Don't let the dark side of recession take you

Apr 27 2009 by Nic Paton Print This Article

A bit like the Captain in a gruelling war who keeps his distance from new recruits because he knows they might be dead in a day or two, managers are becoming numbed to the trauma of laying off colleagues. But, while an emotionally cold, hard-as-nails management team may get you through the recession, it may not be what you need long term.

Research by the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington State and the University of Colorado at Boulder has concluded that line managers involved in layoffs are becoming increasingly "calloused" by their experiences.

Yet while they may have a hard outer carapace, executives also need to be aware that constantly managing layoffs can take their toll Ė with managers reporting an increased incidence of ulcers, headaches and heart troubles.

The research, reported by the website HR Executive Online, surveyed more than 400 managers working for an airplace manufacturer and concluded that the long-term effects of laying off workers include sleep problems, emotional exhaustion and dizziness for those charged with bearing such bad news to their workers.

The research echoes a study published last October that reported growing numbers of workers and managers alike suffering from stress, anxiety and sleepness nights from the fragile state of the economy, jobs' market and their personal financial positions.

And even back in 2007, in research that now seems eerily prescient, a long-term Finnish study found that staff who survived a round of corporate downsizing ran a significantly increased risk of suffering from mental health problems.

The latest study focused on so-called workplace "executioners" who, it argued, often get over-looked when it comes to planning support for workers affected by redundancies and layoffs, whether it is the workers who are exiting themselves or the "survivors" of a round of redundancies.

Yet managers who have to make these tough decisions and hold difficult and potentially emotional and traumatic conversations with colleagues who they have grown to know and value over many years can also be affected by the process.

Leon Grunberg, a professor from Puget Sound's comparative psychology department and co-author of the report, told HR Executive Online that such managers are often left to deal with the emotional fall-out of lay-offs by themselves.

"It sounds trite, but everyone assumes it's the people laid off that get a lot of [support], but the survivors need help, too. No one really thought of managers as people who might be affected emotionally," he said.

Managers needed to feel "some sensitivity to what they're going through" from their own managers, in addition to having access to counseling, he argued.

In interviews several of the managers questioned said they had become "calloused" or "emotionally numb" and said they did not want to get "close to people until things stabilised" and much of the time simply wanted to "tune out and shut down".

Yet at the same time, managers who implemented layoffs were more likely than others to report sleep problems as well as "various symptoms of poor health, such as ulcers, headaches and heart trouble".

Those managers were also more likely to seek treatment from health professionals for these problems.

The researchers found managers who issued warning notices or layoffs reported significantly higher levels of job stress, lower levels of job security, higher levels of depression and higher levels of emotional exhaustion.

The research "demonstrated quite clearly that implementing layoffs produced deleterious consequences on job attitudes and well-being measures both in the short term, and, to a lesser degree, the long term", the report concluded.

While resorting to impersonal methods of redundancy, such as laying people off by email, fax, letter or text message, could make life easier for the manager, it still had potentially deeply negative effects for both sides.

"We believe this is an unwise option because although it might spare managers some discomfort, it dehumanises those to be laid off and is likely to engender antagonistic responses from victims and survivors," the study concluded.

Marina London, a spokesperson for the Employee Assistance Professionals Association, said to the website: "Often the front-line managers are the most stressed folks in the equation in the kinds of layoffs and crises in the workplace. They're often put in the position of laying people off, while being given very little training to do it."

She advised HR executives to enlighten managers about the company's employee-assistance programme, if there was one, preferably before the layoffs happened, in order to equip them better with the tools they'd need to cope with the trauma.