldo Emerson has read Dr. Marsh’s essay, then hopefully the great New England philosopher is nodding with approval. In an 1837 address titled “The American Scholar,” Emerson stated:

There goes in the world a notion, that the scholar should be a recluse…as unfit for any handiwork or public labor, as a penknife for an axe…. Action is with the scholar subordinate, but it is essential. Without it, he is not yet man. Without it, thought can never ripen into truth.… Inaction is cowardice, but there can be no scholar without the heroic mind.

To put it another way: Emerson, too, believed that scholarly thought can and should lead to something more.

***

I’ve collected a lot of ideas, reflections, and experiences on the relationship of research and analysis to social change initiatives in a forthcoming law review article, “Intellectual Activism and the Practice of Public Interest Law” (Southern California Review of Law and Social Justice). In the piece, I discuss my work on workplace bullying and on unpaid internships, as well as my collaborations with the therapeutic jurisprudence and human dignity communities. The article also includes a short annotated bibliography of 40 (mostly non-legal) books related to intellectual activism.

You may freely download a pre-publication draft here.

Stories can drive change, but workplace bullying stories often defy quick summaries

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Two summers ago, Yes! magazine devoted its cover package to the power of storytelling for purposes of driving positive social change. I’ve thought about that collection of articles often in connection with the challenges of telling stories about workplace bullying, both to educate the public generally and to advocate for passage of the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill.

Of course, it’s relatively easy to summarize frequent bullying behaviors, their prevalence, and their destructive effects on individuals and organizations. For example, I start a lot of my talks on workplace bullying with a quick section that covers these basics. I often find a lot of people nodding their heads in recognition of the behaviors I’m describing and how people are affected by them.

Similarly, stories of overt, in-your-face bullying behaviors are pretty easy to summarize. This form of workplace mistreatment is probably the closest thing we have to common schoolyard bullying or verbal domestic abuse. The facts are fairly straightforward and easily comprehended.

But the bigger challenge is how to convey narratives of more insidious, covert, and multi-layered forms of workplace bullying that defy quick summaries. They can take hours of patient listening and attention to grasp the full context and detail of what occurred, even when the person recounting the story is relatively concise and specific with his or her words. However, once understood, they can be among the most bone chilling examples of workplace bullying, often revealing the deft minds and malicious intent of the abusers.

Over the years, many individuals who have experienced more complex forms of bullying at work have shared their extended narratives through long personal statements, social media, and self-published books. The inherent problem is that very few of them translate easily into digestible summaries that maintain the attention spans of legislators, journalists, and the public. I know of many other instances of severe workplace bullying that are hard to comprehend in their entirety without a strong understanding of all the players and institutions.

By their very nature, some stories are complex. They require time and effort to get their significance. In an age resistant to detail and nuance, the challenge of finding receptive audiences for these complicated stories of bullying at work yields no simple answers. This will continue when the Healthy Workplace Bill becomes law. The storytelling challenge will then move from the court of public opinion to courts of law. It will be up to legal advocates to help craft these narratives with, and on behalf of, their clients.

Displays (literally) of progress for the workplace anti-bullying movement

Deb Falzoi and Torii Bottomley holding sign near the MA State House

Deb Falzoi and Torii Bottomley holding sign outside the MA State House (photo: MA Healthy Workplace Advocates)

Hey, it’s about time that we made a big display about ending workplace bullying!

Recently I wrote about Massachusetts: Face Workplace Bullying, an artistic photo display designed to raise public awareness about workplace bullying and to voice support for the Healthy Workplace Bill (House No. 1771, currently before the MA legislature). The display features photographs of 14 individuals who have been targets of workplace bullying, along with their names and statements about the circumstances surrounding their experiences. It made its official debut on the 4th floor of the Massachusetts State House.

Last Friday, advocates met at the State House to commemorate the display’s two-week run and to take it down, packing it for its next port of call. Later that afternoon, Torii Bottomley and Deb Falzoi, staunch supporters of the Healthy Workplace Bill and participants in the Face Workplace Bullying project, took to the street outside the State House to display their homebrewed sign “End Workplace Bullying.”

The photo display in the State House and the big sign outside are just what we need to shine a public light on workplace bullying and the damage it causes. In order for the Healthy Workplace Bill to become law, we need more advocates to be out front with this messaging.

I have been privy to communications between the individuals who allowed their images and stories to be included in the Face Workplace Bullying display, and they have invoked terms such as healing and empowering to describe how they feel being a part of it. I think their brave actions are making a huge statement: Enough of the silence and shame surrounding this form of interpersonal abuse. We need our legislators to pass the Healthy Workplace Bill. Let’s get on with it.

Interviews and documentary footage in the State House

Media interest and documentary footage in the State House (photo: MA Healthy Workplace Advocates)

Non-conformists as change agents

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ProPublica, the non-profit public interest news organization, recently did a neat little feature on Dr. Adam Grant’s (U.Penn/Wharton) new book, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World (2016). Here’s the lede by Cynthia Gordy:

In his new book, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, Adam Grant examines the circumstances that give rise to truly original thinkers and groundbreaking ideas. Throughout Originals, the Wharton School of Business professor shares stories from the fields of business, politics and sports, and his chapter exploring the psychology of speaking truth to power – whether it be federal whistleblowers, or a middle-level employee with an innovative idea – holds several lessons for investigative journalists and the people on which they report.

The feature includes a podcast with Dr. Grant interviewed by ProPublica reporter David Epstein. Here are some of the highlights:

  • On lower-level workers facing backlash for making suggestions: “People often confuse power and status, but power is about being able to influence others. . . . You see a really strong backlash when people try to assert their authority when they haven’t yet earned respect.”
  • On whistleblowers using internal channels: “We need much better internal channels that make it safe for people to blow the whistle. One of the most important steps that you can take is to model openness to that kind of information, and I think that means whistleblowers sometimes need to be called out and recognized for having the courage to speak even if they end up being wrong.”
  • On advocating for change internally vs. externally: “This is a tightrope walk. If you refuse to conform at all and you don’t buy into the system, it’s really hard to get taken seriously. . . . On the other hand, if you adapt too much to the world, then you never change it.”

Impossible

Okay folks, it’s impossible for me to be objective on this topic. I naturally identify with the role of non-conformist and have done so for as long as I can remember. In years past, this role was all too often accompanied by attitudinal rebelliousness. I am not completely free from such instincts, but I think I am much more constructive and mature about it than I was before.

Grant’s characterization of the “tightrope walk” specially resonates with me. It overlaps with the idea of what author and coach Judi Neal calls the “edgewalker,” an individual who builds bridges, works at the boundaries and soft edges, and operates in a visionary way.

Of course, it’s not all about starry-eyed idealism. As Grant’s work suggests, non-conformists can pay a price for being out front, with ridicule, pushback, and retaliation being among the costs. For this reason and others, I’m looking forward to spending some time with his book. I hope it will yield some lessons on how to be an “Original” as smartly, safely, and effectively as possible.

***

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