INTRODUCING “WORKING ON EMPTY”
WOE is a transmedia project on declining American worker health, poor work-life culture, and the laws, policies, and workplace practices that perpetuate these conditions.
“It’s ironic that those who till the soil, cultivate and harvest the fruits, vegetables, and other foods that fill your tables with abundance have nothing left for themselves.” — Cesar Chavez
Background: How the American workplace is toxic to your health
When you, the American worker, think of a toxic or unhealthy workplace, you might think of dangerous working conditions such as chemicals which led to the creation of OSHA in 1970. Now we know that the American workplace has many work stressors that you may experience such as long hours, night shift work, harassment, lack of paid sick time, unpaid time, lack of respect, bullying, inflexible schedules leading to difficulties balancing work and family, effort-reward imbalance, job strain, insecure contracts, shortened or skipped breaks, and fear of layoff which all contribute significantly to the worsening health of American workers.
Among the many consequences of all these work stressors are excessive fatigue, poor sleep, mental health problems such as work-related burnout, depression and anxiety, as well as chronic illnesses such as diabetes, hypertension, and coronary artery disease. In fact, different work stressors including job insecurity and layoffs collectively shorten the lives of Americans, on average, by as much as three years! (Health Affairs, October 2015 vol. 10). Further, in 2015, “For the first time in more than two decades, life expectancy for Americans declined! — a troubling development linked to a range of worsening health problems in the United States.” (Washington Post, Dec. 8, 2016)
How does this relate to work?
Work stress: the silent epidemic making America sick
These stressors have negative health outcomes and many of them are getting worse — which means their noxious health outcomes are also on the rise. Further making the situation worse for many workers is the fact that due to little paid time off, excessive workload and understaffing, many workers go to work while feeling sick. For example, “adults in low-paying jobs are more likely to say they go to work when sick. Almost two-thirds of working adults (65%) say they still go to work always or most of the time when they have the flu, compared to 55% of those in average-paying jobs and 48% of those in high-paying jobs.” (NPR Harvard RWJ Foundation 2016 Poll)
From the lowest to the highest-paying jobs, exposure to stressful work environments over a life, will make many workers ill. But the suffering is not only chronic, it’s deadly. More than 120,000 Deaths per year are associated with work stressors arising from how US companies manage their workers. (Goh et al, Management Science, Feb. 2016)
Who’s to blame?
Chronic illnesses such as depression or heart diseases are thought of as individual problems or personal weaknesses rather than the predictable outcomes of the American work environment and culture. The medical profession frequently contributes to this misunderstanding by ignoring work stressors as contributors to these illnesses, as it sees most conditions resulting from individual factors and unhealthy behaviors. The systematic disempowerment of American workers and their labor power has meant that instead of pointing the finger at the American workplace as a cause of rising chronic health problems, attention has shifted to holding workers responsible. Workers often blame themselves for chronic illness and unhealthy lifestyles that oftentimes result from coping with toxic work stressors.
“You destroy the initiative of the working people if they don’t feel they have a fighting chance to be a part of the American Dream.” — Jim Sinegal, founder of Costco
Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Healthy Work: Our Message for America.
We want to make you, the American worker, aware of this major threat to your health and quality of life. You need to know that stressful jobs are contributing to declining health in America; but it doesn’t have to be this way. Individually and collectively, people can and are bringing about positive change — for working people, and for the organizations for which they work. But we need to do more.
We are making a website, a full-length documentary film and a companion book which will collectively expose our toxic working conditions as the silent threat to the health and quality of life of working Americans. We will show how working people are negatively impacted by today’s conditions of work in the United States, in part, by using transmedia storytelling of real working people via our website, social media, books, online videos and a documentary film. Most importantly, through our storytelling platforms, we will highlight solutions from labor organizations, employee-owned companies, and government that can and will, with more support, lead to healthier workplaces. We will also call for new solutions that could be enacted to improve work in America.
WOE: the Stories and the Studies
Through our Working on Empty feature documentary, we will travel to workplaces across the country to profile a range of individuals and reveal the increasing stress that many face on the job. Through profiles of a broad range of workers — from bus drivers to video game designers, we will see firsthand what brings excessive work-related stress into the lives of these workers and how it has impacted their psychological and physical health.
Commentary from experts in the field such as Robert Karasek of the USA, Michael Marmot of England, Tores Theorell from Sweden, and Johannes Siegrist from Germany will reveal, document and help explain the negative impact that stress has on workers’ health. Additionally, we will hear from leading labor union activists, journalists and policy makers who have studied and written about workplace stress and advocate for change, such as New York Times journalist Steven Greenhouse, author of The Big Squeeze, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, and Professor Zeynep Ton of the MIT Sloan School of Management.
