Napo raises awareness of the drivers of workplace stress.
The psychosocial and environmental interplay of stress at work are foregone conclusions among regulators, thought leaders, and many employers across the globe, especially in Europe. In the United States, with the exception of NIOSH’s Total Worker Health strategies, the drivers of stress at work remain largely ignored. In the US, we take the reactive viewpoint that an individual’s response to stress is more important than the causes of stress. In doing so, employers grant themselves license to put the onus for solutions on employees, too. Whereas the rest of the industrialized world endeavors to address stress by balancing employees’ job control and demands, offering scheduling flexibility, limiting overtime, addressing bullying, and so forth — even the most caring American employers take pride in addressing stress merely by offering stress management programs or uber-trendy resilience training. “Yes, we’ll stress you out,” we seem to be saying, “but we compensate by training you how to live with it.”
Reflecting their dedication to furthering employers’ understanding of workplace wellbeing and encouraging action, a small group of European organizations commissioned French company Via Storia to develop a series of videos promoting employee health and safety. The result is a lighthearted collection of culturally non-specific, animated vignettes featuring an endearing main character, Napo. Consistent with the European viewpoint, these videos include — in addition to episodes about slips and falls, workplace transport safety, skin protection, noise control, and the rest — a full series about the psychosocial and environmental causes of stress at work.
The Napo videos aren’t intended to be scientific documentaries or instructional tools. They’e an intentionally simple means to raise awareness about worker health and safety and, in this case, the ingredients — like role ambiguity, untenable work schedules, and job strain — of workplace stress. I’ll share some of these Napo videos, as well as other invaluable resources readily available to European employers — here on the Health Shifting blog.
To complement my previous post, which addressed NIOSH research suggesting a connection between hostile work environments and obesity, I’m pleased to share the following Napo video — a segment from “When Stress Strikes.” In this 56-second video — probably the simplest of these episodes — Napo’s co-worker, Napette, is subject to repeated incidents of disrespect from a workplace bully. The Boss intervenes.
The exterior of the Asch building remained intact after the fire (above). The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory occupied the top three floors. (Photo courtesy of the Kheel Center, Cornell University.)
Years ago, in lower Manhattan, flames burst through the windows of a skyscraper. Cornered by a fast-moving fire, employees clung to the window frames until the heat, the flames, and the terror became too much to bear. They leapt from the windows to their certain death, their burning hair and clothes leaving a smoky trail, and crashed smoldering to the ground with an unearthly thud.
This is not an account of a terrorist attack. This is the scene of what, for 90 years prior to 2001, had stood as the worst workplace disaster in New York City history. Like 9/11, this tragedy changed the world — especially the world of work.
This is the story of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, in which 146 employees — mostly young immigrant women — perished on March 25, 1911.
Shirtwaists were a kind of trendy women’s blouse, and the Triangle factory, which occupied the top three floors of the 10-story Asch building, could barely make them fast enough to keep up with demand. Each floor of the crowded Triangle factory had two exits. But the Greene Street exit, the one that workers were herded through at the end of each day so that bosses could search the workers’ handbags for stolen goods, was blocked by flames after the blaze exploded near the end of the workday that Saturday.
The only remaining exit, the Washington Place exit, was locked — a huddle of desperate workers burned to death trying to open it. Fire escapes led nowhere and eventually collapsed in a mangled mass of heat-compromised iron. Workers jumped down the elevator shaft into a heap of corpses on top of the elevator, which had shuttled many panicked workers to safety until the heroic elevator operator, Joseph Zito, knew it could run no more.
The fire department responded quickly, but their ladders weren’t tall enough to reach any of the victims. The factory owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, managed to escape the inferno. (Later, Blanck and Harris were found not-guilty of wrongdoing in a contrived court case, and had to escape the courthouse undercover as the families of the victims cried for justice. They went on to have additional scuffles with the law over suspicious fires and illegally locked factory doors).
Several days after the fire, a funeral procession of 120,000 workers marched in the pouring rain, as 300,000 grief stricken New Yorkers looked on in a demonstration of unity. Marchers pledged never to forget the fate of the young women and men of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory.
We need not sully the memory of this tragedy by comparing the plight of the Triangle workers to the work conditions that most Americans enjoy today. But nor should we dishonor the memory by neglecting to apply the lessons we can draw from it.
Bestowed with a broad charge and powers to investigate the Triangle fire and the work conditions of factory employees throughout the state, the New York Factory Investigating Commission in 1912 argued that the “human factor is practically neglected in our industrial system,” and reported that employers had “shown a terrible waste of human resources, of human health and life.”
Foreshadowing current events, in which government intercedes where employers fail to regulate themselves, the Commission spelled out the true significance of worker health:
Health is the principal asset of the working man and the working woman… Aside from the humanitarian aspect of the situation, economic considerations demand from the State the careful supervision and protection of its workers. Failure to perform this obligation will produce serious results in the workers of the future. It will affect the working capacity of the future generation.
The Commission recognized that worker health had implications for society as a whole, in the present and in years to come.
Indifference to these matters reflects grossly upon the present day civilization, and it is regrettable that our State and national legislation on the subject of industrial hygiene compares so unfavorably with that of other countries.
Other industrialized nations continue, more than 100 years later, to surpass the US in the protection of total worker health. They emphasize psychosocial health at the workplace, regulate limits on overtime, require paid sick time, and encourage workers to take needed leave to care for newborns and for ailing family members.
The work of the Commission set the tone for widespread changes in labor practices, without which the comfort many of us enjoy in today’s workplace likely would not exist. (Many of us enjoy comfort, but not all.)
And, yet, today, when employee health is discussed in journals, in lay media, and at conferences, we persistently neglect the “human factor,” which the Commission identified as the core of worker wellbeing.
The question, “Does employee wellness work?” is posed consistently with an assumption that “wellness working” is measured in employer cost savings or increased output. This commodification of human life stands in marked contrast to the social consciousness, the compassion, the empathy, and the vision that swept the nation after the Triangle fire.
Rosaria Maltese was 14 years old. Bettina Maiale and her sister, Frances, were 18 and 21, respectively. Ida Brodsky was 15. Fannie Rosen, an immigrant from Kiev who had worked at the Triangle factory for only two days and was one of the last six victims identified — a century later — was 21 years old. These girls were among the 146 employees who perished in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire on March 25, 1911.
Fannie Rosen, age 21
With a unified voice, Americans pledged that we would never forget these girls and their courageous young coworkers who fought to be treated humanely, who suffered and endured, and left a legacy from which most of us now benefit every day of our lives. Just as we now pledge to always remember the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, we once gave our word that we would remember the sacrifice represented by the charred remains of 146 Triangle factory workers.
But every time we argue, or simply assume, that the primary purpose of employee health is not the human factor but is, instead, simply to save an employer money…we harden ourselves against the memory of Rosaria, Bettina, Frances, Ida, Fannie, and the others.
As former Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis wrote in her commemoration of the 100-year anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, “We must always be a nation that catches workers before they fall.”