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



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.

Lawyers, alcohol abuse, and depression: Why we need a healthier legal profession and more humane legal systems


Christopher Ingraham of the Washington Post reports on a major study by the American Society of Addiction Medicine documenting high levels of alcohol abuse and depression among lawyers:

America’s lawyers have a serious drinking problem, according to a new report from the American Society of Addiction Medicine.

More than 20 percent of licensed attorneys drink at levels that are considered “hazardous, harmful, and potentially alcohol-dependent.” That’s three times higher than the rate of problem drinking among the general public.


The study also found a shockingly high rate of depression — 28 percent — among American lawyers. Among the general public, only 8 percent experience a bout of depression in a given year, according to the CDC.

Ingraham quotes the study’s lead author, Patrick Krill, on the possible reasons behind these high rates of alcohol abuse. According to Krill, law school teaches budding lawyers “to work harder, play harder, and assume the role of a tough, capable and aggressive professional without personal weaknesses or deficiencies.” They then enter a field where “(h)eavy drinking, lack of balance and poor self-care are entirely normalized . . . .”

Of course, concerns about excessive alcohol consumption by lawyers are nothing new. Some professions have become associated with the term “hard drinking,” and the legal profession is among them. The tag is sometimes worn as a twisted badge of pride and becomes reflected in our popular culture. For example, Paul Newman was nominated for an Oscar for his performance in “The Verdict,” a 1982 drama that pitted an alcoholic, down-on-his-luck Boston lawyer against the Forces That Be in a major medical malpractice case. Unfortunately, the reality of this state of affairs is much sadder for lawyers and clients alike.

The underplayed findings

The ASAM study has been getting a lot of press, with headlines centered on the excessive alcohol use. However, often buried under the lede are the data concerning high levels of depression. In a piece on alcohol and depression, WebMD discusses the connections between the two. While alcohol abuse can lead to depression, oftentimes depression can fuel excessive drinking: “Nearly one-third of people with major depression also have an alcohol problem. Often, the depression comes first.”

Regardless of whether depression triggers alcohol abuse or the other way around, the high prevalence rates of depression cited in the study carry major implications for lawyers, legal systems, clients, and parties to legal disputes, encompassing the wellness of the legal profession and the quality of legal work provided to clients and shaping the law.

Therapeutic jurisprudence: Part of the solution

Obviously a problem crisis this significant calls for multifaceted responses. May I suggest that therapeutic jurisprudence (TJ), the school of legal thought and practice that examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic qualities of legal systems, legal practice, and law and policy, is part of the solution. TJ favors psychologically healthy outcomes for legal transactions and disputes, with laws and legal processes designed — at least in part — to foster such results.

In too many settings, the practice of law has become psychologically unhealthy, a stark contrast to the ideals that drew many to law school in the first place. The economic downturn has had a lot to do with this, but the core problems existed well before the Great Recession. Add to that the deeply adversarial nature of negotiation and litigation and you’ve got a pretty toxic brew.

Therapeutic jurisprudence is not a panacea, but it offers a hopeful alternative to the dominant status quo. I’ve written a lot about TJ for this blog, and here are some representative posts:

Can a quirky band of law professors, lawyers, and judges transform the law and legal profession? (2015)

Mainstreaming psychological well-being in the law: TJ’s challenge (2015)

A view from Vienna: New wine and new bottles for the practice and substance of law (2015)

The deadly cost of ignoring warnings from subordinates: The 1986 Challenger disaster


The night before the ill-fated launch of the Challenger spaceship in January 1986, project engineer Bob Ebeling and four colleagues pleaded with NASA and other higher ups to delay the mission. The reason? They believed that with the cold weather facing the launch, the Challenger was likely to blow up because its rubber seals wouldn’t hold up under lower temperatures.

Tragically, their concerns went unheeded, and seven brave astronauts died while their family members, friends, colleagues, and a national audience watched the horror unfold.

On this 30th anniversary of that terrible tragedy, Ebeling was interviewed by NPR’s Howard Berkes about what happened:

Thirty years ago, as the nation mourned the loss of seven astronauts on the space shuttle Challenger, Bob Ebeling was steeped in his own deep grief.

The night before the launch, Ebeling and four other engineers at NASA contractor Morton Thiokol had tried to stop the launch. Their managers and NASA overruled them.

That night, he told his wife, Darlene, “It’s going to blow up.”

When Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff, Ebeling and his colleagues sat stunned in a conference room at Thiokol’s headquarters outside Brigham City, Utah. They watched the spacecraft explode on a giant television screen and they knew exactly what had happened.

