Does austerity breed negativity?

Sep 09 2011 by Emma Murray Print This Article

The latest US unemployment figures have sent shockwaves around the global financial community. Analysts had expected at least 75,000 jobs to have been created in August, but official figures have revealed that the real figure was zero. Yet again, the US markets took a beating, with many fearing that the world's biggest economy is heading for another recession.

The stagnant job market is very much a reaction to the consistent decline in business and investor confidence. As a result, many top-tier banks have already called for an employment freeze Ė a common austerity measure. No new hires means saving on wages, and with the economy in such disrepair, it is no surprise that banks are practising more cost-cutting exercises than ever before.

But recently, one of the world's biggest investment banks, Goldman Sachs, well known for its generous salaries, huge bonuses, and tough work ethic, announced that it was taking out all the plants in its UK offices in order to save money.

According to The Daily Telegraph, "Sources say the decision provoked disquiet at the bank and that some of the employees tried to block the move, leading to a stand-off between the plant pickers and staff."

Granted, perhaps spending tens of thousands on pounds on plants in a recession is a little over the top, but in a really stressed out workplace, what kind of message does it send to employees when even the mood-boosting foliage is stripped away? But it appears that Goldman is not the only one cutting back.

In similar institutions, the same nip/tuck attitude prevails: a rationing of stationery (employees have been known to fight over the last block of Post-its or the most favoured ballpoint pens); budget cuts in the cafeteria (the salad bar seems to be taking the biggest hit); and of course, a freeze on work travel, unless it is absolutely necessary and provided it is with a budget airline.

In an article entitled '11 Of The More Ridiculous Cost Cutting Initiatives Firms have been known to Introduce', the UK-based business website Here is the City claim that other firms have gone one step further: from toilet paper rationing, to desk-sharing (which can impact productivity), to putting motion sensor lights on a timer (plunging those working late into darkness), and to 'encouraging' business travellers to stay with relatives rather than a hotel.

On the face of it, these cost-cutting exercises do seem a bit ridiculous. Rationing toilet paper? Regulating the Post-its? It sounds farcical.

So, what about the employees themselves? How are they affected by all these austerity measures?

"I think it's all a bit depressing," says one US financial manager working in a New York bank. "Obviously, times are hard and banks have to make some cuts which will invariably affect their staff, but it doesn't help to boost morale, that's for sure. New Yorkers are pretty tough by nature but even they are beginning to break under the pressure. I see people here as more negative and, I would say, angrier, than before."

So, is it petty to quibble over the lack of paper, or the disappearance of vending machines? Or does it run deeper than that?

The financial manager says: "People feel they are being deprived of their basic rights at work Ė that lowers morale and boosts negativity. Given the choice, I think a lot of them would be happy to walk out the door and never look back."

According to Gary Topchik, the author of Managing Workplace Negativity, "When you're working in a negative environment, people tend not to want to be there and when they are, they don't perform up to their peak capacity."

Surely in times of crisis, it is more important than ever for staff to pull together to rise above the dragging pull of negativity and work towards clawing back some degree of optimism. But in these challenging times, how do you put on a happy face?

So, as I asked one self-proclaimed 'negative' investment banker, whose responsibility is it to inject positive behaviour into the workplace?

His answer? Senior executives. "Positive messages need to come from the top," he said. "These leaders need to set a good example for the rest of the staff. Employees take their cues from them."

But is it fair to assign blame solely to top management? In times of negativity, are we that reliant on our work leaders to be 'cheerleaders?'

Surely, each individual has a responsibility to inject positive energy into a gloomy environment. One social events manager who had her budget halved recently rallied her fellow employees and together they persuaded the senior management to sponsor a two-mile run for charity. The whole team turned up one Saturday with their families, each bearing refreshments, food, and (let's face it) alcohol, and had a great day out.

She said: "There was very little cost to the firm, yet the staff had a great time. It really brought us closer together."

Admittedly, when employees are forced to suffer the constant stripping away of the most basic items, plus team-bonding social events, business travel etc., it can be more than challenging to adopt a bright, positive attitude.

However, if austerity does indeed breed negativity, (and these budget cuts aren't going away anytime soon) then there will be no end to the prevailing pessimism in the workplace, unless we each make an effort to see at least the tiniest glimpse of a silver lining.


About The Author

Emma Murray
Emma Murray

Emma Murray is a freelance writer with a background in investment banking. She is the author of 'The Unauthorized Guide to Doing Business the Alan Sugar Way' and 'How to Succeed as a Freelancer in Publishing' Ė a guide for graduates, career-changers and retired professionals.