Layoffs take toll even on survivors


Pfizer. Saks. Microsoft. The layoff announcements just keep on coming. And they’re going to keep on coming throughout the year if the U.S. economy continues its alarming and ever-deepening spiral into the abyss.

More than 2.5 million Americans lost their jobs in 2008. And at least 2 million more jobs are expected to evaporate in 2009, according to the Conference Board Employment Trends Index -- upping the ranks of the unemployed and forcing laid-off employees to dredge their safety nets and call on every available support system. 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,” said 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.”

Those consequences are, unfortunately, long-term. 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. They add up rather than dissipate.

“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 said. “There’s no data that suggests workers become more resilient. ‘I’m a survivor, hear me shout’? It doesn’t happen.”

Even so, Evan Wagner is giving it his best can-do spirit. Usually, it’s with an ample assist from Diet Coke. The IndyMac Bank corporate communications director downs three cans of the stuff each morning to help him cope with the exhaustion and back pain he blames on overwork.

Wagner, 26, joined the company in mid-2006, when the housing market was riding high and the company had a workforce of 10,000. Two waves of layoffs, two rounds of buyouts and one federal government takeover later, the company is down to 2,000 employees, leaving Wagner to “do the jobs once done by four people,” he said in an e-mail he was writing at 1 a.m. on a weeknight while sick with a cold. “I typically work six days a week these days.”

He hasn’t taken any vacation time in two years -- a decision that “is half by choice and half by necessity. . . . It’s nice to know the cash equivalent of my vacation time is there for me when my job ends,” he wrote, adding, “The thing about being in a layoff environment is that you’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop.”


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.

In a volatile labor climate that’s rapidly shedding existing jobs across all sectors of the economy, and during which any available employment may be likely to bring less pay, that emotional trajectory is only amplified.

Helga Meza, 52, has been a social worker for Orange County Children and Family Services since 1981. But her lengthy career as a counselor didn’t stop her from experiencing a tidal wave of emotions last December when she was told that 29 of the 200 workers in her office were going to be pink-slipped.

“We were just shocked,” said Meza, who, as of Jan. 19 when her co-workers were officially let go, added two children to her already challenging caseload of 26.

Relieved to still have a job but feeling guilty to see so many of the young counselors she’d been mentoring let go, Meza characterizes her current emotional state as “high stress.”

“I worry about those kids on my caseload. My sleeping is irregular. I’m eating more,” Meza said. “I come home and talk to my husband, and he tells me he doesn’t want to hear it because it stresses him out.”

The stress Meza describes is acute. Born from conflict, coupled with unpredictability and a lack of control, it’s interfering with her daily life and should probably be treated. But counseling isn’t part of her self-treatment plan. She says she doesn’t have time.

“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,” said Judith Hoppin, president of the National Career Development Assn., in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. Working near the heart of the long-declining automotive industry, Hoppin has been dealing with surviving-employee situations for almost 20 years.

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 explained.

As for the employer, Hoppin said, “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 No. 1 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.”

Stress management services, such as free counseling and fitness centers, are often available to employees, but they typically are offered at larger organizations that understand their value and can afford them. That was the case at the Boeing Co., which built a fitness center at its Long Beach office 1 1/2 years ago amid a business decline. Boeing’s Southern California operations have since shed more than 300 jobs.

“Even though our business was declining, it was something we felt was important for the wellness and health of our folks,” said Diane Shapiro, Boeing’s director of human resources for space and intelligence systems. More recently, the company introduced a new training session for employees called “Living in the Layoff Climate.”

Boeing provides free counseling to its employees as well. But Boeing is huge. The world’s leading aerospace company employs thousands.

National Public Radio, which staffs 889 workers, also offers free counseling. But employee Leo del Aguila chose not to use it when it was announced last December that the nonprofit membership organization would shed 7% of its workforce -- most of it from the West Coast office, where he serves as technical director on the soon-to-end program “Day to Day.”

“I felt like everybody needed a visit to the shrink, including me,” said Del Aguila, referring to the Wednesday in December when about 30 of his colleagues were filed in to the human resources office and sent back out with termination slips. His job was spared, but he says: “That was the saddest day I’ve ever had at the company.”

Del Aguila’s soon-to-be-unemployed co-workers were given more than three months’ notice -- 40 days more than is required by the U.S. Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act. WARN, as the act is known, requires companies to give employees 60 days’ notice when planning large-scale layoffs. So-called over-warning may seem like an act of managerial kindness on its surface, but it actually leads to more intense feelings of job insecurity, according to the Institute of Behavioral Science study.

“I thank my lucky stars in many ways because the network didn’t close the operation,” said Del Aguila, who has survived three rounds of layoffs during his 30 years with NPR.

Still, he added, “All of this shock is giving way to cynicism. Being in our business nowadays, you have to be a bit callous and also a bit of a skeptic. We all realize that things are changing.”