It breaks my heart that Ebeling blames himself for what happened, when he and his colleagues had the courage to speak up despite all the public anticipation of this launch.

This also serves as a terrible reminder of what can happen when high-level managers and executives disregard the urgent concerns of knowledgeable subordinates. In this case, lives were at stake. Had NASA officials listened to the five engineers, those astronauts would not have perished on that day.

Fear of retaliation: A prime indicator of organizational integrity and decency


There are plenty of factors that go into what makes a good workplace, but I’d like to zero in on one measure: Do employees have reason to fear retaliation if they report alleged wrongdoings, such as discrimination and sexual harassment, bullying, unsafe working conditions, or ethical transgressions, or if they engage in legally protected activities such as union organizing?

The answer to this question speaks volumes about an organization’s integrity and decency. It all boils down pretty clearly: The good organizations don’t retaliate against individuals for engaging in legally protected conduct or for reporting potentially illegal or wrongful behaviors. The bad ones do.

Retaliation can take many forms, including:

  • Active, targeted, threatening, and prompt retaliation via overt and covert means;
  • Milder, usually indirect retaliation that makes it more difficult to establish a cause-and-effect relationship;
  • Taking a wait-and-see approach by watching the employee for the slightest mistake or transgression, and then blowing it up into a major performance weakness or act of misconduct;
  • Icing out the employee from various opportunities, while building elaborate, pretextual justifications for doing so; and,
  • Retaliating against the employee’s compatriots or friends.

Most protective employment statutes, such as discrimination laws, collective bargaining laws, and health & safety laws, have anti-retaliation provisions designed to protect those who report alleged violations and who cooperate with related investigations and legal proceedings. But prevailing on such claims is not easy, and the nastier the employer, the more likely it is to have raised hiding its motives to an art form.

A lot of retaliation takes the form of workplace bullying. However, establishing motive and causation under anti-retaliation provisions of various laws can be a challenge. It’s among the reasons why we need standalone legal protections against workplace bullying.

Freedom from fear is an important element of dignity at work. Praise be to organizations that truly practice this value.


The article in the screenshot above is just one of an endless number of pieces online about fear of retaliation for whistleblowing and asserting one’s legal rights.

Working Notes: On music as a feel-good pill, advice for wellness programs, and a dignity studies learning collaboration

Dear readers, I thought I’d lead us into the weekend with three items of possible interest:

The wonder of music

Have you ever wondered why music often provides an emotional pick-me-up? Well, it can trigger the release of dopamine, an organic chemical that helps to control our brain’s pleasure centers. For more, here’s a neat little YouTube find from 2012, written and produced by Mitchell Moffit and Gregory Brown, perfect for a Friday afternoon posting:

Is music humanity’s drug of choice? What is the mysterious power behind it’s ability to captivate, stimulate and keep us coming back for more? Find out the scientific explanation of how a simple mixture of sound frequencies can affect your brain and body, and why it’s not all that different than a drug like cocaine.

You may click and watch above! And if you’ve had one of these weeks at work, then maybe the right kind of music will give you a lift!

Cautionary advice on implementing workplace wellness programs

Kathryn R. Klement and Larissa K. Barber, writing for the American Psychological Association’s Good Company newsletter, acknowledge that “employee wellness programming can be effective for increasing job satisfaction and reducing absenteeism,” as well potentially reduce health care costs. However, they aptly warn against the possible downsides of wellness programs, especially the mandatory variety:

  • “First, some forms of wellness programming can increase perceptions of injustice, which can also increase workplace stress.”
  • “Second, wellness programs can unintentionally marginalize certain groups of employees, such as those with chronic health conditions, employees with a lower socioeconomic status and employees with disabilities.”
  • “Third, these programs can provide inaccurate information about health to employees, relying on incorrect measures of health and wellness.”

In their excellent article, they “discuss each of these potential pitfalls” in greater depth and offer “five recommendations for effective wellness programming.” HR offices, unions, and other employee relations stakeholders will find this useful.

An exciting dignity studies degree program collaboration

Two entities for which I have great affection and regard, the World Dignity University (WDU) initiative of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS) network, and the Western Institute for Social Research (WISR), are entering into a collaboration that will allow students to pursue a multidisciplinary, flexible learning WISR graduate degree with a Dignity Studies specialization.

The World Dignity University is an evolving project of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network, which I have discussed on many occasions here, including my last post. The Western Institute for Social Research is a small, independent university located in Berkeley, California, that offers degree programs for individuals interested in community service and social change. I serve on the boards of both organizations, and I have been delighted to help facilitate this collaboration.

