Workplace bullying – interview with Lawrence Lorber (2002)

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In April 2002, I interviewed Lawrence Lorber of US law firm Proskauer Rose on workplace bullying.  It was at the height of the Enron collapse and corporate behaviour towards staff was gaining a lot of attention.  Over the last fortnight I have been researching some of the management books and concepts concerning leadership, emotional intelligence, modern expectations of managers – all of which could be thrown into “workplace culture.”

As I was reading back issue of the SafetyATWORK magazine, I used to published, there seemed to be valuable comments from Lawrence that remain relevant.  Below is an extract of the interview.  The full interview is available HERE

SAW: In Australia, the approach to workplace bullying seems to be coming from a systemic management system rather than one relying on psychological assessment.

LL: The highly competitive and highly contentious nature of what is coming out about Enron, the “up or out” atmosphere is one aspect of a system that can lead to managers or co-workers to engage in bullying. The characteristics of being tough or abrasive may be necessary to get ahead in the organisation. The environment can encourage or create bullying tendencies. However, not everybody turns into Attila the Hun in a highly competitive environment. Others survive without taking on the attributes of the bully.

Psychological testing is frequently applied in the States with regard to executive promotions. Dealing with bullying does require a combination of the systemic and individual approach. I work for some companies who are publicly perceived as fairly aggressive, there are tough people there who I might not want to work for but they are effective. They might be perceived as bullies. But looking at bullying as an environmental issue does mask the problem.

SAW: Managers sometimes need to motivate a staff member, perhaps, by rebuking them. The receiver of the rebuke may perceive that as bullying. How can we balance these perceptions?

LL: There were management books in the States in the 1980s, which encouraged management by intimidation. At one point that was the vogue. After the movie PATTON came out, everyone wanted to be General Patton.

If you look at a harsh manager who is demanding in an abrasive manner, that could be bullying.

How do you define bullying? Do you define it by your own reaction? A very US example is sex harassment. Is harassment in the eyes of the beholder? Does it have to be a reasonable woman who believes she is being harassed? In the circumstance where the bully is a male and the recipient is a female, frequently that becomes harassment.

SAW: That is a problem for the managers where for the last 30 years, harassment, bullying and discrimination has been handled outside the OHS field, in Human Resources. Now there are national and international moves to combat bullying because of the stress at work issues. I haven’t seen that approach in the United States.

LL: Here it’s not health and safety. Our definition of harassment is an “intimidating atmosphere”. That can also be a definition of bullying.

I don’t think it will be considered as a health and safety issue because workplace stress is not a field that is devoid of regulation. It is simply being regulated in a different context-employment discrimination and to a lesser extent under the disability laws. 

 

SafetyATWORK magazine April 2002 cover image
SafetyATWORK magazine April 2002 cover image

A sort-of resolution for Paula Wriedt

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Paula Wriedt, a Tasmanian Member of Parliament who attempted suicide in August 2008, resigned on 18 January 2009.  According to her media statement

“I have made a significant recovery since my hospitalisation in August, but I believe it is in my best interests, and the interests of my family, to concentrate on improving my health away from the daily pressures of being a member of Parliament.

“This illness has had a significant impact on my life.

“The many demands I faced last year, on both a professional and personal level, meant I neglected to take stock of my health until it was too late.

“During this time, I made a mistake by forming an inappropriate relationship with a member of my staff. This had significant implications for the families involved, and I am not proud of my actions.

“I deeply regret the hurt that has been caused by this.”

She goes on to speak positively of undertaking meaningful work outside of politics.  It is hoped that Paula does not feel obliged to follow other politicians into promoting depression support services.  For most Australians Paula Wriedt will be associated with her affair and suicide attempt.  Tasmanians should remember her as a good parliamentarian, as mentioned by the current Premier David Bartlett (who is only slightly older than Paula at 41), and for her achievements in the education portfolio.  

Kevin Jones

Other post concerning Paula’s situation are available by searching for “Wriedt” in the field below.

Absence management survey results

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On January 8 2009, the Mercer’s 2008 Pan-European Health & Benefit Report was released.  It had some useful information about the causes of workplace absenteeism in Europe.  The information was compiled in 2008 so is as current as can be but also occurred in a  period of severe economic unrest.

