Tag Archives: employment

Suicide and the Loss of Employment and Identity

Photo via epSos.de via Flickr.

Sociologist Dawn Norris shows a link between suicide rates and a weak economy, particularly for men. Photo via epSos.de via Flickr.

Understanding how rates of suicide are related to social conditions is a foundational theme in sociology dating back to the work of Emile Durkheim. Investigating how people’s mental health is shaped by the broader economy, social networks, culture, and identity continues to be an area for social research.

A recent article in The Dallas Morning News reports on research that shows a link between a weak economy and higher rates of suicide, particularly amongst men and in the recent Great Recession. University of Wisconsin, LaCrosse Sociology Assistant Professor Dawn Norris explains that for men in particular, losing a job is not just about the money but about losing one’s identity and sense of masculinity.

“Our societal definition of masculinity is being employed, being the provider, being the breadwinner.”

Norris explains that masculinity is linked to work, and without work, even wealthy men describe themselves as “impotent, deficient, worthless.”

“Work at the moment isn’t as central to who women are in society,” says Norris. In one study, Norris found that women who lost their jobs during the economic crisis could shift from the role of breadwinner to another identity such as mother and better cope with unemployment.

Losing a job can deprive people of social support networks and other mechanisms for coping with stress, depression and mental health conditions. Men are especially at risk because they are less likely to seek support and medical care because of stigmas around mental health illness.

Norris says that potential solutions include better work-life balance, along with job creation, which can help de-emphasize work as the most central aspect of people’s identities and lives.

Read Erin Hoekstra’s article about flexible work policies shown to help men and women improve their work-life balance here.

Starbucks Brews Plan to Fund College Tuition

Photo by Francisco Gonzalez via Flickr.

Starbucks responds to employees’ lack of affordable education choices. Photo by Francisco Gonzalez via Flickr.

Last month, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz appeared on the Daily Show to discuss a new partnership with Arizona State University that will allow workers to earn an online degree while still keeping their day jobs. Schultz was happy to announce that the coffee corporation would be the “first U.S. company to provide free college tuition for all [its] employees.”

However, ASU clarified that Starbucks won’t actually provide any money to help its employees afford their education. Rather, workers will have the chance to enroll in ASU’s online programs at a greatly reduced price, but will still have to pay for the remaining costs out of their own pockets, with student loans, or via federal aid.

The “Starbucks Scholarship” won’t be awarded upfront, but the company does plan to reimburse students after they pay for, and complete, their first 21 credits. Applying for financial aid can be time consuming and complex, and sociologist Sara Goldrick-Rab argues that a “wholly online education is of questionable value for low-income students…[E]specially when such students are required to pay for those first 21 credits before they qualify for reimbursement.”

During this time, ASU online will likely make a profit off incoming students who are paying for their education with financial aid—continuing what sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom describes as a “long and shady history” of companies making money off public funds.

It’s hard to be fully cynical about the Starbucks Scholarship since it will likely open the (virtual) doors for many students to earn a college degree. Nonetheless, the plan hardly addresses the structural problem of an unaffordable education system. In his interview with Jon Stewart, Schultz likened the tuition benefits to employee-provided health care—a comparison journalist David Perry isn’t keen about:

The development of health care as an employee benefit rather than a universal right has been a disaster for America, leading to high costs and poor results. Yes, the employees are much better off with health care than without, much as some workers will benefit from the new tuition policy. But if making college affordable becomes a job perk, rather than a societal goal, we’re collectively worse off.

Religion and Your Resume: Even More Hiring Discrimination

But can He get you a job? Photo by David Woo via flickr CC.

But can He get you a job? Photo by David Woo via flickr CC.

It’s summer job hunt season. As a new batch of college grads looks for every edge on the market, sociologists have found a surprising barrier to getting hired: your religion. Vox and The Washington Post both picked up new research from Michael Wallace, Bradley R. E. Wright, and Allen Hyde, in which the authors distributed 3,200 resumes for job applications around two major southern U.S. cities (a follow up to earlier work in New England). The resumes were designed to look like those of recent college graduates, and they were essentially identical except for the applicants’ membership in a particular campus religious group. The authors found that putting any kind of religious affiliation on a resume reduced the chances that an applicant would receive a call back. From Vox:

Wallace said he thinks the US has a “schizophrenic attitude” when it comes to religion. “On the one hand, we have a high tolerance of religious freedom and diversity, people are free to practice whatever religion they want,” he told me in an interview. “On the other hand, there are certain boundaries on where it can be practiced.”