Cutting through the Noise
We know it’s not enough to invoke the brightest minds and the most potent data on the demands of unhealthy workplace practices. We intend to give you trusted, reliable sources of information and help you sift through the fine print and jargon so you can make informed decisions about taking collective action at work, with your community and at the ballot box. Further, with a frequent and simple social action agenda, we aim not to be your teachers so much as compadres guiding you to the resources and organizations that can help in the fight for a healthy workplace.”
When all’s said and done, we want our website, articles, digital content, documentary and companion book to educate American workers about how work affects life and health and empower and inspire them to make changes. Yes, it is a big job to make these resources a reality for the American public. But with strong partnerships with labor organizations and other worker groups, scientific data, conviction, hard work and you, no challenge is too great!
“When the environment at work is one of encouragement, and one that meets the basic human needs to live, to learn, to feel valued and significant, we do more than just survive — we thrive.” — Simon Sinek, Leaders Eat Last
To positively and successfully change how we work in America, and prevent suffering from preventable work-related illness in the U.S., we need your help.
To support the WOE movement:
- Share this Medium post with a friend or a colleague.
- Connect with us on Facebook & Twitter.
- Visit our website: www.workingonempty.org. (coming soon)
- E-mail us directly: WorkingonEmptyDoc@gmail.com
With your help, we will have created more than hope — we’ll have cemented lasting, positive change in the name of healthy working conditions.
Meet the Team
Engage on all our WOE channels or with questions and comments to our team of researchers, activists, and veteran filmmakers.
Peter Schnall MD, MPH, the Executive Producer for WOE and Director of the Center for Social Epidemiology, is a Clinical Professor of Medicine at the University of California at Irvine, Center for Occupational and Environmental Medicine where he directs the Center’s program in Work organization and Cardiovascular Disease. Peter has studied the impact of working condition on the development of hypertension among workers for over 30 years; and his major professional goal is to increase awareness among students, colleagues and the public as to the important role that work stress plays in the etiology of chronic mental and physical illnesses. (LinkedIn, Twitter)
Donald Goldmacher, MD, WOE Producer, is a longtime filmmaker, labor advocate, activist, and community psychiatrist with decades of experience observing, documenting and participating in social change. His most recent documentary film, HEIST: Who Stole the American Dream, has received a great deal of critical reviewer support, and serves as one of many reasons Donald is a key advisor to WOE Executive Producer Peter Schnall. (LinkedIn, Twitter)
Marnie Dobson Zimmerman, PhD, WOE Associate Producer of Research and Associate Director of the Center for Social Epidemiology, is a medical sociologist and a work stress researcher for more than 15 years, studying the effects of work organization on worker stress and health. She has worked to give voice to many worker populations, interviewing and conducting focus groups with firefighters, bus drivers, hotel room cleaners, communication workers, publishing academic research articles and co-editing the book Unhealthy Work: Causes, Consequences, Cures. (Baywood, 2009) (LinkedIn, Twitter)
Ellen Rosskam, PhD, MPH, WOE Contributing Researcher and Blog Writer and Research Associate with the Center for Social Epidemiology, is a global public health and social protection specialist, as well as the author of numerous books and scientific publications. She is the author of Excess Baggage: Leveling the Load and Changing the Workplace (Baywood, 2007), and co-editor of Unhealthy Work: Causes, Consequences, Cures (Baywood, 2009). (LinkedIn, Twitter)
Paul Landsbergis, PhD, MPH, EdD, WOE Contributing Researcher and Blog Writer, has been a Research Associate with the Center for Social Epidemiology since its foundation in 1987. He is an Associate Professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences of the State University of New York (SUNY)-Downstate School of Public Health and is Deputy Editor of the American Journal of Industrial Medicine. (LinkedIn, Twitter, SUNY Downstate Faculty)
Cass Ben-Levi, MA, WOE Grant Writer and Associate Producer, has been the Director of Continuing Education and Outreach for the Southern California NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) Education and Research Center located at UCLA for 13 years, providing courses on workplace safety and health to occupational health and safety professionals and workers. In these capacities and others, she works to improve the lives of working people and the underserved, as she has tried to do throughout her career. (LinkedIn, Twitter, UCLA SCERC Facebook and UCLA SCERC Twitter)
Maria Doctor, BA, serves as WOE’s managing Associate Producer, including the content, website, crowdfunding campaign and documentary feature film in progress. From a working class family in Indiana, Maria earned her B.A. in Cinema-TV Production from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts in 2008 and has since developed both her creative and business acumen to illuminate true stories and inspire all people. (LinkedIn, Twitter)