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Researchers Explore Effects Of Surviving Layoffs

By Yaffa Klugerman
October 30, 2009

Workers who escape massive layoffs often are forced to deal with complex emotions which can sometimes cause them to suffer even more than their unemployed colleagues.

Business Week reports that a book slated to be published next year, entitled "Turbulence: Boeing and the State of American Workers and Managers," examines the effects of tens of thousands of layoffs at the Boeing company from 1996 to 2006. The book concludes that those who kept their jobs ultimately fared worse than those who were forced to leave.

"How much better the laid-off were was stunning and shocking to us," said Sarah Moore, an industrial psychology professor at the University of Puget Sound in Takoma, Washington, who is one of the book's authors. "So much of the literature talks about how dreadful unemployment is."

The researchers interviewed human resources specialist Frank Zemek, who recalled the effects of having the company's workforce shrink 33 percent over a decade, from 234,850 employees to 157,441. He referred to "the survivor's guilt of the people who were left, who were waiting and not knowing if the hatchet was going to fall on them. They experienced the worst stress."

Surprisingly, the authors found that the average depression scores were about twice as great for employees who stayed at Boeing compared to those who left. Laid-off employees felt relief at being able to escape a situation that they likened to a bad marriage. They were less likely to binge drink, slept better and had fewer chronic health issues.

The Chicago Tribune reports that a recent book by David M. Noer entitled "Healing the Wounds: Overcoming the Trauma of Layoffs and Revitalizing Downsized Corporations" also explores the effects of layoffs on survivors. He notes that the emotions of layoff survivors are similar to the five stages of grief felt by survivors after a death: denial, anger, negotiation, depression, and acceptance. He also compares it to the emotions felt by survivors of disasters.

"Layoff survivors carry heavy emotional baggage," he writes, "and unless they are given the opportunity to drop it, they are unable to progress beyond their debilitating funk."

Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine notes that according to organizational psychologists, layoff survivors can feel grief, guilt, disillusionment and fear along with relief about being spared the ax. What's more, stress levels also tend to rise after layoffs, because workloads increase, budgets shrink, and layoff survivors become fearful that they will be the next to be downsized.

"It's similar to when someone dies," explained Pat Bredenberg, a software engineer in Denver who witnessed job cuts at Sun Microsystems. "Close friends and teammates were let go, and once my manager was laid off. Looking at empty desks is hard."

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