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For the Love of Our Working Conditions – and Ourselves: Stress Causes New Hazards

Earlier this spring, Joan Greenbaum, co-founder of the PSC Health & Safety Watchdogs network, was given the New York State United Teachers Unsung Hero Award at NYSUT’s annual Health and Safety Conference. The award honors a NYSUT member who has gone above and beyond in addressing health and safety problems for his or her local. Greenbaum is professor emerita of environmental psychology at the CUNY Graduate Center, and of computer information systems at LaGuardia Community College.

Joan Greenbaum, co-founder of the PSC Health & Safety Watchdogs network.
Joan Greenbaum.jpg

Below is the talk that Greenbaum gave at the conference, in which she analyzes stress in the workplace as a health and safety issue.

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We are facing increasing and often invisible hazards in our workplaces. Tonight I am going to suggest that some of these unseen hazards are potentially as dangerous as chemicals and toxins were on factory floors back before OSHA was founded. And I will strongly urge that we use the same grassroots union energy that got OSHA started back in 1970 to tackle the invisible problems now in our post-industrial workplaces, namely in our classrooms, offices, hospitals and university buildings.

Past Battles

It is interesting to remember that it took the collective spirit of thousands upon thousands of industrial workers in the late 1960s and 1970s to fight for the right to know about, and indeed limit, the unseen and then unknown hazards in their factories. Their experiences, combined with union pressures and the then-unsung hero Tony Mazzocchi, led to the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, during the very Republican presidency of Richard Nixon. To get such a bill passed, Mazzocchi and students, together with workers, had to begin to take seriously the illnesses that workers were talking about and find ways to document them and research their causes. (For a good account, see Les Leopold’s 2007 book, The Man Who Hated Work and Loved Labor: The Life and Times of Tony Mazzocchi.)

Together we have made great strides in identifying environmental problems outside our workplaces – though climate change and the more frequent storms we are experiencing are seriously affecting our working and learning conditions. Together, we have learned to take big steps toward identifying health and safety conditions inside our buildings, such as leaking pipes, mold conditions, crumbling ceilings and the like. In both areas – outside and inside our work worlds – we have done much and still have much to do. But tonight, I am going to ask you to think about conditions inside our bodies, and the issues of how we experience and feel about our working conditions.

We all know, but usually don’t stop to acknowledge, that it is stress that is the huge invisible hazard in our workplace now. Stress that is caused by working conditions that go beyond what they used to be. Stress caused by over-work, lack of recognition, lack of respect and many other issues that we will talk about today. And these invisible hazards have real physical effects on our bodies, causing us health problems that cause major concerns and costs for us, our families and society.

First, let’s talk about some of the conditions that increase stress in our daily working lives. Chief among the hazards facing us, but so rarely talked about, are the changes in work practices that come down from on high on what seems like a constant basis. State and local governments change tests and standards, boards change requirements, evaluation and metrics are brought down on us from all possible sources. It feels as if as soon as we have scurried to reach one target, another one comes popping up in its place. In the industrial period, factory managers employed the “carrot and the stick” to motivate workers. Now, there are no more carrots, no vegetables – just sticks. And we are playing Whac-A-Mole with these sticks as we try to fend off one performance measurement after another.

Education Workers

In colleges, for example, we are expected to graduate students faster, get them through remedial and basic courses with tests imposed on us by those who don’t understand colleges today, and water down our curriculum to get this all done. It’s metrics, metrics and more metrics. In K-12 education, not only do you experience the horrors of increased test-taking, but you are facing increased performance standards that try to link professional evaluation with that of the students. Evaluation, evaluation and more outcome assessments. And for all workers, we experience an increase in the number of hours worked to get this all done as work spills over to home and life. We face doing all this with fewer workers sharing the load and a greater number of administrators looking down at us. All in the name of efficiency – an “efficiency” that means cuts to the budgets on our end.

These are all changes that result in overwork. This is speedup in the traditional sense. And increased work – workloads that literally feel like they are on our backs – are intertwined with documented increases in bullying and workplace violence. We take our tired bodies home at night with a ticking clock of stress-related problems. Some of those health issues involve increases in headaches, gastrointestinal conditions, high blood pressure, and sleep disorders. Others add up to an increase in compromised immune systems and heart conditions. In all, our weakened bodies are more susceptible to colds and flus and illnesses circulating in our more densely packed, and, too often, poorly ventilated conditions.

Take Action

It is time that we took ourselves and our working conditions seriously. We take our contract and collective bargaining seriously, and, the basis – the very floor of our contract – is the need to address our working conditions. Stress conditions that ooze out of increased performance measurement, coupled with an increased lack of control over working conditions, are a health and safety problem. We have to take action. Now.

Our collective bargaining rights give us a say in our working lives. It is precisely this “say” over our working conditions, including having a say over superimposed, ever-rising performance metrics, that we need to get back.

A study by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work shows that the two highest-stress occupations are education and health care. OSHA has acknowledged workplace stress as a health and safety concern. Now it is time for us to take ourselves seriously. Health and safety activists, like us here at NYSUT, and like our Watchdogs at the PSC, attend workshops where we learn to acknowledge hazards, recognize hazards, survey our members, document the problems and then take collective action.

None of us now know the extent to how stress is experienced in our workplaces, nor do we have the answers for what can and should be done about it – both in our working conditions and in our bodies. We need to begin the process by first acknowledging the problems and talking about them. We can then, for example, modify some existing online surveys about workplace stress for our needs and try them out in some workplaces. The US National Institute for Safety and Health (NIOSH) has a useful survey, as do our colleagues in Canada.

Document It

With the help of AFT and NYSUT we can put our heads together and figure out a way to begin to document these serious issues. And as our forerunners did in the earlier days of the health and safety movement, we can bring in occupational and public health experts and our own academic specialists in labor and working conditions to document the problems more fully. We don’t want management’s remedies for how to meditate and decrease our own stress levels. We want to collectively change the working conditions that cause stress.

We are all unsung heroes in this battle against the rising tide of performance measured from on-high by those who know little about our actual professional working conditions. Let’s begin to take action now by taking our working conditions and our bodies seriously.