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NIOSH Total Worker Health Exclusive Interview with WOE Filmmakers

Below is an excerpt from our interview. The NIOSH Total Worker Health newsletter reaches 70,000+ individuals across the country and abroad. To read the entire interview, please visit: https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/twh/newsletter/twhnewsv6n3.html#2

Why did you decide to create Working on Empty?

Many people have been researching the impact of work on health for decades. A substantial body of literature shows that working conditions impact the mental and physical well-being of workers. Work plays a major role in burnout, depression, anxiety, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.

We believe that the public, in general, doesn’t understand well the relationship between work and health. There is a belief that stress is good because it helps you work harder and be more productive. However, if we are chronically stressed from work—e.g. because of feeling threatened by job insecurity, being unclear about the criteria for performance evaluations, not having enough control at work, etc. —it leads to hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and other illnesses.

One intent in making the film is to point out that stress related to work and poor working conditions is not inevitable. The poor health outcomes that we just described are partly the consequence of the way work is organized. They are preventable, and we need to do something to prevent them. Companies feel a constant pressure to increase productivity, some by going “lean” and, as a result, people are working harder and longer. We believe that many businesses don’t understand the consequences when they increase work demands. It results in worse health and more disability claims, absenteeism, sick days, and presenteeism. Productivity goes down when work hours exceed 40 hours per week. If companies knew more about these costs, they could rethink how they manage work, avoid situations with excessive demands, and increase engagement.

Working on Empty Documentary Team Bios

Dr. 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)

Dr. 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)

The Celestial Group, a meditation on creative strategies focused on impact, engagement, audience building, and outreach. CELESTIAL where audience engagement is not an afterthought but something inherent to the experience. (Twitter, Facebook)

Working on Empty Documentary Announcement

Dear Colleagues,

Many jobs in America today are making people sick.

From the lowest to the highest-paying jobs, workers are suffering from a variety of illnesses stemming from exposure to stressful work environments.

Job stressors of many kinds such as insecure contracts, lack of respect, lack of control, long hours, shortened or skipped breaks, fear of layoff, unpaid time, diminished benefits including health insurance and pension, all contribute significantly to mental health problems such as burnout and depression and to chronic illnesses such as diabetes, hypertension, and coronary artery disease. Many of these illnesses could be prevented if we acknowledge their causes and act now.

Workers sometimes have a sense that their jobs are making them sick though the serious and life- threatening nature of these health consequences may only become apparent after years of exposure. Job-related health problems are also frequently dismissed as being individual problems or personal weakness rather than as predictable outcomes of the way work is organized. The medical profession frequently contributes to this misunderstanding by ignoring working conditions as it sees most illness as the result of individual differences and/or unhealthy behaviors.

We need to change all this.

We want to make workers aware of this major threat to their health and quality life. Workers need to know that stressful jobs are making them sick but also that the jobs are becoming more and more stressful in recent years.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Individually and collectively, people can bring about positive change – for working people, and for the organizations they work for.

We are making a full-length documentary film and a companion book that will expose this mostly hidden threat to the wellbeing of working people from all walks of life. We will show how working people are negatively impacted by today’s conditions of work. We will explain the role of globalization and companies’ need for ever-increasing profits and how this contributes to creating unhealthy working conditions worldwide that facilitate the exploitation of working people from all walks of life in what is actually a race to the bottom. We will do this, in part, by telling the stories of real working people, nurses, hotel housekeepers, assembly line workers, bus drivers, software developers and technology workers as well as cashiers.

We are asking for your help getting out this important message. Here are some things you can do:

• We are looking for people to be interviewed in the film. If you are or know of a worker who may be interested in discussing his/her personal work story, please ask them to contact us.

• We are looking for forums where we can spread our message. If your organization has meetings where we can make a presentation, please let us know.

• We are looking for examples of organizations that are actively working to better the lives, and particularly the health, of working people. Fight of 15 is one such example. If your organization has upcoming activities that we can film which address these concerns, please contact us.

• We are also looking for funding as film-making is expensive. Any help would be appreciated. We are a 501(c) 3 – a non-profit charitable organization – and therefore, contributions are tax deductible.

Who are we? This effort begins with the Center for Social Epidemiology and includes researchers, activists, and veteran filmmakers.

We hope you will join us in this important, difficult, and yet very hopeful project that has the intention and promise of improving the lives of millions of people suffering or who will be suffering from preventable work-related illness unless a major change takes place.

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