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When Your Job Is in Limbo, Keep Your Feet on the Ground

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When EToys management warned its staff in December that it wouldn’t hit its sales goals, employees such as Malinee Kukkonen sensed the final blow was coming. Knowing that layoffs lurked ahead and that she could be among the ones to go, Kukkonen, a Web producer, found it hard to concentrate on her job.

“I did my best to keep up with the daily routine, but at the same time, my attention was focused on what I was going to do with my future,” she said. “It was pretty depressing to hear that news. Everyone was sad. The morale was definitely low. The work environment had changed.”

At companies throughout America, workers are experiencing anxieties similar to Kukkonen’s. They sense layoffs may be coming and worry they’ll be on the list.

But while they remain at their jobs, they’re faced with the challenge of staying productive as they battle fears, anxieties and depression. Should they work harder and demonstrate loyalty when they might be earmarked for termination?

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“I’ve found that anticipation of job loss is more stressful than the job loss itself,” said Joseph Dadourian, a Los Angeles-based workplace psychologist.

If you’re in limbo, you need not succumb to paralysis and despair. Experts offer the following tips to help you improve your mental and physical health, remain productive and regain control of your life during this difficult time.

Avoid the Denial Syndrome

A natural first reaction to a potential loss of livelihood is shock, said Ruth Luban, a Santa Monica-based counselor and author of “Are You a Corporate Refugee? A Survival Guide for Downsized, Disillusioned and Displaced Workers” (Penguin, 2001). It may be accompanied by fear, anxiety, anger and feelings of betrayal.

Those who have identified closely with their jobs may have the hardest time during this uncertain period, Luban said. Workaholics may try to work harder and longer. Some people may try to squelch their emotions with drinking, drugs, binge eating or overspending.

But psychologists such as Luban say it’s best to vent emotions and not suppress them. This can be done through journal writing or in support groups, counseling or conversations with caring intimates.

Workers who try to bottle up their emotions may incur other problems: injuries, illnesses, sleeplessness, accidents and spats with family and friends, Luban said. After dealing with the shock of possible layoffs, even well-adjusted workers can fall into denial. They try to convince themselves they’ll emerge unscathed during their firm’s struggles.

“They say, ‘It can’t be me, because I had a stellar review’ or ‘I’m essential to this company,’ ” Luban said.

Those in denial turn away from signs that trouble may be escalating. While savvier colleagues are revising resumes and putting money away “just in case,” these workers try to get assurances from their bosses that their jobs are not in jeopardy.

Supervisors, who are sometimes sworn to secrecy about upcoming layoffs, or who are kept as uninformed as their staff, aren’t always helpful in these situations.

“Soliciting reassurance from your boss is a form of shoring up denial,” Luban said. “It’s instinctual to go to the people you’ve trusted and say, ‘Is this real?’ But they’re not always allowed to tell you. If you’re dependent upon that feedback, it makes the locus of control outside you. Instead, you should be asking yourself, ‘How am I going to prepare for my future?’ ”

“Their struggle shouldn’t be staying employed,” Dadourian said. “Their goal should be being employable.”

Young people tend to weather news of pending layoffs better than their older colleagues, Luban said.

“They never expected loyalty,” Luban said. “They’re like cowboys. They have their gangs of co-workers. They get their ducks in a row, start networking and sending out resumes. But then, they also don’t have the overhead and obligations to worry about that older workers do.”

Ignore the Rumor Mill

Rumors are often speculative worst-case scenarios. Though many workers crave grapevine chatter, it tends to exacerbate fears.

Instead of gossiping at the water cooler, educate yourself about your firm and its competitors, suppliers and industry, said Jordan Kaplan, professor of managerial science at Long Island University in Brooklyn, N.Y. If your company is publicly held, learn what analysts are saying about it.

“Sometimes companies will release information to the financial community before telling their employees about it,” Kaplan said.

Keep in mind that your co-workers are on an emotional roller coaster too. Be discriminating about whom you trust. Create an in-house support group of peers with whom you can share concerns, networking tactics and encouragement. Some longtime associates may distance themselves from you or behave out of character during this time. Don’t take it personally, experts say. They’re probably reacting to stress.

“People who were collaborative before may become competitive or passive-aggressive under these circumstances,” Luban said. “It’s almost like being in a battle and it’s a survivor mentality. People may become unreliable, even those you used to be able to depend on. The only thing you can take charge of is your own stability.”