As with all studies, the applicability to other nations and regions is up for debate but the data is a great starting point for discussion on managing these issues in workplaces.

According to the available report information

“Musculoskeletal conditions were identified by 78 percent of respondents as the cause of most long-term absences.  Thirty-one percent specifically referenced lower back pain and 47 percent other musculoskeletal conditions.  Stress and mental health issues (52 percent) and cancer conditions (20 percent) were also featured amongst the highest disability causes.”

By looking at policies and practices in the multi-jurisdictional structure of Europe, the demographic variations and management initiatives may be applicable elsewhere.

As Steve Clements of Mercer says

“Absence management remains haphazard at best.  Targeted absence management policies and procedures are by no means universally applied, and even the ability to quickly and accurately measure absence remains fairly poor.  Many employers offer a broad range of health-related benefits, but their presence is driven by recruitment and retention, and it appears there is only sporadic evidence of integration of these benefits within a broader employee health and wellness or absence management agenda.  At a time when cost is under the microscope, employee absence remains under-managed and presents a great opportunity for savings and improved productivity.”

Kevin Jones

Workplace health initiatives in unstable economic times

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All through the Presidency of George W Bush, safety professionals have been critical of the lack of action on workplace safety.  As with many issues related to a new Democrat President in Barack Obama, organisations are beginning to publish their wishlists.  The latest is the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM).

On 9 January 2009, ACOEM released a media statement which began

“American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM) calls on the Health and Human Services Secretary-designee Tom Daschle to address the critical link between the health, safety, and productivity of America’s workers and the long-term stability of its health care system and economy as he begins work on the Obama administration’s health care agenda.”

The requested changes could be interpreted as a criticism of what the situation has been under George W Bush.  ACOEM says the next government

“must put a greater emphasis on ensuring the health of the workforce in order to meet the twin challenges of an aging population and the rise of chronic disease…”

ACOEM President Robert R. Orford, MD goes into specifics

“…calling on Daschle to focus on preventive health measures aimed at workers that could range from screening and early detection programs to health education, nutritional support, and immunizations.”

The ACOEM reform program is based on the following

  • “investing in preventive health programs for workers;
  • creating new linkages between the workplace, homes and communities to reinforce good health;
  • providing financial incentives to promote preventive health behaviors among workers; and
  • taking steps to ensure that more health professionals are trained in preventive health strategies that can be applied in the workplace.”

Accepting that one Australian State, Victoria, is considerably smaller than the US (Victoria  has a population of around 5,200,000, the US had 301,621,157 in 2007), it is interesting to remember what the Victorian Government proposed (or promised) just on 12 months ago concerning its WorkHealth initiative.

“Over time the program is expected to free up $60 million per year in health costs, as well as:

  • Cut the proportion of workers at risk of developing chronic disease by 10 per cent;
  • Cut workplace injuries and disease by 5 per cent, putting downward pressure on premiums;
  •  Cut absenteeism by 10 per cent; and
  •  Boost productivity by $44 million a year.”

[It would be of little real benefit to simply multiple the Victorian commitments by the differential with the US population to compare monetary commitments, as there are too many variable but if the WorkHealth productivity was imposed on the US, there could be a $2.6 billion, not a lot considering the size of President Bush’s bailouts and Barack Obama’s mooted bailout package.  However, in the current economic climate, in order to gain serious attention, any proposal should have costs estimated up front and, ideally, show how the initiative will have minimal impact on government tax revenues – an approach that would require.]

In each circumstance there is the logic that unhealthy people are less productive than healthy people.  This sounds right but it depends very much on the type of work tasks being undertaken.  It is an accepted fact [red flag for contrary comments. ED] that modern workloads are considerably more supported by technology than in previous labour-intensive decades.  Perhaps there are better productivity gains through (further) increased automation than trying to reverse entrenched cultural activity.

In late 2008 an OHS expert said to a group of Australian safety professionals in late-2008 that WorkHealth

“is not well-supported by the stakeholders.  The trade unions feel it is a diversion away from regulated compliance and that it is going to refocus the agenda on the health of the worker and the fitness of the worker as the primary agenda, which is not what the [OHS] Act is setup to focus on. The employers are basically unkeen to get involved on issues they think are outside their control.”