While including a religious affiliation did reduce call backs across the board, not every religious group faced the same barriers. Who faced the most hiring discrimination? According to the authors’ article:

In general, Muslims, pagans, and atheists suffered the highest levels of discriminatory treatment from employers, a fictitious religious group and Catholics experienced moderate levels, evangelical Christians encountered little, and Jews received no discernible discrimination.

These findings are consistent with other research and polling efforts to capture Islamophobia and anti-atheist attitudes in the United States, and they show that while employers may not enjoy religion in the workplace, we should also be concerned about which religious groups they will tolerate.

Unique Families: Not So Unique

Image excerpt from the Washington Post, created by Christina Rivero. Click for full image.

Image excerpt from the Washington Post, created by Christina Rivero. Click for full image.

When thinking about the typical U.S. family, you might imagine a classic sitcom like The Brady Bunch: stay-at-home mom Carol, architect husband Mike, and six lovely children. At the time the show aired, a “blended” family of remarried adults was a bit of a novelty, sure, but it still stuck to the married mother and father, father is the breadwinner trope. And that’s still how many often picture U.S. families.

The Washington Post reports the findings of Ohio State University’s Department of Sociology on the living arrangements of U.S. children from birth to 17 years old. The researchers found that the children’s living arrangements varied distinctly by race. Asian children were most likely to live with a married mother and father, with only the father working, but that set-up only counted for 24% of living arrangements among Asian children. It turns out that dual-income households are the strong majority among both white and Asian children, and that both are more likely to live in dual-income households than either black or Hispanic children. Higher percentages of black and Hispanic children are living with their grandparents. Another notable statistic among black children is their greater likelihood of living with a single, never-married mother (this is true for nearly a quarter of all black kids).

No word yet on all white, three-boy, three-girl families with maids.

The More Things Change

Photo by Fotologic/Jon Nicholls via flickr.com.

Photo by Fotologic/Jon Nicholls via flickr.com.

…The more they stay the same. That is one conclusion University of Maryland sociologist John Robinson draws from the results of the 2012 American Time Use Survey. Despite the global economic downturn in 2008 and subsequent elevated levels of unemployment in the U.S., the breakdown of how Americans spend their time has changed little over the past five years.

In 2007, Americans reported working an average of 7.6 hours per day. Five years later, in 2012, employed people worked for 7.7 hours each day, while dedicating two hours to chores and five to six hours to leisure (approximately half of that leisure time is spent watching television).

Robinson explained the similar time use as social inertia:

We went through the biggest recession in history, we went through the most economic turmoil. And yet we see very little decline in the time that people spend working.

Other notable statistics include the growing parity in how much time men and women spend more equal amounts of time working, doing housework, and taking part in the leisure activities than they did 50 years ago. Additionally, U.S. citizens are found to be increasingly sedentary. Between leisure time spent in front of the television and sedentary work environments, Americans use little of their time in physical activity.

Workplace Inflexibility

Working from home photo by Victor1558 via flickr.com.

Working from home photo by Victor1558 via flickr.com.

Best Buy has ended its Result Only Work Environment (ROWE) program, which famously allowed employees to telecommute, working in the office on a set schedule, or have the flexibility to do both. Evaluations were based solely on job performance, with no consideration of attendance. Best Buy’s policy change follows a similar change at Yahoo, where CEO Marissa Meyer no longer allows staff to work from home.

Executives at both companies cite a need to improve competitiveness, and they argue that requiring employees to come to the office will enhance collaboration and innovation. Erin Kelly, a sociologist at the University of Minnesota, is skeptical. She argues that ROWE is not to blame for the companies’ struggles:

“I’m concerned that these flexibility initiatives and telework initiatives are getting blamed for what may be other problems those organizations are facing in the broader market,” Kelly told the Star Tribune.

Jennifer Glass, a sociologist at the University of Texas, similarly disputes research claims that required attendance improves innovation among employees.

In an op-ed for the New York Times, Glass writes:

[M]uch of this “research” simply shows that workers who collaborate with others in loose networks generate better ideas. It doesn’t suggest that the best way to create new products and services is by isolating your employees in the silo of a single location.

Best Buy and Yahoo are calling for all hands on deck, but do all hands need to be on deck at the same time?

Contradictions on Chinese Women in Charge

The CEO and Managing Director of Morgan Stanley Asia, Wei Sun Christianson frequently tops lists of China's most powerful women.

The CEO and Managing Director of Morgan Stanley Asia, Wei Sun Christianson frequently tops lists of China’s most powerful women (business- and otherwise).

