Pfizer. Saks. Microsoft. The layoff announcements just keep coming. And they’re going to keep coming if the U.S. economy continues its alarming and deepening spiral. But laid-off employees aren’t the only ones who suffer from staff reductions.
Employees who remain employed are prone to greater role ambiguity and job demands that can, in turn, contribute to greater alcohol consumption and depression, according to a 2003 study on the physical and mental-health effects of surviving layoffs, published by the Institute of Behavioral Science. In addition, the study found that layoff survivors often experience worsening physical health: They eat differently, smoke more, suffer from neck and back pain, and increase their use of sick days. Workplace injuries also rise.
“None of the effects are good,” says Frank Landy, author of “Work in the 21st Century.” An organizational psychologist, Landy specializes in understanding the emotions of work. “Layoffs clearly have emotional and practical consequences for companies and workers.”
The psychological fallout of surviving a layoff lasts six years, according to the study published by the Institute of Behavioral Science. And the effects of surviving multiple layoffs are cumulative.
“It only takes one action of distrust to lose basic confidence in the employer. It’s like a romantic relationship. Once the trust has been undermined, it’s very, very difficult to recover,” Landy says. “There’s no data that suggests workers become more resilient. ‘I’m a survivor, hear me shout’? It doesn’t happen.”
Lingering distrust is one of the final stops on the emotional misery tour taken by most surviving employees. First, there’s the disbelief, anxiety and desperation resulting from the initial layoff announcement. Then comes the sweeping sense of relief when one’s job is spared, followed, in rapid succession, by guilt, fear and stress.
“One of the most important things for people to cultivate is a positive attitude — the realization that this is temporary. Because if you listen to all the bad news, it’s a self-defeating prophecy,” says Judith Hoppin, president of the National Career Development Association in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.
According to Hoppin, an employee’s best courses of action are physical exercise, good nutrition and communication with management to figure out the company’s priorities. “What you’re really looking at is, ‘How do I survive? How do I help the organization thrive under the circumstances?’” she says.
As for the employer, Hoppin says, “It’s in the company’s best interest to help employees who are left. If somebody’s anxious and depressed and fearful, they’re not going to be very productive. So number one is, open communication about what’s happening in the organization: why the layoffs have occurred, what is the plan. And then providing stress management services for people who are still there.”
How to combat the Blues
Here are some tips, courtesy of the Washington Post, on some stress reducers for layoff survivors (or anyone else feeling the economy’s effects):
In winter’s grey and cold days, the midday work blues can hit hard. If you feel tired, lethargic or unmotivated during the day, try these pick-me-up tips from GoodElements.com:
• Drink some green tea: Its small amount of caffeine will give you a boost, and its antioxidants will help protect you from some chronic conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes.
• Take a walk to get the blood pumping to your heart and brain. A walk outside in the sun will also activate vitamin D in your body and improve your mood.
• Munch on a snack rich in protein, not sugar. A sugar high comes with a subsequent sugar low, so try something else: a slice of whole-wheat toast, a handful of nuts, yogurt and granola or hummus.
• Take a moment to stand up and stretch. Focus on the muscles in your shoulders, neck and upper back. Breathe deeply as you stretch, inhaling through your nose and exhaling slowly through pursed lips.
Stress can have a big impact on how well you sleep. To help you reclaim some of those zzz’s, try these suggestions from the New York University Sleep Institute:
• Adjust your environment by darkening the room, adding some white noise (soothing sounds such as the ocean, rain or crickets) or blocking out noise entirely with earplugs.
• Do a little yoga before bed to relax and gain balance.
• Lie in bed and breathe slowly, allowing your abdomen and chest muscles to relax.
• Imagine a pleasant scene and focus on the details. Create a pleasant history about it.