If you’re feeling testy, find ways to constructively vent your feelings. Don’t lash out at fellow employees or your boss. You could be destroying your chances of lateral transfers, positive referrals and networking leads, said Paul Sniffin, a managing partner at OI Partners in Baltimore.

Stay Focused and Motivated

Stress in an ambiguous work environment can lead to what Luban calls “the blahs,” a lack of motivation and diminished interest in work. Luban and Dadourian advise apathetic workers to begin thinking of themselves as “intrapreneurs,” free agents working within the company.

“People need to redefine why they’re working,” Dadourian said. “Because they’re saying to themselves, ‘I work for this company that may be laying me off, so why should I do anything?’ Do it for yourself. Stay focused and productive, not for the company, but for yourself.”

In some cases, even shifting one’s loyalties from the firm to one’s self isn’t enough. Some workers may find themselves burnt out, making errors, turning in sloppy work, daydreaming and letting projects slide.

In such cases, Luban advocates taking more drastic self-preservation efforts. No one--not the company, management, co-workers or the employees in question--will benefit from continued poor performance.

“Reduced productivity is a sign that you are stressed more than you think you are,” Luban said.

First, she said, people in trouble should prioritize their workload. “Do what’s urgent, important and essential,” she said. “Most people have been tackling extra [duties], but now they must cut back.”

Luban recommends that fatigued workers consider taking a sick day or a short vacation to regroup.

Don’t Hit the Panic Button

Though your future seems uncertain and the present is chaotic, you can create structure in your life to keep you focused. Taking charge of everything within your control is the key. Don’t cling to the past, wishing your work life was as before, said Marcia Reynolds, a personal/executive coach and board member of the International Coach Federation.

“When we hold on to memories of what we had, then we can’t see possibilities for the future,” Reynolds said. She suggested that anxious workers make two lists: “One for everything you can control; the other for everything outside your control. Focus on the first column by jotting down ways you can improve your life.”

Dadourian added a second writing assignment. “Write down, ‘What am I afraid of losing and what can I do about it?’ ” But be careful not to make hasty life decisions.

“I sometimes see people make choices from fear and end up rebounding into something that’s even more disastrous than their present situation,” Luban said. “So if you’re considering a big decision, ask yourself whether you’re making it in reaction to this potential job loss, or is it something you’ve been planning for a long time. Do a strategic business plan. Do a self-assessment. Go to the beach or park, take your journal and just sort out your choices.”

Maintain Balance in Your Life

Make sure your life outside the office is rewarding and full. Seek support from family members and friends. Exercise regularly to reduce your stress. Get enough sleep. Consider taking up a craft-based hobby.

Most of all, stay positive and optimistic. Remind yourself that you’ve survived challenges as tough, or worse, than your current situation.

“How many people have been laid off from jobs who ended up in better life situations?” Reynolds asked. “A lot.”

As for EToys’ Kukkonen, six weeks after being laid off in January she was hired as a product manager at Los Angeles-based broadband firm Rampt. She said the job transition has proved rewarding.

“I really like the new job,” she said. “It’s very different from what I did at EToys. But I think I’m moving in the right direction in my career, and I’m learning a lot.”

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Signposts

Constant change causes many workers to try to “go with the flow” to keep their jobs even though they may hate the types of changes taking place. The healthiest solutions for people in his stage are to pay attention to the signs of potential change and to come out of denial. Here are some warning signs that your job is likely to be affected by radical workplace changes:

* Workers learn of company changes in the morning paper.

* People stop talking openly and directly to each other, whispering gossip in the halls instead of working.

* You’re left out of important meetings you once attended.

* Your boss has no time to meet with you.

* There are more closed-door meetings.

* Resumes are accidentally left in copy machines.

* “Voluntary” severance packages are announced.

* Rumor mills thrive.

* Frequent reorganizations occur.

* Perks, such as expense accounts and assistants, get reduced or eliminated.

* Vacancies are left unfilled.

* Vague reassurances come from the human resources department but clearly sound hollow.

* The number of people taking sick leave goes up.

* You’re asked to write a job description.

* Budgets are cut, causing managers to compete for funds.

* After mergers are announced, damage-control teams enter the workplace to assure employees that there are no plans for layoffs.

* You read the business plan for the coming year, and your role is nowhere to be seen.

Source: “Corporate Refugee?: A Survival Guide for Downsized, Disillusioned and Displaced Workers” by Ruth Luban


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