A WISR degree is based largely on multidisciplinary readings, learning projects, and a thesis or dissertation. For the Dignity Studies specialization, students will be working with faculty drawn from WISR’s core faculty and from the WDU and HumanDHS communities to serve as adjunct WISR faculty for this purpose. Three current WISR graduate degree programs are eligible for this “Dignity Studies” specialization:

  • M.S. in Community Leadership and Justice
  • M.S. in Education
  • Ed.D. in Higher Education and Social Change

All three programs have a small number of required courses, each of which has some required readings, but primarily involves learner-defined action and/or research projects culminating in papers related to the student’s purposes and interests. Students pursuing a Dignity Studies specialization would take a 5-credit course, “Dignity Studies,” as part of their required courses.

Founded in 1975, WISR operates under full California state approval. Historically it has been too small (with enrollment typically averaging in the low to mid dozens of students) to be considered for traditional accreditation, though efforts are underway to seek accreditation with a national agency. Thus, WISR degrees are most useful and valuable for those who want to do intensive, independent work on areas of interest with a social change theme that will complement their current professional position and/or involve community and adult learning.

For more information, please contact WISR President, Dr. John Bilorusky, directly at:

Worker safety and gun violence in the academic workplace


During the past two weeks, shootings resulting in multiple fatalities and severe injuries at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, Northern Arizona University, and Texas Southern University have caused understandable alarm at many institutions of higher education. Recent entries in the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s campus safety link read like a horrible crime blotter:


Not surprisingly, many who work in colleges and universities are asking, what if it happens here? Do we know what to do? The answer, apparently, is that levels of readiness vary widely. Here’s a brief excerpt of an Associated Press examination of training and protocols for on-campus gun incidents at public universities in over 40 states, reported by Lisa Leff and Ryan J. Foley:

At some institutions, such as the Colorado School of Mines and Arkansas State University, training on how to respond to an armed intruder has become as much a part of fall orientation as lessons on alcohol abuse. Students hear presentations covering their options, such as running, hiding or fighting back.

Other schools have purely voluntary training. Or they put information on what to do in an emergency on websites, where it can easily be overlooked by students and staff members. Many public college and university systems leave it up to their individual campuses to draw up emergency plans and decide what level of training, if any, to give employees and students.

Overall, those employed in higher education settings have reason to be concerned about the safety of their work environments. True, the statistical probability of gun violence will likely continue to pale to that of other safety risks in higher education settings. But we should not be surprised when more shootings occur. The reasons for this are many and intertwined, including America’s gun culture, mental health concerns, and the stressors present on our college campuses.

Sheila Keegan’s “The Psychology of Fear in Organizations”

I’ve been spending some time with The Psychology of Fear in Organizations (2015) by Dr. Sheila M. Keegan, a British consultant and psychologist, and it’s a keeper. It doesn’t sugar coat the difficult realities of working conditions in so many organizations, yet it also looks ahead at what we can do to change them.

Dr. Keegan has done her homework for this book. Those who are attentive to high levels of fear and anxiety in many modern workplaces will find plenty of research and analysis that validates their concerns.

For those specifically interested in workplace bullying, there’s a subchapter that covers the basics, including references to work done by the Workplace Bullying Institute. The deeper value of this volume is how it places bullying and other negative behaviors in an organizational context.

Indeed, I consider the book title itself to be a triumph of messaging, expressly linking fear at work to organizations. After all, rare is the lone wolf supervisor or co-worker who makes everyone’s work life a misery, amidst an otherwise happy, functional workplace. Organizational cultures typically enable practices and behaviors that fuel fear, anxiety, and foreboding at work.

As far as responses and solutions go, Dr. Keegan’s prescriptions are more easily implemented in new organizations than in those with entrenched, negative cultures, but that reality can hardly be blamed on her. She helpfully identifies myriad ways in which leaders can transform their institutions. And rather than trying to sell us on an I’ve-got-the-magic-answer formula endemic to too many consultants, she offers choices based on an impressive range of research.

This is a valuable book that brings together a lot of information and insight, and it will be useful to researchers, educators, and evidence-based practitioners alike. I’ll be returning to it often.


From the table of contents of The Psychology of Fear in Organizations, I’ve listed the major chapter headings below. The book’s Kogan-Page webpage has more of the details:

PART ONE The nature of fear and how it shapes organizations

The paradox of fear

The cultural backdrop of fear

Perspectives on fear

Cultures of fear within organizations

Feeling fear at work

Over-control and manipulation in the workplace

Organizations in crisis

PART TWO How we can harness fear to improve productivity and organizational health through promoting human values

Being human

Creating psychologically healthy workplaces

Leadership and appreciative inquiry

Developing resilience

Building trust within organizations

The power of language

Building a culture of innovation

What about the future?


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