The expert supported the position of some in the trade union movement that WorkHealth was always a political enthusiasm, some may say folly.

This is going to be of great importance in Australia with the possibility of new OHS legislation to apply nationally but also muddies the strategic planning of any new government that needs to show that it is an active and effective agent of change, as Obama is starting to do.  In the US, the public health system is not a paragon and the workplace safety regulatory system is variable, to be polite.  Fixing the public health system would seem to have the greater social benefit in the long term, and a general productivity benefit.

(It has to be admitted that the packaging of health care in employment contracts in the US is attractive employment benefit and one that seems to be vital to those who have it.  Australia does not have that workplace entitlement but those employers struggling to become employers-of-choice should serious consider it, particularly as a work/family benefit.)

Each country is trying to reduce the social security cost burden on government and it would seem that public health initiatives would have the broader application as it covers the whole population and not just employees, or just those employees who are unfit.

Work health proposals in both jurisdictions need to re-examine their focuses and to pitch to their strengths.  Business has enough to worry about trying to claw its way out of recession (even if the US government is throwing buckets of money to reduce the incline from the pit).  OHS professionals have enough work trying to cope with the traditional hazards and recent, more-challenging, psychosocial hazards.  Workplace health advocates are muddying the funding pool, confusing government strategic policy aims, and blending competing or complementary approaches to individual health and safety in the public’s mind.  

 Kevin Jones

Update 16 January 2009

More information on this issue is available HERE

Mental support research

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In SafetyAtWorkBlog in 2008 there have been several posts concerning suicide.  There is a growing research base on the matter and The Lancet adds to this through an article published in December 2008.

Researchers have found that the type of mental health services provided to the community can affect the rate of suicide.  This is important research even though SafetyAtWorkBlog regularly questions the applicability of research undertaken in Scandinavian countries to the rest of the world.  Bearing the cultural differences in mind, the research will stir debate and, hopefully, localised research along the same lines.

Below is the text of the press release about the research:

WELL-DEVELOPED COMMUNITY MENTAL-HEALTH SERVICES ARE ASSOCIATED WITH LOWER SUICIDE RATES

Well-developed community mental-health services are associated with lower suicide rates than are services oriented towards inpatient treatment provision in hospitals. Thus population mental health can be improved by the use of multi-faceted, community-based, specialised mental-health services. These are the conclusions of authors of an Article published Online first and in an upcoming edition of The Lancet, written by Dr Sami Pirkola, Department of Psychiatry, Helsinki University, Finland, and colleagues.

Worldwide, the organisation of mental-health services varies considerably, only partly because of available resources. In most developed countries, mental-health services have been transformed from hospital-centred to integrated community-based services. However, there is no decisive evidence either way to support or challenge this change.

The authors did a nationwide comprehensive survey of Finnish adult mental-health service units between September 2004 and March 2005. From health-care or social-care officers of 428 regions, information was obtained about adult mental-health services, and for each of the regions the authors measured age-adjusted and sex-adjusted suicide risk, pooled between 2000 and 2004 – and then adjusted for socioeconomic factors.

They found that, in Finland, the widest variety of outpatient services and the highest outpatient to inpatient service ratio were associated with a significantly reduced risk of death by suicide compared to the national average. Emergency services operating 24 hours were associated with a risk reduction of 16%. After adjustment for socioeconomic factors, the prominence of outpatient mental-health services was still associated with a generally lower suicide rate.

The authors conclude: “We have shown that different types of mental-health services are associated with variation in population mental health, even when adjusting for local socioeconomic and demographic factors. We propose that the provision of multifaceted community-based services is important to develop modern, effective mental-health services.”

In an accompanying Comment, Dr Keith Hawton and Dr Kate Saunders, University of Oxford Department of Psychiatry, UK, say: “The message to take from these findings must be that while well thought out and carefully planned new developments that increase access to secondary care services for mental-health patients are to be encouraged, measured progress towards flexible community care, not rapid ongoing change, should be the order of the day.”