The social status of women in China is receiving a lot of attention again, and this time there might be good news. A study out of accounting firm Grant Thorton’s Beijing Branch claims that the proportion of women in senior management positions has jumped from 25% to a staggering 51%. Of the 200 businesses surveyed, 94% of them had women in these upper level positions. This seems like a great finding for women in China, but Laurie Burkitt of the Wall Street Journal advises that the news should be taken with a grain of salt.

Burkitt cites a new study by National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and the New York-based Asia Society. Their findings claim that five Chinese men are in a senior position in the workplace for each one woman that reaches a comparable position. Burkitt also points out that just 10 of the 205 members of the Communist Party’s Central Committee are women. Even Chinese views on whether women should be in the workplace at all have been sliding. In a 2010 survey:

61.6% of men and 54.6% of women said that “men belong in public life and women belong at home,” an increase of 7.7 and 4.4 percentage points respectively from 2000.

It certainly looks like attitudes on women in the workplace are changing in China. The direction of that change remains an open question.

Service with a Smile—Or Else.

At TGI Friday's, "flair"=fun. Photo by Derek Morrison via flickr.com.

At TGI Friday’s, “flair”=fun. Photo by Derek Morrison via flickr.com.

It’s a common problem in post-recession America: you hate your job, but you also can’t just up and get a new one. We usually have social options for dealing with this, ranging from commiserating with co-workers in the breakroom to organizing for better working conditions. But if you work in the service industry, where the customer isn’t too keen on knowing you hate your job, bosses can try to bust up the social bandwagon.

A piece for MSNBC’s The Ed Show makes great use of Arlie Hochschild’s concept of “emotional labor.” The piece gives a handful of examples in which employees, from Starbucks baristas to Wal-Mart greeters, are increasingly burdened with managers’ attempts to regulate how much they demonstrate enjoying their work. The author even quotes one account of employees who could be fired for not touching each other frequently enough!

This raises some fascinating questions for work in the 21st century. We know all social interactions are governed by rules and institutions, but when work is a scarce necessity, do we have the luxury of “doing what we love,” or must we “fake it ‘til we make it”… to a better job?

The Invisible Employee

At 80 years old, Hubert Elliot is North Carolina's oldest Department of Transportation Worker. Photo by NCDOT Communications via flickr.com.

At 80 years old, Hubert Elliot is North Carolina’s oldest Department of Transportation Worker. Photo by NCDOT Communications via flickr.com.

As the baby boomers age, so does the American workforce. It is projected that by the end of this decade, a quarter of the nation’s workforce will be fifty-five or older. Sociologist Amy Blackstone, of the University of Maine, took interest and undertook a study of this group’s workplace experiences. In a piece for the Bangor Daily News, Blackstone explains the distressing results:

While older workers generally report positive experiences on the job, there are notable patterns in the harmful experiences they report. A significant number of older workers report feeling undervalued and bullied at work. Further, many older workers do not speak up about their negative experiences, nor do those who witness bullying or harassment of older workers intervene on their behalf.

In Blackstone’s survey results, older workers said they felt devalued by their younger coworkers, as though they were useless. They felt ignored and even bullied. One woman wrote:

“After about age 60-65, I began to notice that people would sometimes ignore me as though I had become invisible.”

Blackstone provides a few suggestions for improving employment for older workers. These include educating and reminding employers and employees of the importance of a positive workplace atmosphere, the knowledge and experience older workers may hold, and the need for support and bystander intervention.

Shortage of Sick Days: Worse than Shortage of Flu Vaccine?

Not a good sign around the water cooler. Photo by John Liu via flickr.

In TIME’s online Ideas section, Columbia’s Shamus Khan makes a reasonable proposition: let sick people stay home and get well. “While we typically look to doctors and medicines in a health crisis,” such as the current flu outbreak, “we should recognize that guaranteeing paid sick days to workers could do as much, if not more, to help moderate the impact…”

Khan goes on to cite the 40% of American workers who have no paid sick days and point out that “this is not just inhumane but a matter of public health.”

The jobs with the most contact with the public are the least likely to provide sick days… when you go to purchase a cup of coffee or eat at a restaurant, know that almost all (76%) of the people serving you are likely to show up to work sick, because not doing so means not getting paid and could mean getting fired. Scholars have a name for this—presenteeism: being at work when you otherwise should not for fear of losing your job or beng viewed by your boss as lazy or unreliable.

While New York’s leadership has declined to support paid sick leave policies, San Francisco has implemented one and saw higher rates of employment. “Paid sick leave works,” Khan concludes. Employees stay home and get well, spread less disease, and are less likely to visit emergency rooms (saving themselves and the wider healthcare system millions).